TYA Today, TYA TomorrowPerspectives from New Artistic Directors

In 1968, Wesley Van Tassel conducted a survey of TYA practitioners as part of his doctoral studies at the University of Denver to better understand the application of theory into practice on the TYA stage. Forty years later, I adapted the survey as part of my undergraduate work at Northwestern University, and at the time, I didn’t realize the importance of having legacies such as Jeff Church, Julia Flood, Barry Kornhauser, and David Saar (to name a few of the 36 who participated) respond.

I didn’t realize that when TYA Today asked me to write an article based on my findings that I would be given the chance 10 years later – and 50 years after Van Tassel’s original survey – to interview new artistic directors continuing the great work of such legacies. How humbling it is to look back and realize how much these brilliant artists perpetuated the rest of my academic and professional career, how much these new leaders are and will do the same for generations to come. Below, these four emerging leaders share their perspectives on the field of TYA today and their visions for the TYA of tomorrow.

Taylor Kelly, William Barry Scott, Tamiko Robinson, and Catherine Birdsong in The Hundred Dresses, by William Kent Williams, based on the novel by Eleanor Estes. Nashville Children’s Theatre, Nashville, TN. Photo by A & M Portraits.

What makes you feel connected to TYA?

  • Dwayne Hartford

    The reason I went into theatre originally is the power of the medium, the joy, and the possibilities that come in theatre. What really made me want to stay especially with Childsplay and TYA was being part of the creation of The Yellow Boat and originating the role of the father and going through that process and seeing the power that TYA has to help kids mature into thoughtful, caring human beings – empowering them to live their lives on their own terms, encouraging them to step into the shoes of other people in the way that theatre does for adults, for nurturing empathy and nurturing imagination and wonder, which is certainly part of the whole Childsplay mission.

  • I’m particularly fascinated by stories where young people make discoveries about the world around them and thereby personal discoveries. I think there is something artistically that all the things I love
    doing, they’re not questioned in TYA for some reason. If I want to use movement or if I want to use dance or if I want to have a character break out into song or if I want my whole set to just be a bunch of chairs, I feel like the artistic possibilities of TYA are limitless and theatrical and that is the kind of work I love doing.

  • Idris Goodwin

    When I would go to see TYA shows, just the energy and the electricity and the youthful spirit – not just with the young audiences but also with the adults. For me, it was just that palpable energy but also the numbers, just the sheer volume. StageOne in particular, works with the public school system so it’s getting hundreds of kids at every show, and that kind of impact and reach – I mean, what more can you ask for as a writer? These are people at a very critical age, and the privilege of being able to tell them a story – why wouldn’t I want to do that? Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that? Also, that’s what I loved and needed when I was in elementary school, middle school, high school, opportunities to step outside my day-to-day and be immersed in a world of imagination. I’m also the father of a 6-year-old, and the thought of him being able to grow up in a children’s theatre is really exciting to me, that’s something I can give him.

  • Courtney Sale

    Recently, I heard the made-up word, “childhood-ish.” I love that phrase. And right now, it feels like the perfect vocabulary to describe my artistry. In my career, I’ve made work for both youth and adults. The common threads for me are a curiosity about how and why we play, an inclination toward justice in story and collaboration, and joy and pleasure in the making. I am pretty strident about my joy – and that central tenet lends itself innately to TYA.

    Beyond that, the obvious and most important connection is that I am a mother to a surprising, complex, and ridiculously funny human. I love being a parent. My relationship with my child is always the first audience. Are we, as an organization, making art worthy of the attention of that relationship? Have we been brave enough in our efforts? Have we been tireless enough in our pursuits? And if we build the work and the internal culture with that specificity in mind, then Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) has the potential to reach every child who engages SCT. They should feel as though the art has been specifically made for them – with a boundless amount of love, rigor, and consideration. We are a team of another caring adult in the lives of young people.

“I feel like the artistic possibilities of TYA are limitless.”

—  Ernie Nolan

How have you approached the transition to becoming artistic director?

  • Idris Goodwin

    I look at my role to be to build on all the great work StageOne has been doing for 70 plus years. I have a real sports mentality – I’m coming into this team and so my thing is to adapt to that environment and still be who I am and still bring what I bring but also find a way as a collective to find that synergy that’s effective. I’m going in with let’s get championships. Let’s serve the mission. It’s not about what I want, it’s about the mission. How do I, Idris Goodwin playwright, director, etc., how do I serve the mission? Just like Peter [Holloway] served the mission and Moses Goldberg served the mission, anybody that works at StageOne right now, how they serve the mission – that’s really what I’m going in with.

