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From the Archives: Writing for Young(er) Audiences
Children sitting in a theatre audience

This roundtable originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of The Dramatist, and is reprinted here to supplement our May/June 2020 Writing For Young Audiences issue.

Adam Gwon:  I thought I’d start by asking if you, as a young person, went to TYA shows and if you remember your experience seeing those shows. I grew up in Baltimore going to the Pumpkin Theatre. [Laughter.]

Michael Bobbitt:  Yay. It’s still around.

Adam Gwon:  Yeah. They do adaptations of fairy tales. What’s most vivid in my mind as I think back on it is getting to meet the actors after the show. They would hang out and sign your program. There was such a strong sense of playing pretend that spilled over the stage and into my real life as a kid. And it speaks to the power that TYA has for younger audiences. I’m wondering if you guys had similar experiences growing up.

Lydia Diamond:  No. I remember seeing Annie and Cats and things like that. But I don’t remember seeing things specifically for kids.

Michael Bobbitt:  My first memory of theatre was being Hansel in the third act of Hansel and Gretel, which my mom still thinks is the best act. [Laughter.]

Lydia Diamond:  Wait. They had three different Hansels?

Michael Bobbitt:  Three different Hansels and three different Gretels. I was third-act Hansel. I got to kill the witch.

Lydia Diamond:  Nice.

Michael Bobbitt:  I think my first professional production was a play called Freedom Train that was touring the country.

Zina Goldrich:  That’s Theatreworks USA.

Michael Bobbitt:  Yeah. I think it may have been Theatreworks USAs. It was at George Washington University. And then I remember coming to New York at some point in the ‘80s and seeing a professional production of Porgy and Bess. But not a children’s theatre show.

Sarah HammondFreedom Train is TYA.

Michael Bobbitt:  Yeah. I remember that.

Sarah Hammond:  My young audiences show was a Theatreworks USA job. Will Aronson and I got to write a musical based on the Pete the Cat books.

Zina Goldrich:  To answer your first question, when I was a kid, I remember my folks taking me to The Paper Bag Players. I can’t tell you if they actually made things out of paper bags or if the shows were built around the idea of things coming out of paper bags. But I do remember that it was creative and fun. They also took me to see, was it Bill Baird who had the puppets? As far as book musicals are concerned, I don’t think at that time that the TYA world was as varied and as present as it is now. It’s everywhere now, which is very exciting.

     But back to the Theatreworks USA: I think they set the bar for touring TYA shows. Pretty much everybody who’s anybody has worked for them.

Michael Bobbitt:  It’s interesting the term: “theatre for young audiences,” because that’s a fairly new term. Well, new considering how long the genre has been around. I think that term was coined somewhere in the late ‘90s maybe. Maybe early ‘90s. But I sort of think of it as all-encompassing. Because there’s family theatre; there’s family-friendly theatre; there’s theatre for the very young; there’s baby theatre. And some people even distinguish children’s theatre from the others. So I was hoping that we were talking about the whole genre. Because a lot of Broadway right now is what I would consider children’s theatre or theatre for young audiences: Matilda, Annie, Lion King are all works based on materials intended for children.

Zina Goldrich:  As far as Broadway’s concerned, I’m not sure they had as much family entertainment back then. I could be wrong. I’m not a historian by any stretch of the imagination. But Annie was probably one of those first musicals where parents felt like: “I have to take my kid to see that because it’s something we can enjoy together.” I’m sure a significant factor for many families was the ticket price. Not a lot of people were going to be bringing their kids to a Broadway show, which was probably $40 for a ticket at that point, a price that seems so quaint today. [Laughter.]

Adam Gwon:  The TYA world today is quite diverse and spans a whole lot of demographics. I know Sarah’s working on a show for a very young target audience. Lydia, you’ve worked on shows that are for a slightly older target audience.

Lydia Diamond:  Yes.

Adam Gwon:  Would each of you talk about writing with those different demographics in mind from the start of a piece?

