“Adults will talk about anxiety and things like that, but they’ll kind of talk around what it is, and they’ll use words that make it sound like this cute little thing and not a big issue that you should worry about.”— Oliver Kokai-Means, age 11
Although the landscape of plays for youth is still mired in overly didactic, creatively uninspired, or simplistic plays, it continues to evolve to include a greater diversity of voices and artistically challenging work. That said, most plays for young people are created by adults for children. Writers admirably speak about wanting to reflect children’s concerns and perspectives onstage, representing diversity in all its forms. However, as adults, they generally write at a remove. I believe theatre for young audiences (TYA), both professional and educational, should decenter adults and actively involve children throughout the creation, writing, and dramaturgical refinement. Doing so will result in much better and braver work.
My perspective on this was crafted through my own experience co-writing a play with my son. I’m a playwright by trade, and in 2015 I was commissioned by Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City to write a play for their Free Educational Festival (FEST). Although Plan-B is not known for children’s shows, in 2012 the artistic director Jerry Rapier and managing director Cheryl Cluff had begun adding a touring show for young audiences—alternating between K–3 and 4–6—into their season. Over the last six years, Rapier and Cluff have grown this tour to reach roughly eight thousand students at over sixty schools across Utah.
Having never written a play for young audiences before, and daunted by the task, I turned to my then-nine-year-old and asked if he was interested in writing with me. Even though he had never written a play, I suspected he had a better idea of what upper elementary students would want to see onstage. He agreed. Both of us felt pretty sure we had no idea what we were doing.