  • Dwayne Hartford

    For me, I went from being an associate artist at the company to artistic director, so some of those expectations I didn’t have necessarily. As I transitioned into this job, having worked with David [Saar] for 25 years and watched the company grow and being part of that and buying into this mission that David had, that the company has, of creating this strikingly originally theatre that is in our mission statement but more than anything this idea of nurturing and supporting imagination and wonder in the lives of children – for me it’s wanting to continue that.

  • What was unfortunate about my transition was that it was so sudden. Entering the building I didn’t realize even though I entered a year after Scot [Copeland] passed, there were still people grieving. That was something I didn’t realize until I got here. I felt really fortunate enough that I was handed a report that the board had commissioned from a consultant that really was kind of like the state of the theatre in the moment. The report suggested having an artistic plan in place for the next several years, and that’s exactly what I did. I came with a 3- to 5-year artistic plan. I also feel like knowing Scot had created this incredible legacy and also knowing that Nashville Children’s Theatre is the oldest professional children’s theatre in the US, I entered the job with a certain amount of perspective and a certain amount of feeling like we are the city’s theatre. We serve the city. I really felt like I wanted
    us to be the city’s theatre in terms of programming, in terms of what our seasons look like, what our artists who work here, who they are.

  • Courtney Sale

    SCT played a critical role in my life as an emerging artist. I earned my BFA at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and spent many Friday evenings at SCT shows during a time when I didn’t have a
    young person in my life. The quality of the storytelling, the high production values, and commitment to new works were always huge draws for me. Linda [Hartzell] paved that way. Though I didn’t know
    her well when I was younger, she has undoubtedly influenced me as an artist. I’m so grateful to have a wonderful relationship with Linda now. She gifted me early in my tenure with an important, liberating blessing. I won’t share it here because I want to keep its specialness. Though I will say it involved Linda literally picking me up off the ground in a firefighter cradle. The woman is STRONG! And that secret confidence in one another – that understated championing of the next life of the theatre and true admiration is how I’ve approached this transition.

“Then it just comes down to selection – what do I as artistic director and my team, what do we believe are the stories worth investing in, worth telling?”

—  Idris Goodwin

What do you see as your “purpose” as artistic director?

  • Idris Goodwin

    As a playwright, I’m pretty well cemented in what I feel like my purpose is, which is to use story to serve community, to use story as a way to galvanize people together and begin to think about where we are in society – to tell the stories of marginalized people, to try to expand on, celebrate, misdirect some of the narrow minds that surround who folk are. As an artistic director, however, I see my role as a little bit different. I still want to bring people together into the same room around story and imagination but now I get to also empower other artists to tell stories. And as long as the story telling is good, as long as the story telling is effective, as long as the story telling is one where people see, people immediately empathize or understand or can get immersed in the world of the characters, people will go anywhere with you. Then it just comes down to selection – what do I as artistic director and my team, what do we believe are the stories worth investing in, worth telling?

  • Instead of responding to other work, I really want to create it and lead conversations. Many of my first commissions were playwrights of color, and the second piece I commissioned deals with immigration and children and how that is affecting young people. I also commissioned a musical from a female writing team. These were stories that I feel don’t get talked about very often. At the same time, I really feel it’s important that the work at Nashville Children’s Theatre instills empathy at this time, so a lot of
    issues, the stories that I wanted to tackle were about making sure the audience felt themselves reflected on stage, and if it wasn’t a mirror, then it was a window that other people could see through to a story that they didn’t know and could identify with.

  • Dwayne Hartford

    As the world changes, as we’re in this kind of troubled time where there is a lot of name calling, and we tend to maybe dehumanize each other, I see theatre as having this very important place in the lives of children, of reminding them of our humanity and that we are all people and we are all on this planet together – this journey – and embracing that and not diminishing each other. I see that as more important now than ever. It has become even more important that we embrace the ideas of empathy, diversity, and inclusion and that the children in our audience see their stories on stage and see themselves on stage and see people who look like them and hear the stories, and it’s not just that they see the actors but the stories are told authentically and that we’re telling everyone that we value everyone’s life and everyone’s journey.

  • Courtney Sale

    I want more ORIGINAL STORIES. We are suffocating under the tyranny of the title. It’s a constant and continual challenge in our programming. I have been greatly moved by theatres commissioning new work with regional resonance. Also, what are other source materials worthy of adapting –can we adapt toys? Board games? Songs? What are innovative ways we can erode the barriers of our gatekeepers who need more context? I would also like to see the field led by artists of color and women. I am impatient about this one. I don’t want to wait five years. It’s not fair to our audiences. And I would love to see more theatres led by collective – we make all of our work this way, why wouldn’t we consider an artist collective model as the guiding force in our organizations?

    In my secret of secret wishes, like my diary musings, I think – there was a time when public school did not exist. Can we have the Horace Mann of TYA enter stage left and embed in the minds and hearts of the American people that theatre should be free, universal, and CRITICAL in the lives of our citizens? Can we agree we want a world filled with the civilizing emotions of empathy, listening, and compassion?