Sarah Hammond:  Well, one thing that surprised me was the distinction between a show for a family audience and a show that’s for children, depending on which job you get though. ‘Cause the job I got was—I was thinking of it as like a family audience show, and I wanted to write a Muppets sorta thing. Wink to the parents, you know? But Pete the Cat was for Theatreworks USA, and they do these tours in vans across the country, which tend to perform the shows during the day to field trip groups. So the audience is mostly children, and that’s a really different dynamic than when you have an audience that’s half parents and half children. When it’s all kids, and they’re all buddies, you lose their attention quicker.

Lydia Diamond:  That’s interesting.

Sarah Hammond:  This mass hysteria can ripple through all of the children pretty easily. So that affected the kind of show I wrote. I have all these jokes in the show for the parents that were for me, and eight-year-olds like, but the show was for four to seven-year-olds, and I had to cut a lot of those jokes. [Laughs.]

     But I’ve seen other shows for family audiences that had more leeway to walk that line, balancing kid-friendly content with plots that grown-ups can dig into. It’s a good question to ask your producer before you set out.

Lydia Diamond:  The two plays I’ve written for young audiences were with Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Adults. And the thing that I noticed the most—well, there were two things. They were the first time I wrote 90-minute plays and it had to be a tight 90 minutes because of the buses. They had to leave the theatre at a certain time. And for both of those, they were also my first adaptations.

     Because it had to be a tight 90 minutes, it made my writing better. It forced me to have a certain sort of economy. And then, of course, there were thematic things. I don’t even know if this is your question anymore. Is this your question? What was your question?

Adam Gwon[Laughs.] This is all great. You mention thematic ideas being part of the process—for me, that brings up the phrase “age-appropriate,” which gets thrown around a lot. Does part of your process include addressing this idea of what people think is appropriate for a certain age group?

Lydia Diamond:  Well, it’s interesting. For The Bluest Eye, they had to bring the school district in to okay it. They were concerned with the language. In the play there is racist violence and incest, but they were very concerned about the N-word. I don’t remember if I negotiated my N-words. I think I just had to cut them. Which is interesting with a play that’s about the horrors of the Jim Crow South. But they didn’t care about the meta content.

Michael Bobbitt:  The term “age-appropriate” is very interesting, because I think kids are smarter nowadays. They have access to so much more information than I did. To get information when I was a kid, I had to walk to the library and go to the card catalogue and look up a book using the Dewey Decimal System—it just took forever to get information. Now kids have greater access and their brains can handle more stimulus and more information as well.

     This is what I do every day: I produce children’s theatre. I run a children’s theatre. And so the term “age-appropriate” comes up all the time. And I always tell playwrights: when adults think about plays, we think about big things and big themes and big, world-changing ideas. But for a kid, drama comes in small forms. Learning how to tie your shoe is a major dramatic event for a child. They practice for hours. And when they learn, they want to show everyone that they’ve learned to tie their shoe. And if you don’t want to pay attention to this, it wrecks them. It kills them. It’s high conflict for them. So it really depends on how you dramatize the story that can make a play more or less age age-appropriate.

     But I also think that whatever you’re writing about has to be something that the audience will deal with and will engage with because it speaks to who they are at that age.

Lydia Diamond:  That’s interesting.

Michael Bobbitt:  You certainly don’t want to have curse words and things that we want to protect our kids from. But the drama is small. It’s for them. It’s their drama that they go through in their lives every day.

Zina Goldrich:  A common theme through many of the pieces Marcy Heisler and I have written is self-discovery—learning how to navigate the social world and how to be yourself—and that’s age-appropriate for most TYA shows.

     As far as language goes, Marcy doesn’t differentiate between ages. If there’s a word that’s really way past the traditional vocabulary level, we try to work it into the song so we can explain what it is. For example, in Dear Edwina, we have a song called “Frankenguest.” The lyric was, “What gives him that je ne sais quoi?” And clearly most young kids are not going to know what “je ne sais quoi” means. But there was time in the music for somebody else to say, “That means ‘I don’t know.’” [Laughter.]

Adam Gwon:  Yeah. If it’s in context, they’ll get it.

