ARCHIVE - Tough Car Talks: A Lesson in Intergenerational Audience Engagement (12-12-14)

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Some post-show discussions happen in our theatre spaces, facilitated by a dramaturg or education staff member. But sometimes the most meaningful post-show discussions are the ones we don’t facilitate: the ones that take place in parking lots, in car rides home, or while waiting for the bus. Some recent post-show conversations make me think differently about what it means to engage with and listen to the intergenerational audiences in TYA.

In the days leading up to the official opening night of a show I recently dramaturged, our first audiences were groups of elementary students and teachers. Following these performances, we received some surprising feedback: some educators expressed concern about the frequent use of the word “stupid” and the amount of physical and verbal conflict in the play. Initially, I was baffled. “Too much conflict?” I thought. “They do know this is theatre, right? Why don’t they get it?” I immediately wanted to defend the script, the production, and the team of actors and artists who had worked so hard to bring it to life. They were missing the point of this beautiful story by focusing on the word “stupid.” How could I make them see what I saw?

Fast-forward a few months later to after a performance of Perth Theatre Company’s The Adventure ofAlvin Sputnik. I had already seen the show in another city, but didn’t want to miss a chance to experience it again. This time I got to go with one of my favorite seven-year-olds, the daughter of a colleague. In addition to its strong message about protecting the environment, love and loss are at the heart of this production as Alvin searches for his wife in the depths of what used to be planet Earth.

In the car after the show, my seven-year-old theatre buddy asked me about Alvin’s wife. “Where did she go?

“Well, Alvin’s wife died. Remember the little light? It went out at the end.”

“Yeah, but where did she go after she died?”

After a tongue-tied moment of silence that seemed to last forever, I finally said something like, “Well, there are lots of possibilities. You get to decide where you think she went. What do you think?”

“I want to know what YOU think. Where do people go when they die?”

My young friend was not letting me off the hook. My tried and true teacher tactic of sending the question back her way had failed. I couldn’t believe how much I struggled in this conversation. It’s not that I didn’t want to tell her what I believed, it was that I didn’t really have the whole after-life situation figured out for myself. I didn’t know how to talk about it, so I clumsily found some words to describe what I thought. The dialogue continued for a bit, but I was all too grateful for the eventual shift in topic to the ice cream waiting for us in our immediate future.

The tongue-tied feelings that came with this conversation about the after-life after AlvinSputnik reminded me of the concerned educator feedback about the other production from a few months earlier. Here I was: a dramaturg and teaching artist all excited and passionate about theatre’s capacity to stimulate these necessary, challenging conversations, without thinking about what that really meant. I am not a parent, nor a full-time educator. I realized that I wasn’t genuinely listening to their concerns. I wasn’t open to it. I wanted them to see what I saw in this play. Unless we made a change, I was going to miss what they were bringing to the table. It was time to practice those key words of exchange, listening and engagement that I was so excited about.

We did make a change. The concerned response to the language and conflict came up on the day of the public opening of the show. The theatre staff, the play’s director and I decided to try a small shift in the post-show talk back to see if it might alleviate some of the adult concern in the room. In the talkback facilitation, the actors model examples of questions the audience could ask of the actors who remain in character. Now, these examples directly questioned the moment of physical fighting, and the language including the word “stupid.” This change had a dual purpose: to acknowledge the conflict in the play, and to model ways of opening up conversations with young people about the verbal and physical conflict in the play.

In many discourses across the TYA field, parents, caregivers and educators are often lumped together as the “gatekeepers.” The adults hold the power and the money to either connects us with or block us from our young audiences. But TYA is not only for youth. While it is created with young people in mind, the fact is that adults are in the house too. If we want to create pieces that truly engage an intergenerational audience, then we have to figure out a productive way to have these difficult conversations – with young people AND with adults. While I believe TYA companies have a responsibility to produce plays that tackle challenging subjects, the flip side of this is a responsibility to our intergenerational audiences as they engage with the content and talk to each other about it afterwards.

Artists and audiences have a lot to learn from each other. A productive exchange of learning starts from assuming the best in each other. Let’s see the adults in our audiences as more than gatekeepers. Let’s show our audience members of all ages that we are listening to their questions, their concerns and anticipating their needs. Let’s open up the conversation, even if it means we might receive surprising feedback.

Let’s surprise each other.


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Meredyth Pederson is an MFA candidate in the Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program at UT Austin. She has a B.A. in theatre from American University. Her thesis project on community-engaged dramaturgy brings adult theatre artists and young people together to create new work.

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