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How Theatre for Young Audiences Is Maturing

Date: Oct 10, 2014

Two new immersive shows at the Park Avenue Armory appeal to grown-ups as much as children


I've been taking my nine-year-old to stage shows since before she could talk. (Access to quality theatre is one of the perks that justify the cost of raising kids in New York City!) While she's a pretty forgiving critic, for my own sake, I try to find family shows that actually engage adults as much as children---after all, I'm a member of the family, too. Over the years, we've spent a lot of time at the New Victory Theater, which presents innovative shows for young audiences from all over the world. It's there that I met Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, the New Vic's associate director of artistic programming, who also happens to run his very own theatre company for young audiences, Trusty Sidekick. From October 13 to 26, the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company is mounting a pair of interactive, site-specific works at the Park Avenue Armory that make traditional family theatre look like child's play. Shmidt Chapman took time out from his two jobs to chat about the shows, and the remarkable evolution of theatre for young audiences over the past decade.

Raven Snook: How did you become interested in family theatre?

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: I've always been interested in the intersection between art and young people, figuring out how to merge the two worlds. I got my BA in English literature and theatre at Boston University. Initially, I imagined teaching young people theatre techniques, or using theatre as a tool for social change. I didn't think theatre for young audiences could be innovative and imaginative and exciting because I had never experienced that myself.

Raven: Did you go to a lot of theatre as a kid?

Jonathan: Absolutely. I grew up on Long Island and my parents took me to a ton of stuff, but mostly "adult" professional theatre in NYC. Once in a while they took me to local children's theatre, these tiny places that were doing like Charlotte's Web in an attic. I remember having conversations with my parents about that being so different than the other kinds of theatre we had seen together. Already I was noticing a difference in quality between what was being done for adults and what was being presented to kids.

Raven: Is there a particular show you saw as a child that inspired your lifelong love of theatre?

Jonathan: When I was about four or five, my parents took me to see Mummenschanz. I was blown away by the visuals and even though I didn't quite know what I was watching, I felt myself leaning forward.

Raven: I saw Mummenschanz as a young kid, too, I also remember it vividly. It was so inventive and playful. I think it's telling they're still around. In fact, they're coming back to NYC this fall.

Jonathan: That's right! That show really expanded my definition of theatre. So after college, I came to New York City to do my master's in educational theatre at NYU and start my original job at the New Victory Theater as an education programs associate. That's when I became fascinated by the divide between what was going on abroad and what was happening in the U.S. in terms of theatre for young audiences. The real turning point for me was when the New Vic presented a Scottish Festival in 2009. Tony Reekie, the founder of an organization called Imaginate [which promotes and develops performing arts for children, and runs an annual festival], spoke about how he and his colleagues had helped change Scottish theatre for young audiences over the past 10 years. I was so impressed with the clarity and intelligence he brought to looking at the field, and the practices Imaginate put in place for artists, giving them time and space to work on projects. It's a really cool model and made me wonder, why isn't this happening here? Why aren't there more companies in NYC creating work for young audiences? In a city with so much theatrical innovation and so much range, it's a shame that there aren't more companies making work for young audiences that are experimental.

Raven: I've wondered that for a long time, too. I also wonder why lauded NYC theatres like the Public and Playwrights Horizons don't reserve at least one slot per season for a family show.

Jonathan: I think there are two main reasons. There's a common misconception that family work doesn't belong in the same category as theatre that lives up to, let's say, the Public's aesthetic. But I also think it's a marketing and branding challenge. Theatres with adult subscribers are nervous about expanding that brand to include families. Peter and the Starcatcher is a really good example. When it was at New York Theatre Workshop, it attracted a lot of families. But I remember being in the lobby and overhearing an adult subscriber saying in a frustrated tone, "I didn't know that this was a kids' show. Why are there kids here?"

Raven: As if that made the show less than somehow.

Jonathan: Exactly. I found it fascinating that when Peter and the Starcatcher made a commercial transfer, the tagline on the posters said "a grownup prequel to Peter Pan." The producers wanted to reiterate that it was not just for kids.

Raven: It seems to me that there's a lot more crossover between adult theatre and family theatre in Europe and Australia. There isn't such a stigma attached to work for children.