Zina Goldrich:  And you can use it as an opportunity to bring them that step higher. To actually educate at the same time and not feel like you’re—you never want to—I mean, this is such a cliché about writing for children’s theatre, but you don’t want to write down to kids.

Lydia Diamond:  My experience with theatre for young audiences is very different from yours in that it’s for young adult audiences. And I have found that it just asks that the writing be better, that you can’t forget that you’re writing for people who’re smarter than adults.

Zina Goldrich:  Right. That makes a lot of sense. I think our audience is definitely the Theatreworks audience: probably top age is going to be eleven, maybe, if that? And so most of the shows that the producers are picking are going to be very popular books, titles that they can sell. I think they go for the entertainment value, and material that’s within the curriculum of the schools. School districts are so strapped for cash. They’re not buying tickets to theatre much anymore. But if it’s part of the curriculum, they’ll do it; even with those producorial challenges, it’s still our responsibility as artists to make the stories sing and resonate for the children who see them. Budgets can fluctuate; creative quality shouldn’t. But if you look at it as puzzle-solving instead of limiting, it can result in really creative thinking.

Michael Bobbitt:  I really love what Lydia said. And I think that it does force you to write better because you have a shorter time frame to reveal something that normally reveals in about two and a half hours. We have 45 to 90 minutes. We have a half a page to reveal character versus three pages. It’s interesting because we do a lot of commissions and sometimes the playwright’s first draft has text that they think the kids are going to read. But, the reading level of the kid is different than the listening, hearing, experiencing level of the kid. And so sometimes when it’s written down it’s because they’re just writing text that’s just not elevated or doesn’t assume that the kids are smarter and able to understand more than they can read.

Lydia Diamond:  Right. Kids love poetry.

Sarah Hammond:  They do. In our show, we had a funny experience with that though where we realized that there’re a lot of idioms that we just take for granted and understand, But the kids have no clue. But like I had some characters in our show who were Dust Bunnies. We had the backup singers in a song underneath a couch. The backup singers were dust bunnies. Which I thought was enormously imaginative. [Laughter.]

     But it turns out that for a four-year-old, they might not know that dust collects under a couch, or that it’s called a “dust bunny” by adults. [Laughs.] And so when these rabbits showed up on the stage, it looked like Dada to them. And they just checked out. They hated the song.

Michael Bobbitt:  Oh, how funny.

Sarah Hammond:  We rewrote that song like crazy. We had to turn those backup singers into Mom and Dad. You know, Mom and Dad are under the couch. [Laughter.]

     I’ve only done one of these. But it was like everything was guesswork. We were never sure what the kids were going to connect to, what was going to be imaginative in a good way or in a way that’s just ordinary for them ‘cause they’re already so imaginative.

Lydia Diamond:  So do you need more of a preview process when you’re doing work for young audiences? Is it like a comedy where you have to play it for them to know what your play’s doing?

Sarah Hammond:  In our case we had that. The producer set up a mini-tour, with five performances across the New York Metro area where we watched the show play in front of 1,000 four-year-olds, got that visceral, in-the-bones sensation of what happens when 600 of those 1,000 four-year-olds start shifting in their chairs. [Laughs.]

Lydia Diamond:  Oh my God.

Michael Bobbitt:  That usually happens when the slow song is late in the play. Slow songs can’t be late in the play. Don’t put the slow song late.

Lydia Diamond:  That’s a lot of pressure. That’s crazy.

Michael Bobbitt:  The audiences behave so differently. Sometimes you’ll have school groups where the teacher has said, “Behave. Don’t misbehave,” and the kids won’t respond at all.

Lydia Diamond:  Right. They beat it out of them. You can tell.

Zina Goldrich:  Our shows have been performed for a lot of school groups—and our audience skews just slightly older. So it makes it just a bit easier when it comes to attention span. That being said, if you do not captivate them in some way and continually find fresh and creative ways to do that, they have no problem letting you know that they are bored. And they’ll be polite in many cases, but you can just look across the audience and see butts moving in seats, or they’re starting to tug at their clothes, or they lean over to their friends.

