Theatre for All Ages: Is it really possible?

September 1, 2017

Get some insight into the process of creating This Sinking Island, a family inclusive play which will premiere at University Settlement, October 20-21.


Having just finished my Graduate Degree in Educational Theatre, I was very excited to get the opportunity to work with The Anthropologists on their workshop production of This Sinking Island right after graduation.  I was excited to get to learn from a company that uses devising and research as their creative approach for development, as well as getting to share my newly acquired knowledge about Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) with a company that had never delved into Children’s Theatre before. 


Emily Ellis (R) and actor Mariah Freda (L) devising together. 



It was a little daunting jumping in to the project for a couple of reasons. One: they had already done a lot of the research and development for a previous workshop of the play without having a target audience age. Two: the subject matter was about sustainability and rising sea levels - very scientific, and possibly a little dry - as well as refugees fleeing their homes - possibly a little dark for kids. As I am a list maker when I need to accomplish things, I made a short list of questions to try to answer over the very short development and rehearsal phase of this workshop: 

  • How to make the science interesting to a young (or old for that matter) audience?

  • How to show the horrors of the situation without traumatizing the children?

  • What is the target age range for the production?

  • Could this play truly be for families of all ages?

  • How to find content appropriate and relatable for young children and also engage the parents in the audience?


It turned out that we didn’t know for sure what age group of children would show up to the public performances, but we did know that the dress rehearsal would be for an audience of two and three-year-olds, so I decided to start there.


Theatre for the Very Young - affectionately referred to as “Baby Theatre” - is theatre aimed at children from zero to five years and has many well-documented strategies for engagement. Some of these include playing to the multiple senses, the use of repetition, and audience participation or interaction. Luckily for me the company had already devised a lot of the piece in very visual ways, including using mask work and dance and movement to tell the story. One of the actors (Mariah Freda) wrote and sang a very melancholy song that we found could be repeated throughout the show, allowing the audience to join in by the end. They also had a sound designer (Chris Gillard) creating a soundscape to enhance the experience.


We found a variety of ways for the audience to participate:

- My first thought was to have the audience soundscape some of the show themselves, so we created a mini pre-show talk where we asked the children what sounds they might hear in a storm. Answers included thunder, rain, wind etc.; then we asked them how they could make those sounds with their voices or bodies. Finally, we gave them a cue for when they should start making those sounds during the show.

- We brought the masks out before the show, so the kids could see and touch them and hopefully wouldn't be frightened by them during the performance.  

- We used pieces of big blue plastic and tarp as set elements and found a place in the show for the children to manipulate them as rising water. 


At the dress rehearsal, I was expecting a rowdy toddler audience, and I have to say that they were the quietest, most attentive two and three-year-old audience I have ever seen. As I observed them during the performance all eyes were on the performers. But were they actually grasping the material? There was one little girl who came back to see the show again with her mother, and at the very end of the show when the refugees are looking to the audience to help them, she ran forward, offered her hand and pulled the actor to safety. So, while she may not have comprehended exactly what they were running from, she understood they needed help and had the empathy to give it to them. 


We also had a troupe of 10-year-old Girl Scouts helping us out who seemed engaged by the performance. When I asked them after what they thought the play was about their answers ranged from depression to Global Warming. Based on these responses I believe that they understood the basic concept of the show, if not the specifics of the science, as well as feeling the weight of the enormity of the problem.


The cast of This Sinking Island in Washington Heights with a multi-generational audience. 


After each of the performances, we handed out conversation starters to the parents to help facilitate meaningful conversations about sustainability with their children. Some examples are:

  • Why did the family have to leave their home?

  • We saw one character brought her ukulele. What do you think the other characters brought with them? What would you bring with you?

  • How do you think the characters felt having to leave their homes?


Moving forward, I think it will be beneficial, specifically for this age group, to develop a call for action. While the play does end with a sense of hope, the discouraged feeling they left with was apparent. They clearly understood what was happening, and I think if they saw different things they can do to help it would help alleviate some of the weight from their shoulders. 


As this piece was developed for adults and then adapted for children I was not surprised that the adult audience was also engaged. It did not feel “dumbed down.”  I do believe that this piece can be truly “whole family friendly” and present factual information in an engaging way to different audiences. Different age groups will take away different aspects of it, and that is okay. Moving forward with the development of the piece, it will be interesting to continue to look for entry ways in for even more ages groups, such as teenagers. I am looking forward to the challenges that this particular age group brings to the table for the next incarnation of this play.


And, as it turned out, I was able to answer all the question on the list that I made.


Blog post writer Emily Ellis served as our Theatre for Young Audiences Associate this past spring for our second workshop of This Sinking Island, which culminated in two public performances at La Casa de Arte in Washington Heights during the annual Uptown Arts Stroll. Emily is a freelance Teaching Artist and recently received her Masters Degree in Educational Theatre from The City College of New York.  


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