It is September 23, 2020, and we are six months in. Many of our theatres are physically closed and entirely virtual, and the start of the school year has been filled with confusion and inconsistency across the US. We have been forced to figure out how we achieve our mission and serve children and families in isolation or with limited contact. Concurrently, the field is facing the realities of the systemic racism and white supremacy that has enabled the marginalization of communities of color, from the board room to the stage. The TYA field is having an identity crisis moment, and many are realizing that reinvention is the only way forward. Despite the significant challenges and losses, a powerful movement of creativity, innovation, reflection, and change is emerging from TYA artists and organizations, guided by an unwavering commitment to serving young people. We have a much deeper and arguably more urgent obligation to satisfy our missions than our counterparts in the wider theatre industry, as young audiences are in desperate need of connection, inspiration, representation, and hope — by-products of the work we create with and for them.
So where are we now? How are we reaching children, families, schools, and communities in this time when we can’t gather? How can we survive, thrive, and reinvent ourselves as a field when our audiences need us more than ever before?
"Despite the significant challenges and losses, a powerful movement of creativity, innovation, reflection, and change is emerging from TYA artists and organizations, guided by an unwavering commitment to serving young people."
Summarizing conversations with hundreds of leaders, artists, educators, administrators, funders, and stakeholders in the national Theatre for Young Audiences ecosystem, here is an recap of both the sobering impact and the inspiring experimentation happening across the TYA landscape in 2020:
The inability to do business as usual is creating a much needed renaissance of experimentation in content and form, both virtually and in-person.
For years, TYA theatres have lamented the challenges of risk-taking given the financial realities of running a theatre. In this moment when we are unable to produce our typical work, and rights issues make big title adaptations challenging to offer virtually, TYA theatres are boldly innovating in a variety of intriguing ways. Original virtual shows focused on social justice; TYA-turned-Television productions; Hybrid live and streamed-to-home productions; Interactive theatre on video-conferencing platforms; audio theatre experiences; theatre-in-a-box kits sent to homes; outdoor drive-in productions; and site-specific work are appearing across the national TYA landscape. While these experiments aren’t yielding the same level of revenue as our standard seasons, the renaissance of creativity across the field is inspiring. How will this impact the type of work we make on this other side of the pandemic?
The TYA field is contracting and facing extreme financial uncertainty.
The economic reality of lost revenue, closed performances, shuttered buildings, and uncertainty in the viability of school partnerships has led TYA companies to make very difficult decisions. Many theatres report layoffs up to 20-30% or more of full-time staff, furloughs and pay cuts. Teaching Artists, performers, designers, and technicians employed by TYA companies on a part-time or contract basis are largely unemployed. The presenting side of the TYA field is facing their own set of challenges. Touring pathways are completely stalled, and commercial Broadway touring is at a standstill. Venues that rely on touring artists both domestic and abroad have no sense of when we can safely re-engage this model of presentation. Grassroots efforts to advocate for much needed national arts relief are growing through campaigns like #BeAnArtsHero (the DAWN Act) and #SaveOurStages.
The TYA field is having a long overdue conversation about race and racism.
Many TYA theatres are engaged in challenging but necessary conversations at the board, staff, and community level to interrogate and dismantle internal systems that perpetuate racism and white supremacy in their work. The We See You White American Theatre movement continues to push the professional theatre field toward concrete action and accountability. TYA/USA published a landmark report on Racial and Gender Representation in TYA, which demonstrates how much work the field needs to do in order to be truly equitable and representative of the young people across the US. How can we ensure that equity is meaningfully embedded into the foundation of rebuilding our industry?
This moment has also facilitated an opportunity to rethink our business model, revitalize our commitment to mission, and build a more sustainable future.
Some theatres are exploring a shift to a membership model rather than a traditional subscription, while others are focusing more on their education and outreach programs in the community as their primary tool to exercise the mission of serving young people through theatre rather than producing theatre traditionally. The pandemic is pushing the TYA field to return to the essential meaning behind the mission, and what it means to serve young people and communities regardless of our ability to gather.
A debate rages over the ethics of reopening.
Opinions around what it means to safely reopen, and the balance between risk vs. reward, vary wildly across regions and political affiliations. Theatres must now decide whether to attempt in-person programming with social distancing protocols and other safety measures, or remain virtual for the foreseeable future. These decisions have heavy consequences involving heath, livelihood, and future sustainability.
The school partnership landscape has completely shifted.
Relationships with schools are a cornerstone of the TYA industry. Due to the pandemic, field trips are prohibited in most of the country. Teachers are trying to acclimate to teaching virtually, in a hybrid model, or in a very different in-person environment. There is still uncertainty around the ideal style of arts programming, virtual platforms, and formats that will best serve schools, teachers, and students. Meanwhile, Education Departments and their role in the organization have changed dramatically in their relationship to programming and audience engagement. In the absence of performance-based programming, Education Directors and departments have become even more essential within their organizations, quickly needing to adapt as the front line of envisioning virtual programming, creating safety plans for re-opening, and responding to the shifting needs of teachers.
An unprecedented level of national collaboration is flourishing in a typically siloed field.
We had the technology to connect with colleagues across the country before the pandemic, but now we’re actually taking advantage of them. A new spirit of collaboration and exchange is blossoming across the industry. In the past 6 months, 41 theatres co-commissioned and streamed A KIDS PLAY ABOUT RACISM; theatres are co-programming and presenting each other’s work to their local communities; and leaders, educators, and artists are regularly sharing information and offering each other solutions on regular TYA/USA affinity calls. How can we maintain this powerful network across the country even after the crisis of the pandemic recedes?
It is impossible to encapsulate all of the change that is happening, as we are very much still in the eye of the storm. But as we reflect on the last six months, and look ahead to a year that will continue to surprise and challenge us, we must ask: What have we learned? What truths has this tumultuous time revealed to us about our work? What do we want to leave behind, and what do we want the TYA field to look like as we rebuild? What do young people across the country need right now, and how we can uniquely respond to those needs through the power of theatre and storytelling? We, the Theatre for Young Audiences community, are essential workers in the lives of children, teachers, families, and communities across the country. They need us now more than ever, and how we respond to that calling will define our next chapter as a field and impact an entire generation of young people we serve.