Dedra A. Woods in The Little Prince, adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Original music by David Dabbon. Produced by special arrangement with DRAMATIC PUBLISHING, Woodstock, IL. Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle, WA. Photo by Elise Bakketun.

What do you want your TYA legacy to be?

  • I would love to leave a legacy of new work, and I would love to leave a legacy of feeling as though I was able to make other people feel involved in the work – both audiences feel as though they were involved in the work I created, as many artists as possible from many genres were involved in the work I created, so I think it goes to a sense of community and to a sense of artistic and collaborative exchange.

  • Dwayne Hartford

    If I can help kids to envision a world where we embrace each other and embrace our differences and embrace what brings us together, that’s the future. And that can only lead to good results. That can only lead to much more of a world that I would like to see. I’m in this very wonderful place where I can perhaps make a difference to the future by encouraging kids to love themselves and love each other.

  • Courtney Sale

    Legacy for me is about infusing the field with a canon of new work that is as diverse, bold, and complex as the young people we serve. Legacy is about amplifying and lifting up the next generation of leaders, particularly artists of color and women. Serving in the role of artistic director, I truly believe I have responsibility to make people’s lives better. I hope the artists I engage, the staff I collaborate with, and the patrons who engage the work all feel that value.

  • Idris Goodwin

    Again, I use the sports analogy. I want people to be like, that guy put numbers on the board. He did his thing. He served the mission. I think every artist wants to really make an impact on people’s day to day lives and in the local conversation and the national conversation. My goal is to really empower not just theatre artists but the audience as well and the city of Louisville and the whole community, to really help and to be an advocate. I’m a big believer that we’re just a continuation of an ongoing struggle as
    humans, as artists, as people of color – we’re there continuing the fight. I just want to do my part, as someone did for me.

What is your long-term vision for your organization and the field of TYA more broadly?

  • Dwayne Hartford

    My ideal is that we continue to do our work and try to bring the highest caliber theatrical artistic experience to young people. And in doing so we prove our worth. To me what makes theatre special and why it’s stuck around for 3000 years and why it’s so vital is that person to person connection. We offer that chance to breathe the same air as the artist, and as the actor, as the storyteller. That’s the power of theatre – telling stories that mean something, that are impactful, that are fun to watch or interesting and engaging. That’s where we have to prove ourselves – we have to do the good work, and when we show what theatre can do by doing what theatre does, we prove our worth. My dream is that it becomes the everyday. We become an integral part of a child’s development, whether it’s seeing theatre or being involved in theatre or having creative drama in the classroom. That idea of embracing imagination and wonder – it becomes a vital part of a child’s education and upbringing – and embracing this tool that we have to help kids access the world and help themselves. Having that being much more of an everyday part of every child’s life, that’s a goal for me.

  • Idris Goodwin

    I’m definitely a firm believer that America’s wealth is its diversity, so exposing audiences to that reality is something that to me is just a no-brainer. It’s just good stories. We’re built of so many different cultures and faiths and backgrounds, why not draw from all of those stories there? And it’s only going to make a richer and more interesting landscape if we’re really drawing from the treasure chest we have, really drawing from all walks of life that have converged on this continent. The big hope is that we can impact as many people, as many young people as humanly possible. However many young people we serve now, I would hope that we could serve twice as many, three times as many. Also, I would love to be able to mentor younger artists over the years and provide a platform for them to then go off and do brilliant things. Just wanting the theatre to be an exciting, electric, and relevant space for ideas and intersections of education and artistry and politics and everything like that.

  • I think it’s the flexibility and fluidity to really feel in conversation with the communities around us and what they need, that we’re also approaching and presenting the work in a way that the community feels that they see themselves up on stage. And I would also like to get a little aspirational for a second and really hope that in 10 years communities really see the necessity of the live theatrical experience for young people. Yes, it’s a teaching tool but it’s also a healing tool and an empathetic tool that I feel like more than ever young people need.

  • Courtney Sale

    My biggest wish/dream/desire is that in 20 years there are vastly more TYA theatres than exist now. I would love to see more companies all over the country: serving rural areas, fly over states, and urban centers. I grew up in a rural part of central Virginia. I found theatre through a few caring teachers who created capacity to teach both algebra and direct a play. I wonder how I would be different if I had an organization like SCT, or Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis (CTC) or Childsplay or New Vic or Metro or StageOne or Adventure Stage or all the other amazing TYA companies, near me when I was growing up. How would others be different? How would our national dialogue change as those young patrons become passionate and engaged members of society? We need to spread our arms wider, we need to cultivate theatre artists to make stories for young people, and we need to fuel the dreams of every child in this country. It’s a moral imperative.