Finding Equal Ground:

The Marginalization of TYA in a University Setting

Suzan Zeder, revolutionary USA Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) playwright, wrote a call to action in an article for the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. She inspires artists to create and produce meaningful TYA for today’s challenging times:

In these desperately dangerous times for families in war torn countries where genocide and cultural suicide are in evidence throughout the world, where are our writers of outrage? Even if there was a flinty-eyed young writer burning with that ember of anger and arrogance, and if this rabble-rouser wrote a play of heartbreaking emotional velocity, deep social significance with a plot you can ride like a stallion . . . would anybody produce it?


A university setting is the perfect venue to produce thoughtful plays that have “deep social significance.” If educators seek to create the next generation of theatre artists and theatre-goers, it is their duty to give productions the full value they deserve.

At the close of the spring 2013 semester, students in the University of Northern Colorado’s (UNC) TYA class revealed their experiences of touring a TYA play. Most students reported that their TYA experience was the most meaningful of their college career, but they also were disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm and support from the School of Theatre and Dance for the TYA production:

It was interesting to see how my fellow students responded to Frog and Toad. When people did finally see the show, they were blown away by how good it was. People really didn’t expect it to be anything good – they didn’t expect us to have worked just as hard on this as people do for other productions, because it was a “children’s show.” They expected it to be dumbed down, the script to be bad, the music to be simple. Many people did not even see the show, because it was an “outside production,” despite the fact that it was wholeheartedly supported through the university. (Honold)

The students reflected the frustration that the theatre education professors experienced for several years. Despite creating quality productions year after year, why was TYA always seen as a secondary form of theatre in this university program? Together, the professors wondered: Does being involved in a TYA production shift undergraduate students’ perceptions about TYA? When a TYA play receives full, equal production values, do undergraduate college students see it on equal grounding to theatre for adults?

In the Spring of 2014, two professors, Gillian McNally and Dr. Mary Schuttler, used the production of Steven Dietz’s play, Jackie and Me, as a case study to explore how students’ perceptions of TYA changed as a result of being a part of a production. Schuttler served as the director of the production and McNally served as the school engagement coordinator. Undergraduate students from UNC were asked to fill out questionnaires before and after their experience of working on Jackie and Me to measure their perceptions of TYA.

Each year the TYA production takes on the role of second-class status in the School of Theatre Arts and Dance. TYA productions are frequently not listed in promotional materials or technical schedules. Productions are often performed in locations other than the mainstage theatre spaces, and therefore are seen as “outside productions” that most students do not attend. Budgets for TYA productions are a fraction of mainstage productions and are often given designers with little to no previous experience. TYA productions are often scheduled on top of an already busy production calendar, and rarely ever receive the full sense of production support given to mainstage productions. McNally and Schuttler wanted to change this troublesome history.

They advocated for the production of Jackie and Me to be produced on the mainstage. Jackie and Me follows the character of Joey, as he travels back in time to learn about Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in major league baseball in the US. This was the first time that a TYA production had its own fully realized mainstage performance for at least the last twenty-six years at UNC. Schuttler secured the prestigious Schultz Speaker Series funding, which allowed for the well-known playwright, Steven Dietz to be a guest artist at UNC. The curiosity was to see if having a mainstage slot, a prestigious playwright, and fully funded production values changed the perception of TYA in the School of Theatre Arts and Dance.

The marginalization of TYA at UNC is by no means unique. TYA professionals in academic and professional settings experience this kind of second-class status constantly. In the world of theatre, what is it that makes adult theatre privileged and TYA a second-class citizen? Perhaps it is the very nature of the fact that TYA artists work with and for youth. Kyriaki Messiou, author of Confronting Marginalisation in Education, quotes UNESCO’s “Education for All” report that argues, “in all countries, . . . there are individuals and groups that experience extreme and persistent disadvantage in education. . . . although defining marginalisation is difficult, most people would accept that it encompasses quantitative deprivation, as measured by years in school or the level of education attained” (10). If TYA artists serve an audience of young people who have less education, could this help explain why our theatre is perceived as less important?

Because of the youthful age of audience members in TYA productions, some restrictions are enforced when selecting productions, e.g. no swear words or nudity are allowed. Many assume that because of these restrictions, TYA literature is simple and less sophisticated than a play intended for adults. In a survey conducted on January 21, 2014, students clearly had these perceptions when they were asked to describe TYA. Their thoughts included: “dumbing down” and “seeing a production that is complex may be boring or too confusing to sit through [for students].”

While there may be some basic restrictions on play selection in TYA, the stories can be very complex. For example, excellent TYA plays such as The Yellow Boat, by David Saar, examine topics including death, AIDS, and isolation. Suzan Zeder’s plays examine complicated family dynamics such as divorce and stepparents in Doors and Step on a Crack. Her plays do not give Disney-esque happy endings. Instead, Zeder acknowledges that families are complicated and hard working, and her well-developed characters are loving, but often flawed. The goal in choosing Jackie and Me was to help college students know that TYA can delve into complex topics such as racism.

Pre-show Analysis

In order to understand students’ perception of TYA, a survey was administered at the beginning and end of their experience with Jackie and Me. The pre-show survey shed light on their beliefs and experiences. 71% of students had only seen 0-2 TYA plays before Jackie and Me. Additionally, students were asked to rate their favorite genre of dramatic literature. On a scale of 1-5, one being the most favorable and five being the least favorable, TYA rated 3.7 among responders. When asked to share words or phrases that described TYA, the following responses were reported:

•          Fluffy

•          Cheesy[1]

•          Simple

•          Non-Threatening

•          Dumbing down

•          Story lines basic

•          Overacted

While many of the students stressed that they thought TYA was an important art form, it was clear that many of them did not have much experience with TYA overall, or that they did not have a positive perception of the art form.

Six of the undergraduate students involved in the study participated in a Theatre for Young Audiences course over the semester. In this class, mostly composed of education majors, students learned the history of TYA in the U.S., read several thought provoking TYA plays, created a study guide and led pre- and post-show workshops for students. In the survey, these students generally had more experience with TYA plays and had a more positive perception of TYA than the cast of Jackie and Me. The students were surprised that TYA tackled serious social issues in such a complex way. Many assumed that the plays would only include over-the-top style fairy tales.

After pre-show workshops, the TYA students were proud of their ability to handle complex dialogues exploring the difficult topic of race. They saw first hand how a play could inspire and encourage young people to think deeply about social issue themes. Through role-play, elementary students explored characters that defended and spoke up against racism. The college students were impressed with the young people’s ability to play these roles fully and to take thoughtful stances for and against racism. Elementary students also openly reflected their concerns about racism in both the past and present in the U.S.

Post-show Analysis

The post-show surveys revealed a clear change in perception. On a scale of 1-5, one being the most favorable and five being the least favorable, TYA was now rated 2.6 among responders. When asked to share words or phrases that described TYA, the following responses were reported:

  • Exciting
  • Enjoyable
  • Honest
  • Meaningful

“Simple” showed up only twice this time, and “overacted” only once. The six students from the TYA course, as well as the twelve actors/technicians who completed the survey, gave similar responses. This was encouraging since the actors/technicians did not have the benefit of learning “first hand how a play could inspire and encourage young people to think deeply about social issue themes,” as McNally’s TYA class did. Almost more importantly, they felt the power that TYA has over an audience.

The essential questions that guided the director’s analysis of the production were: Was this similar or different to working on plays for adults? How? Were the essential resources provided in a timely manner? How did the students respond to the work? What thoughts did the cast and crew express after the shows with a young audience? Were there any significant moments of discovery for the actors/crew? 

Surprisingly, the experience directing Jackie and Me at UNC was similar to directing a play for an adult audience. Why was this the case? Did it have to do with the fact that the playwright was coming to campus, that the show was in a mainstage slot, that Professor McNally runs a tight ship with the TYA school workshops and performances, and/or with the fact that Professor Schuttler directed the production and there were students who expressed an interest in working with her? These many factors cannot be ignored.