Jonathan: There's definitely more fluidity. Take London's National Theatre: They can do the highest art for adults and then a few years ago they created this brilliant adaptation of The Cat and the Hat---that all happens under the same roof. Some theatres in the U.S., like the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the People's Light & Theatre in Pennsylvania, are starting to think about how to include family programming in their seasons. And I think it's really encouraging that adult artists like The Civilians and Taylor Mac, who are both part of the New Victory's LabWorks Artist Residency Program, are creating their first shows for kids. I was really excited when Moisés Kaufman created Puss and Boots with the Gotham Chamber Opera, and Tony Kushner and the late Maurice Sendak collaborated on Brundibar. We just need to make sure these are more than one-offs. Artists need to start making work for young audiences part of their practice.

Raven: Let's get back to your career. How did the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company start?

Jonathan: After the Scottish Festival, I started thinking about how I could produce and direct theatre for young audiences in my free time outside of my work at the New Vic. A bunch of likeminded friends and I decided that, instead of renting an expensive off-Off Broadway theatre, we would build relationships with organizations that might be interested in hosting us. Our first residency was at the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement where we created a puppetry-based folk tale called The Little One and the Sea of Letters based on the stories of immigrants who had lived in that Lower East Side neighborhood. And that became our trajectory: Finding organizations with inspiring spaces where we could create site-specific work like Governors Island, the Old Stone House and now the Park Avenue Armory. I feel like the biggest issue in theatre for young audiences is lack of range. There's a lot of one kind of thing happening. Trusty Sidekick provides alternative shows that experiment with the relationship between audiences and performers, and use techniques from downtown fringe theatre. So kids can experience something besides a musical or a book adaptation or traditional proscenium-based theatre.

Raven: And that's a perfect segue to talk about the two shows Trusty Sidekick is mounting at the Park Avenue Armory this month! One, The Haunting of Ichabod Crane, co-written and co-directed by you and Max Dana, was previously done at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, correct?

Jonathan: Yes, but we actually rewrote Ichabod to be site-specific to the Armory. We re-imagine Ichabod as a Revolutionary War soldier who kills the Headless Horsemen in battle, and then that ghost follows him to Sleepy Hollow. At the Old Stone House, we based the story around the Battle of Brooklyn, but when we started doing research on the Armory, we discovered that it stands on land that was used for a British encampment during the Revolution War, which was kind of mind-blowing. [Continental Army soldier] Nathan Hale was hanged just a stone's throw from the Armory. So we reworked the show to include some of that history. It's done like a séance. The idea is that Ichabod is haunting the Armory and that a group of ghost hunters need to tell his story to settle his spirit.

As for The 7 1/2 Mysteries of Toulouse McLane, which is written and directed by Trusty Sidekick associate artistic director Drew Petersen, we wanted to activate the Armory space in a way that made audiences feel like they were walking through a dream or a memory of a character. We were really inspired by the real-life story of Mary Divver, a girl who was adopted by the Armory's Seventh Regiment after her father died. Drew based the character of Toulouse around her. It's a beautiful meditation on losing someone you love, specifically losing a parent as a child, and what happens when you first start wondering about death. The performance feels more like an experience than a play because you walk through it. You decide which characters to follow and listen to, and then you put those fragments together. It's all about free choice.

Raven: I took my then-eight-year-old to the workshop you did of Toulouse last year and we loved that you could explore different rooms with different characters. Everyone's journey is unique.

Jonathan: Yes. We're trying to make theatre that is smart and sophisticated. Ichabod uses a lot of the original Washington Irving text from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I think we often underestimate kids in terms of what we present to them and what we think they can handle.

Raven: Absolutely. I've seen so many children's shows that feel dumbed-down and by the numbers with cheesy morals.

Jonathan: Like shows that teach your child about friendship and how to say no to bullies?

Raven: Yes, because my child doesn't know anything about friendship!

Jonathan: [laughs] That's something that frustrates me, too. I think any piece of theatre should come from an impulse from the artists who want audiences to see the world in a new way. Not, "I want to teach you about bullying so I'm going to write a show about bullying." Any show that starts from that place is going to be really hollow. Why would we want to present that to kids? Why do they have to be hit over the head with the moral?

Raven: I also think it's a shame that so many shows for children are adaptations of popular books or movies.

Jonathan: That's a problem in theatre as a whole: the struggle of a famous title versus unknown material. We need to train audiences---especially families---to understand that going to see something new in the theatre may be even more valuable than seeing an adaptation. Kids are always reading new books and seeing new movies. How do we encourage families to introduce their kids to new stage stories? That's the challenge.

Trusty Sidekick Theater Company's Park Avenue Armory shows are sold out, but you can keep up on what the troupe is up to on the website.

Raven Snook is TDF's associate editor of online content

Photo by Trusty Sidekick's The Haunting of Ichabod Crane by Nancy Krakaur