     So there are technical requirements in addition to the art of it. I’m the composer half of our team. And so it’s always about just finding that really fun groove that they hopefully can’t resist [laughing] and really limiting the length of songs. Many of the song forms are just A B A instead of A A B A.

Michael Bobbitt:  Oh wow.

Zina Goldrich:  Because basically in the B section, you’re getting to the point or the chorus. And they don’t want to hear a lot of windup. They don’t want to sit through too many A sections. So most of those songs end up A B A. And if you’re lucky, you get a ballad. On the last show we just did, Junie B’s Essential Survival Guide, we actually had two ballads, which is extremely unusual. The only reason we were allowed this second ballad, (which we had to cut, cut, cut, cut down) is because it was comedic. The lead character is writing an apology letter, but she’s writing horrible things. [Laughs.] Because the kids were interested in the actual process of what she was doing, they didn’t notice it was a ballad.

Michael Bobbitt:  That’s so interesting.

Zina Goldrich:  And then by the end, she gets a short ballad of discovery. So it’s actually fairly specific in craft when you come down to it. The audience will absolutely tell you when they’ve checked out. That being said, it’s more important to try to reach past those limitations and make your show as creative and exciting as you can.

Lydia Diamond:  Interesting. That is so technical. My concerns with the theatre for younger-older audiences: it’s always about the politics of it, the gender and race politics. And I’m often thinking about who’s coming to the theatre. Who are the kids that they’re bussing in? And what that means in the context of the very white theatre that they’re being bussed into. I feel a responsibility sort of thematically. But I don’t have these technical concerns that you have because they can sit still, you know?

Sarah Hammond:  Did you get to choose your source material, Lydia?

Lydia Diamond:  Yes and no. The first time Hallie Gordon, who runs the Theatre for Young Audiences, and Ed Sobel called me and asked me to do The Bluest Eye adaptation. And then for Harriet Jacobs, Hallie said, “What should we do next?” And I said, “Harriet Jacobs.” Because I think her story is sort of like Anne Frank: it should be told.

Sarah Hammond:  Would you have wanted to write that show for adults?

Lydia Diamond:  Yeah. I think so. I spent a lot of time before I said yes to doing The Bluest Eye because it’s a harrowing story. It’s not about incest. It’s about racism. But through the device of how a town, through this horrendous sort of social racism, victimizes a child and it sort of trickles down from the society to the nation to the town, to a family. And I was concerned that the script, and the experience of seeing the play could so easily pathologize black people in a way that young people wouldn’t be able to—I don’t know—shouldn’t have to deconstruct.  That the students might not have the tools to deconstruct. I felt a responsibility to do it right. And had I been a producer, I don’t know that I would’ve picked that story. I’m really glad they did. And it was a beautiful production. But I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be a black or Latino child seeing that play in that [very white] context. And so yes: that was material that was given to me.

Zina Goldrich:  I’d love to read it.

Sarah Hammond:  The thing about the way you feel different. Your sense of yourself as a writer changes when you’re imagining kids watching. It sounds like it’s similar, even though I was writing for four-year-olds and you’re writing for young adults. Suddenly everything mattered much more.

Lydia Diamond:  Right.

Sarah Hammond:  It’s going to influence people. Even if it’s not teaching a lesson, the emotional work the show does—these character things you do to come up with interesting writing for the theatre—suddenly it’s all impacting a forming consciousness.

Lydia Diamond:  You have a responsibility. There’s a responsibility that you can’t be frivolous with.

Sarah Hammond:  And I actually really loved that about it.

Lydia Diamond:  Yeah.

Sarah Hammond:  Even though I know it probably isn’t the status symbol that a major production for adults would be, or like a Broadway family-friendly show—the fact that all of these children were watching these characters and they don’t care who wrote the show or what reviews it got. All they’re doing is paying attention to the story and the characters and taking that home to their parents. I found myself imagining what the dinner table conversations would be like.

