A New Standard for Working with Young Performers

In the era of #MeToo, one thing is clear – if we take the important steps toward an equitable and safe workplace for adults, it should follow that we are taking the same steps on behalf of the children working in our theatres.

Phoenix Nehls, Chloe Irwin, and Carson Bishop rehearse a scene from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Jahnna Beecham and Malcom Hillgartner, adapted from the play by Barbara Robinson. The Rose Theater, Omaha, NE. Photo by Alex Myre.

Whether kids in productions are considered working professionals, apprentices in training, students, or otherwise, they are vulnerable in ways that adults are not. Because membership of TYA/USA is made up of a broad range of companies, varying in size, resources, and approach, I would like to propose that we work collectively to create a versatile set of principles to be used in our field to address issues that can arise when you put kids in a professional working environment with adults.

This isn’t to say that TYA companies in America are not doing – or are unaware of the need for – this work. However, there is a considerable range in approaches and efficacy. In recent months I discussed the topic of adult-youth engagement with several well-respected and accomplished professionals in the field to better understand and improve the solutions and approaches we have been developing here at Children’s Theater of Madison.

Some of the issues in need of addressing include the following:

A company that has taken steps to address such questions is Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, MN just twenty minutes outside the Twin Cities. Stages has in place a range of protocols that create an environment of support for its young performers. Education Director Nikki Swoboda walked me through some of the policies and approaches, including having staff direct shows – Swoboda and the company’s Production Manager, Melanie Salmon-Peterson, both direct – which helps keep the kids-first culture of the company at the front of the production process. Stages is an example of the focus we should all have on keeping the kids in our programs safe while ensuring that the adults are appropriately trained and held accountable.

The Rose Theater in Omaha, NE is another example of a company dedicated to addressing these issues. When I spoke recently with Matt Gutshick, currently in his fifth year as artistic director of The Rose, he listed descriptions of the considered policies and protocols developed with his staff concerning adult-youth engagement. He explained the intricate layers of communication available to everyone working at the company to ensure a safe, welcoming, and appropriate workplace for kids and adults alike. He sent me some of these policies, including the 12 page “Social Media Protocol” – a thorough document that is just one piece of The Rose’s approach; it includes many useful guidelines, such as recommending that Rose employees “keep work-related social media accounts separate from personal accounts,” as well as descriptions and examples of appropriate and inappropriate content.

"We’d be major fans of a collective resource to draw policy and procedure inspiration from.”

—  Matt Gutshick, AD, The Rose Theater

But how do we work together as a field to collectively institute the best practices demonstrated by companies like Stages and The Rose? Collective, voluntary training through TYA/USA is one way. But a better, more holistic way might be to develop a shared set of principles and policies, and encourage all TYA companies – especially those engaged in age-appropriate casting – to commit to following this basic set of standards.

One existing model to consider is the Chicago Theatre Standards (CTS). Fully implemented in 2017, CTS is an attempt to apply voluntary policies across the Chicago theatre community to address issues of workplace equity, safety, communication, and accountability. It is a thorough resource for any theatre leader or participant that seeks to improve working conditions, especially for actors; but, it does not address the issue of children in professional productions. It does, however, provide a useful model for our field. A 30-something page document, the CTS was developed through a series of round-table discussions with “dozens of Chicago theatre participants” that took place over the course of a year. Once a draft was in place, another year was spent with 20 theatres piloting the standards to be sure that they worked and accomplished the intended goals. The Chicago Theatre Standards cover many areas encountered by theatre artists, including auditions, contracts, dressing rooms, diversity and inclusion, sexual harassment, and much more. The CTS also detail how to resolve conflict and communicate respectfully. The power of such a document is in its collective nature, an entire community working with the same guidelines, empowering all participants across the community. Because it is voluntary, and thoroughly explained to all under its guise, it gives both organizations and the people working in them the power to hold each other accountable. And different companies are able to tweak policies to best fit their operations.

The seeming disparity in approaches and expertise across the TYA community indicates the utility of such a shared set of guidelines. It would empower and elevate the entire TYA field by holding each other accountable while providing a shared vocabulary with which to solve tough issues and talk to each other in doing so. Here in Madison, WI we would be eager to take advantage of the collective knowledge and experience that would be inherent in such standards. It seems likely that many other organizations would as well. Even companies with extensive policies in place might glean useful insight from such a resource. The necessary conversations required to set such guidelines to paper would also be invaluable – a learning process for us all.