On Saturday, the Dallas Children's Theater presents its annual Teen Scene Summit as part of its Baker Idea Institute Symposium. This year's conference has the theme of It Gets Better, of speaking out against bullying in youth theater. As part of the event, there will be a performance of DCT's current production, Linda Daugherty's The Secret Life of Girls, as well as a semi-staged "concert performance" of the play The Transition of Doodle Pequeño by Gabriel Jason Dean, who is a playwriting student at the University of Texas.
Secret Life centers on bullying among tween girls (see the video below). Doodle deals with gender identity, and is getting notice around the country. It was commissioned by People's Light and Theatre in Malvern, Penn., and is a selection at the New Visions/New Voices festival at Kennedy Center in Washinton, D.C. this year.
Suzan Zeder heads the playwriting program at UT, holding the endowed chair in Theatre for Youth and Playwriting. Having built her career on writing theater for youth—most notably the play Wiley and the Hairy Man—she knows the difficulties of making good theater for young audiences. Her other plays include Step On a Crack, In a Room Somewhere and The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes.
TheaterJones talked to her about theater for youth, the importance of reaching out to the teen sector, and Doodle Pequeño.
TheaterJones: What interested you in writing for young audiences?
Suzan Zeder: When I was in graduate school here in Dallas at Southern Methodist University many years ago, I was asked by Charlie Helfert, who taught classes in Theatre for Youth, do an adaptation of an old Louisiana folk tale titled Wiley and the Hairy Man. At that time I considered myself to be an oh-so-serious playwright, who wrote deep and moving and darkly poetic plays that somehow seemed to mirror whatever deep and moving and darkly poetic writer I happened to be reading at the time. I was "searching for my voice" you see as so many young writers do at that time.
In working on Wiley, I found a great story about a terrific young character, facing real fears. It is a story about a young boy who has to discover his own strength, smarts to overcome a really scary Hairy Man. I found myself writing a play where I could let my own imagination rip, where I could indulge my love of language, where magic is as easy as breathing, and I got to put a dog onstage. It doesn't get better than that.
Next year, Wiley and the Hairy Man will be 40 years old. It is still my most produced play. It has just been translated into Korean. It has been produced all over the world. I guess you might say I found my voice.
How has the field evolved since then, and where do you think it’s going?
When I first started writing plays for young audiences were dominated by familiar fairy tales, but fairy tales often sanitized by well-meaning writers and producers who found these timeless stories too strong and often too violent for children. There was a prevailing attitude that material for children had to geared to what was assumed to be their limitations and lack of sophistication. Plots tended to be somewhat simplified to struggles between good and evil, characters tended to be one dimensional, themes were usually reinforcing socially approved norms. There were very few new stories, original works or contemporary plays.
Although my very first venture into writing for young and family audiences was indeed an adaptation, the majority of my career has centered around contemporary plays featuring young protagonists dealing with very significant challenges in their lives: divorce, the death of a parent, a new step mother, deafness, etc. It has been my honor to have written plays celebrating the dignity and depth of child characters at times where their lives changed forever.
There was a golden period in our field where theaters did take risks on this kind of material and I was fortunate enough to be part of that movement. This was the same time when the professional theatre companies were coming into their own with higher professional standards of acting, design, directing, production values. Theatres grew from smaller companies who often toured or played to schools to the major theatrical institutions such as Dallas Children's Theater and major companies in Seattle, Minneapolis, Tempe, Arizona, etc. And as these theatres grew, so did their budgets. They went Equity! They built multi-million dollar edifices. They grew up, but at some peril, I think.
I am afraid that the current economic downturn has put many of these institutions in the precarious position of having to return to the "safe and familiar" titles, which can assure box office draw. The times have also made many producers fearful. Dwindling funding to schools, teaching only to the "test" and cutting arts programs have also been devastating, particularly for work that is bold, innovative or tackles provocative subjects. The rise of politically conservative values has also played apart, particularly when a veneer "protecting young minds" hides a hostility to the arts, or the presumption that the arts are somehow frivolous. Just at a time when the need has never been greater for theatre to address the complexities of our lives it is harder and harder to do so.
But this too will pass, as long as there are courageous companies like Dallas Children's Theater. Their commitment to exploring serious subjects with young people is a beacon of hope.
What makes a good play for young audiences?
All of the same things that make a great play for adults: a powerful and important story, compelling characters, interesting use of language, all of the visual effects of great costumes, scenery and special effects, when appropriate. But I think also a sense of humor is always helpful no matter what the subject. I think it is also important to have points of access for children in the audience and points of access for adults as well. They need not be the same points, but for a play to "hold" a multi-age audience there must be access into a "Child World.” Often this is because the protagonist is a child, but not always. I believe that a really great play for young audiences is like a banquet table, where people of all ages can come and take what they hunger for. It can't be boring, and it helps to have a dog.
What position does teen material play in the development of the field of theater for young audiences?
I think it is wonderful and really very important. So often teens are the forgotten audience. There is a lot of material out there for young children and increasingly more for the "very young,” but teens are often left out. Potentially this is the richest of material and the most receptive of any audience. The teens are so naturally dramatic in their emotional velocity and in the quicksilver development of their own intellectual, ethical and social identities. Finding really well written material about teenagers for teens is hard. I think this is partially because teens can spot a phony a mile away, they will know if they are being talked down to or patronized.
Tell us more about your student, Gabriel Jason Dean. His new play, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño which will have a concert performance at DCT on Feb. 18 has received lots of attention and accolades. Why do you think it is doing so well?
Gabriel is a fascinating writer who did not come to UT to write theater for youth plays but has found himself attracted to young characters in many of his plays. Doodle, as we affectionately call The Transition of Doodle Pequeño, is the play that has taught him so much about young audiences, young characters and the great potential of this field. Many of his other plays deal with very adult subjects, addiction, abuse, murder and all kinds of mayhem. But even in some of these very adult pieces there is often a young character who provides a moral compass and a still point of sanity and of reason. This very week Gabriel is opening another play in Austin, one that he has both written and directed. Bacha Bazi (Boy Play) is about young boys in Afghanistan who dress in women's clothing and dance for gatherings of older men. After the dance they are auctioned off as sexual slaves. Although these plays are totally different, Gabriel's care and concern for children in a violent world is a driving force in his work.
As you can see Gabriel is not afraid to take on topics that are considered provocative by some and taboo by others. But he is also absolutely committed to "getting it right" through re-write after re-write, after re-write. Gabriel's plays find no easy answers, they seek to find humanity even in the most monstrous of characters, they find hope in the darkest themes. They do not diminish the moral and sociological complexities of the world we live in. It takes that integrity and industry and almost heroic hard work, to elevate what could become exploitation into art.
What do you encourage student playwrights to consider if they’re interested in writing for young audiences?
Bring your best game. My friend and colleague, Steven Dietz says "Writing for young people is just like writing for adults, except it's harder!" and I agree. My advice is to learn your craft, find great collaborators, embrace the depth of your material, the intelligence of your audience, and work harder than you ever thought you'd have to work to get it right! Writing for and about young people can truly be life changing, for them and for you!
What are you looking forward to achieving by participating in DCT’s Teen Scene Summit on Feb. 18?
I have such respect for Robyn and for all she has built here in Dallas. I was a student of her father, Paul Baker, and from him I learned so much about how art is made and how all of our abilities are truly integrated into the creative act. But from Robyn and her theater I learned about how to galvanize a community to build something important and wonderful. I look forward to seeing the shows and hearing the speakers and leaning once again from people I admire and respect.
Here's a video from Dallas Children's Theater, with interviews with the cast of The Secret Life of Girls: