Why Children’s Theatre Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Tackle Important Issues
Anthony J. Piccione
We live in bizarre times.
I don’t think I need to tell people that for them to know, but I think it bears reiterating just how bizarre things truly are. In recent years, more of us who create and produce theatre have been contemplating the question of how to respond to the current social and political climate, and what can artists do in these times to try and make the world a bit better, as many of the issues we face continue to leave us divided and uncertain about the world we will leave for future generations. Yet there is one demographic that should especially be considered, when thinking about this topic.
From the ever-prominent evils of racism, sexism and homophobia to combating issues of economic equality and environmental justice, it is the kids who will be affected the most – far more than us adults will be – and therefore, it only makes sense that they should have the right to know as much as anyone else about what’s going on in our world, and what they can do to help.
Whenever people talk about children’s theatre and what its goal should be, the educational aspect is often something that comes up in discussions. Yes, theatre should be entertaining when it’s designed for young audiences, but there should also be a didactic element that ensures those who are watching learn something that they take with them into their own lives, perhaps well into their adulthood.
Often, when the topic of what kids should be learning from children’s theatre comes up, people tend to think of the same basic subjects that they already are learning about in schools, such as math, science and history. Not that these aren’t important things to know about, but the fact of the matter is that in these unusual times, we as artists have a responsibility to be talking about important issues that affect what’s going on in the real world and going shape our future history, and that includes to the youngest audience members, who will be most affected by them. These are topics that the kids have a right to know the facts about, and it’s not as if there’s much certainty over what is or isn’t a reliable source to, in this increasingly polarized and scattered media landscape.
With this in mind, shouldn’t those of us who write for young audiences be trying harder to think of ways we can use our craft to educate younger generations on these issues that affect us all? If anything, wouldn’t the focus on such issues in children’s theatre make it even more educational than it otherwise might be?
Let’s think about the many critical issues facing our planet today: Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Economic inequality. Poverty. Gun violence. Health care. Climate change. The list goes on and on. There are many others I could name, and the more time goes on, the more damage could end up being done to America and to the rest of the world, and that doesn’t bode well for the kids we’re speaking about.
Kids have a right to know about these issues, why they exist and what they can potentially do to help solve the problems causing them. They have just as much of a right to know that as they do to know about the past issues in our country’s history, or how to add and subject or how to speak a foreign language, if you ask me.
Now, I’m sure many people will question me when I make the case that children are ready to hear about such topics. After all, there are many other burdens that many children seem to be facing nowadays. Would it really be helping them by telling them more about all the issues going on in the world? Aren’t these all considered to be heavy and controversial subjects of discussion, even among adults? Most arguments such as this are legitimate points that are being made, often by people who have good intentions.
However, the people making these arguments should take into consideration the fact that many of these kids are already all too aware of the impact of these issues facing society on their own lives, thus making them all the more urgent, and why they have a right to know why they exist. From bigotry and immigration to health care and poverty, they could very well be issues that are part of their lives regardless of whether or not we choose to ignore them. These aren’t easy subjects, but the only way to begin to start solving them, at any age, is to start talking about them.
Kids aren’t stupid. They’re going to figure out, sooner or later, what’s going on in the world, and they’ll naturally draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions, based on what they hear or see. So shouldn’t they be hearing about these issues now, rather than when they’re older and could hear about them from somewhere that could lead to them having a worldview or opinion that doesn’t contribute to the good of society? So if we are going to be talking about how to make children’s theatre that is educational to young audiences, we might as well be talking about how to make important current issues accessible in theatre to younger audience, more than anything else.
Now at this point, I’m sure there’s at least one question that those reading this may be asking: Exactly how do we address these topics in theatre, in a way that is friendly and accessible to younger audiences?
The answer isn’t as complicated as you’d think: Make it fun!
It might seem hard, at first, to contemplate how the important issues facing our society can be made into family-friendly entertainment. Yet from a child’s perspective, anyway, it’s not as if math and science always tend to be very fun topics on their own, yet with the help of various interactive, comedic or musical bits, such entertaining children’s plays are made based around such subject. So if plays that teach about those can potentially be made fun for younger audiences, why not other topics such as those I mentioned earlier? Why be afraid to go and make children’s theatre into a bold vehicle for genuine social change?
I truly believe that if we had more plays out there that accomplished this, it could start the process of inspiring younger generations – through the art of theatre – to do something about the problems older generations have failed to fix, and thus change the world for the better. Many of us out there like to believe that great art can change the world. It’s a big reason, I suspect, why many of us went into the performing arts, in the first place. Not all of us will succeed in changing the whole world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to change even part of it. The way to do that is to inspire our audiences, and that includes through youth-oriented and family-oriented shows, where many of the audience members may just be seeing their first theatrical production in their life.
I’m curious to know what others who work in theatre – especially those who are theatre educators – would have to say and suggest, regarding this topic, and whether or not they agree. Either way, I hope that this is a conversation that we all continue to have, going forward. After all, if there’s ever been a time and a way for artists in theatre to help save the world, it’s now, and this is the way to do it…
Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, activist, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. Most recently, Piccione’s one-act plays “The End of the Line at the End” and “The Personality Play” have been produced at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, while his one-act play “Two Cousins and a Pizza” was produced at the Hudson Guild Theatre as part of the NYWinterfest. Next up, his new children’s play “An Energy Tale” can be seen this summer at the Midtown International Theatre Festival (https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/975011). He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. To learn more about Mr. Piccione’s recent and upcoming productions, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com and be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and Instagram (anthonyjpiccione). Photo: Plano Children's Theatre