Writing for young audiences

Issue No: 126 Writing for young audiences is a specialised aspect of theatre making. While the sense of timing required to write good comedy is held up as one of the greatest challenges a writer can set themselves, writing for young audiences is even tougher, as one is far less likely to get away with sloppy dramaturgy. While adults might indulge a flaccid piece of theatre out of politeness, young audiences tend to be far less forgiving. At a recent workshop on writing for young audiences several of the challenges faced by playwrights made their way into discussions. I had a sense of deja vu in the process, since the issues that came up seemed to be truly evergreen. The same sets of preoccupations seem to circulate and recycle for every new batch of thinking people. Here I offer up a few of the debates of the process and some that never seem to go out of style.

The first and thankfully strongest impulse for writers was dissatisfaction with existing work. Many writers complained that plays written for young people did not reflect the lived reality of India. This problem is summed up as the Enid Blyton syndrome. Children growing up reading about scones, muffins and outings to Brighton Pier naturalise these realities. Power cuts, gully cricket, and plucking mangoes tend to be somewhat under represented in this fictional world. The more insidious aspects of this are when young people internalise existing social biases through the stories they read. When young people begin to believe that princesses must be fair skinned, or a certain community will always be the bad guys, we must begin to questions the stories we are surrounding young people with. Perhaps this is a malaise more apparent in narrative fiction and less apparent in dramatic wiring, but the issue remains nevertheless.

The second challenge was that playwrights complained of the sickly sweet narratives that dominate stories for young people. Arguably, the Disney corporation is the master and prime culprit of the story drenched in sugar syrup. In the enthusiasm to tell a story for young people, there is a tendency to strip it of anything objectionable. The result is often saccharine sweet narratives that vacillate between the suffocatingly moralising or the nauseatingly emancipatory. This is of course a cynical view. Fortunately, there were discussions on those stories for children’s that didn’t duck from darker elements. A fact that almost all good writers will admit to but few pedagogues will acknowledge, is that childhood is also about cruelty, nastiness, misery and hardship. (Just think Roald Dahl!) Narratives that sensitively engaged with these elements without fleeing for the cover of political correctness were highly valued, more so because of truthful engagement with a subject. While everyone would like very much for their children’s shows to be their popular “cash cows” this results in writers shying away from taking creative risks, and remaining within “safe” topics. Saving the environment, familial relationships and being nice to each other were easy wins, while politics was a big no-no.

So then what is the guiding framework we subscribe to anyway, in this thing called theatre for young audiences? There are many systems and philosophies that explicitly engage with young people. Some of these like the GRIPS theatre emerged out of counter-culture movements in 60s in Europe. Other systems derive from reform movements within education such as those based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, or what is called Waldorf education. Closer home the role of Krishnamurthi and Aurobindo educational philosophies have a role on the way we envision the values we put into theatre for young people, not only in terms of the content, but the process of making it. At this point one might envision various dreamy hippie-communes introducing young people to the joys of egalitarian existence and bohemian bonhomie. However the bubble-burst when it came to the role of technology in young people’s lives. While engagement with all-pervasive technology was a lived concern for everybody, there was a shy reticence on the part of the pedagogues in active engagement with this problem. Most critiques were couched in a vague notion of putting people before machines, and adopted a vague disapproval of technologies that were radically altering the way young people made sense of the world, and their relationships. But nothing much more. No surprise when one is trying to deploy flower-power philosophy in the age of AI.

There were also some other thematic questions that consistently remained. Who are the role models for young people today? Invariably the list has a few pop stars, sports icons and the occasional social activist. A surprising new addition to these lists over the past few years has been the technopreneur. Another evergreen topic is about value systems. What good values should we inculcate in young people through the theatre? Here too it was gender that dominated the conversation, but that didn’t seem to proportionately reflect in the work out there. At some point in the conversation I came across a curious dichotomy, that while playwrights were extremely glib in their conversations around caste and identity politics in India, there was an odd disconnect with the topics that they were actually working on – many of which remained “safe”. I became puzzled by this double-speak and this led me to thinking about writing for young people from a guiding principle that has not let me down yet.

So much for writing for young audiences makes them the “object” of the play,  the thing that one is trying to enfold within the dramatic experience. While there is a lot to be said about this from the developmental psychology standpoint, the fact is that young people are smarter than you, and as a result expect you to up your game when engaging them in the theatre. The quicker one gets to the realisation that young audiences are the thinking and feeling subject of the play and the experience, the better!

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