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(Photo: Rising Youth Theatre (Phoenix, AZ)-Light Rail -1)
CTFA President's COMMENTARY: A Short History of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) in the USA and The Childrens Theatre Foundation of America from THEN to NOW
The spark that ignited the development of professional theatre for young audiences, TYA, in the United States was first kindled in the 1920’s in the settlement houses in major cities where immigrant children and families found a safe place to celebrate their own cultures and to adjust to their new homeland. Through live performance and participation in a host of theatre activities communities gathered to exchange ideas, share fellowship and make art together in a strange and sometimes hostile environment.

In the century that followed, theatre practitioners with similar altruistic motivations and artistic ambitions formed theatre companies that grew from small community-based groups, touring companies attached to larger theatres, college/university graduate programs, and high school theatre groups, into increasingly professional companies that came to rival their counterparts in regional theatres in size, scale and professionalism. The artistic quality of playwriting, performance and production values deepened and became more sophisticated. Education programs blossomed involving scores of young people in classes and performance ensembles. Outreach activities spread to schools and communities with pre and post show activities and magnificent theatres were built with state-of-the art facilities that would be the envy of many “adult” regional theatres.

But this impressive growth and development sometimes comes at a price. As budgets balloon and fiscal responsibilities compound, many of the larger “flagship” theatre have found it difficult to do the kind of original, risky , innovative work that fueled their founding in the first place. Original new work with unknown titles and potentially provocative themes have to be balanced by adaptations of popular books and standard fare with familiar titles that can insure the commercial success necessary for survival.

The social and political climate in our country has also changed. In some ways becoming more conservative, more risk averse and seemingly frightened of diversity and difference. These forces are countered by calls for gender equity, acceptance of LGBTQ agendas and awareness of the needs and capacities of those with disabilities. Ironically the paradox of these polarizing cross currents come at a time when young audiences in theatres and community centers across the country are increasingly diverse, more to attuned to the discord that surrounds them, and in more need than ever of theatrical fare and activities that reflect their world and address the issues facing them on a daily basis.

The field of TYA has also changed dramatically in the past decade or so. The mainstream theatres are still with us, often doing excellent and important work, but there is a groundswell of emerging artists, companies of color, and groups devising new work that cuts to the heart of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary society. There are also robust and vibrant youth theatres where young people are empowered to tell their own stories in their own voices.

For over half of the entire history of TYA in the USA, The Childrens Theatre Foundation of America has been a force providing support to organizations large and small; to individual artists, emerging and established; bestowing awards on established artists recognizing a lifetime of service, and to new artists and organizations leading the field into its future. CTFA was founded in 1958 by a group of practicing artists, playwrights, producers, administrators, academics, and publishers who were deeply concerned that there was not a single grant program or foundation that focused on providing support to TYA. The founders began by digging into their own pockets, forming the basis of our endowment. These funds were augmented by modest fundraising efforts and by legacy gifts which helped to establish our several of current grant and award programs.

We are and have always been a small foundation with a volunteer Board and no staff. All we have accomplished has been due to the generosity, professional expertise, and passionate dedication of the Board. For most of our existence CTFA has been something of a family affair driven by the energy of an extended family of artists, administrators, educators and advocates who share a commitment to excellence in theatre for young people and a deep desire to support the artists and organizations who do this work. Our grant programs have been guided by our mission and values and informed by the dictates of donors. Up until recently the selection process for grants was somewhat informal and often resulted in supporting the companies and individuals with whom we were most familiar. Fiscally we have been similarly handicapped. Until relatively recently, our funds were held in savings accounts and certificates of deposit, with little attention to growth or sustainability and our fundraising efforts have been inconsistent and largely ineffective.

In 2015, at the suggestion of our current Treasurer, Moses Goldberg we began our investment partnership with your Foundation: The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro. This was a major step toward professionalization for us and was in keeping with other forces of change that were swirling around our field at this time. In 2016, we began to take a hard look at the state of TYA in terms of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and realized that there was a serious disconnect between the audiences we were serving and the plays being created and produced, the administrative structures of many of the mainstream theatres, and even our own Board. We began a series of diversity and anti-racism training experiences and made the momentous decision to focus our grant programs, award selections and partnership programs on “dismantling structural and organizational racism” in the field of TYA in America. We felt this to be both a social and an artistic mandate.

The audiences we welcome to our theatres, particularly when school groups are involved, reflect the diversity of race, gender, economic status and sexual orientation in each community served by that organization. Theatre, whether it is viewed by young people or created by them has the ability to shape perceptions and attitudes through the power of identification and empathy. TYA is in a unique position to dismantle racism in the stories we tell, the representation of people on stage, and in the discussions that occur before, during and after any performance.

As a result of this bold action by the Board, many things changed. We overhauled our grant making procedures, soliciting applications that directly addressed issues of racial equity. We also created a direct link between our stated values of equity, diversity and inclusion and the grant criteria and mechanism for application evaluation and selection. We diversified our Board , tripling the number of Board members of color in just three years. We also sought out and recognized a number of smaller, less well-known companies and artists in our Medallion award selections and provided provocative and passionate keynote speakers of color at conferences and national conventions of the TYA service organizations.

But these are just first steps in addressing the larger issues which face us as a field and society. We have just begun to truly “walk what we talk” and, as members of our own Board have pointed out, we cannot be agents of change in the field unless we are willing to look deeply into our own organization first. We must examine and interrogate our own assumptions and notions of power and privilege, before we can call for change in others. The time has clearly come for us to undertake this strategic planning process to build our capacity to assist the theatres and artists of the future. We are well underway with the early phases of this work, but we are in it for the long haul. We look forward the prospect of changing lives one grant, one award, one partnership and one child at a time.
—Suzan Zeder, President of Childrens Theatre Foundation of America