Lydia Diamond:  Isn’t it interesting about the status? Like that you work as hard or harder to make a piece of theatre that is beautiful and appreciated, and there’s a status thing? That’s crazy.

Sarah Hammond:  Yeah. I mean, I brought that in. But I actually didn’t care [laughs] about that.

Lydia Diamond:  No, but –

Sarah Hammond:  I enjoy doing the work.

Lydia Diamond:  Well, I mean to the degree, though, that it does have to do with the future of the play and the amount of money the play can make. Hallie Gordon and I have had long conversations about this. TYA scripts are so sophisticated and the subject matter is so adult in a way that I think challenges audiences, and sometimes adult theatre gets too lazy to challenge people. And so I would say, “Why couldn’t this be on the main stage and in the Theatre for Young Audiences?” And she’s like, “But we’re doing something incredible and special, and you’re not ghettoized to be in Theatre for Young Audiences. This is what we make.”  And she is absolutely right, and it still remains a conundrum for me. 

     And then I started thinking about why I felt that way and I realized that some of it had to do with the economics, and sort of the exposure. The Bluest Eye did go to off-Broadway. It went to the New Victory. But I knew that there was a way that people would consume it because they knew it was Theatre for Young Audiences. And had it been at another theatre, perhaps it would’ve been possibly consumed differently.

Zina Goldrich:  As though, because it’s for kids, there is something that is perceived as less-than or that it takes less—it doesn’t take less craft actually.

Lydia Diamond:  Right.

Michael Bobbitt:  It frustrates me because I think that the industry doesn’t necessarily appreciate the whole of what we are. I mean, some of the most commercially successful shows right now are shows for children. Wicked, Lion King. Cats is coming. These are all shows for children, written for children. They may be not labeled as “children’s theatre,” but they are shows that were written to entertain children.

Lydia Diamond:  Do you think that if they were done in your theatre first, would it be possible for them to transfer?

Michael Bobbitt:  I don’t think. Because mostly we do hour-long shows. The only difference is that our shows are one hour and not two.

Lydia Diamond:  Yeah. I guess it was sort of the same thing about people’s perceptions. Like it’s one thing if Walt Disney is paying you to write a play for children, and another thing if you’ve written a children’s play. Which is so interesting.

Zina Goldrich:  Right.

Michael BobbittMICHAEL J. BOBBITT is the artistic director of New Rep in Watertown, MA. Previously, he was artistic director of Adventure Theatre MTC, the longest-running children’s theatre in the DC region. During his tenure there, he commissioned and/or premiered over 40 new works. His own plays and musicals include Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude; The Yellow Rose of Texas; Jumanji; and others. His musicals Bob Marley’s The Three Little Birds and Caps For Sale both appeared at the New Victory Theatre in NYC.

Lydia DiamondLYDIA R. DIAMOND is an American playwright and professor. Among her most popular plays are The Bluest Eye, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel; Stick Fly; Harriet Jacobs; and Smart People. Her most recent play, Toni Stone, premiered off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Zina GoldrichZINA GOLDRICH won the 2009 Fred Ebb Award for excellence in songwriting with longtime collaborator, Marcy Heisler. Their musicals include Ever After; The Great American Mousical; and are currently developing Hollywood Romance. Goldrich composed music for Dear Edwina (Drama Desk Nomination); and Junie B. Jones (Lucille Lortel Nomination) which ran successfully off-Broadway. Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred) (Helen Hayes Nomination) was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and is licensed by MTI.

Adam GwonADAM GWON is a composer and lyricist whose musicals have been produced on six continents, in more than half-a-dozen languages. His songs have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and more, by such luminaries as Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, and Brian d’Arcy James. His latest musical, Scotland, PA, premiered this season at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Sarah HammondSARAH HAMMOND is a New Dramatists Alum and a current resident artist at Ars Nova’s Uncharted. Her plays include Green Girl (SPF ‘08); House on Stilts (South Coast Rep Commission); Kudzu (Trustus). Her musicals are String (Rodgers Award, NAMT ‘14) and Pete the Cat (Theatreworks USA ‘16).

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