First off, the Schultz Speaker Series funded the playwright’s visit. Steven Dietz is a UNC alumnus, who was honored many years earlier as a prestigious Alumnus of the Year. The current faculty and students were eager to meet him, and knew before auditions that he would attend a performance of the show.

Additionally, this was the first time that the TYA production was part of the University mainstage season. McNally has a strong reputation of producing quality TYA productions, yet they had never been included in the mainstage schedule. The TYA shows traditionally either tour to local and Denver area schools, or local groups attend student performances on the UNC campus. For this season, the Director of the School was convinced to produce Jackie and Me on mainstage, and this will most likely not be the last time.

Also, two faculty designers were assigned to this production, and their dedication was strong.  Prior to the rehearsal of Jackie and Me, a wonderful thing happened. McNally ran into the faculty costume designer, Patty Cleary. Over the years, McNally expressed her frustrations to Cleary concerning how the TYA show was treated as inferior, and that equal production values should be considered for adult and TYA projects. Cleary said that she thought about this as she designed Jackie and Me. In every decision she made in her process, she thought: Am I giving this the same amount of energy as I would any show? And, ultimately, she did. All production elements were delivered on time, and were discussed with Schuttler as they would have been in any traditional mainstage offering.

Last, but not least, in the 2013-14 academic season, Jackie and Me generated the same revenue and the fall mainstage and more revenue than the three other (non-musical) mainstage shows. Sadly, however, this production did share some detrimental elements that the traditional mainstage shows must endure at UNC, such as the late production of posters and programs. Other than negative factors, Jackie and Me was not treated differently from other mainstream mainstage shows for the reasons stated above, as well as for the following:

  • Because TYA is addressed in the new U.S. and Colorado Standards.
  • Because, as the playwright Steven Dietz shared with the UNC faculty and students, this is “family theatre,” which speaks to a larger audience than traditional TYA offerings; and,
  • Because TYA continues to become more nationally and internationally recognized and valued.

Yet the question still remains: Will TYA shows be given this same treatment when they are not part of the mainstage season? The hope is, now that many significant barriers have been broken, future touring TYA shows at UNC will receive the same respect as Jackie and Me.

Most importantly, the TYA experience had an everlasting effect on the production’s participants. In the post-show survey, in some aspect, all students responded favorably. There were revelations and discoveries that the actors and crew did not expect:

  • TYA is extremely necessary to encourage creativity and critical thinking in young audiences and even adults. TYA provides opportunities for families to connect through this wonderful art form.
  • Initially, my perceptions of TYA are that this style of theatre is ‘cute’ and simple, and doesn’t offer complex human relationships with conflicts and struggles that end in a multitude of possible outcomes. However, after acting in a TYA show, I realize that my perceptions are more of a stereotype of children’s entertainment. What I see now as Theatre for Young Audiences is a more direct way of communicating ones [sic] wants and clearly identifying the obstacles that stand in their way, as opposed to more elusive and complex adult drama.
  • TYA is amazing and should not be looked down upon.
  • My perceptions of TYA now are soooo different. TYA is amazing and it almost speaks to the adult audiences more. Performing it for children was amazing because they absorb and remember things you would never think.

Directing Jackie and Me was extremely positive, and may be Professor Schuttler’s most rewarding experience at UNC in twenty years. And as this study shows, the faculty and students have experienced the meaningful message of TYA and have grown to respect the art form. As Jackie Robinson said: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” The impact of TYA is truly the same. This production’s journey has changed the perception of the faculty and students at UNC.


Professor of Theatre Arts, Dr. Mary Schuttler, is in her twentieth year as director

Untitledof the BA and MA Theatre Education programs at the University of Northern Colorado. She recently co-chaired the National Theatre Standards Committee, chaired the Colorado Department of Education Theatre Standards Committee, is a board member of the Colorado Thespian Society, and has served as President of the Educational Theatre Association. She received the 2001 Higher Education Theatre Educator of the Year from the Alliance for Colorado Theatre, and was inducted into the Educational Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame in 2005. 


Gillian headshots Final #37Gillian McNally is the Associate Professor for Theatre Education and Head of Community Engagement and Programs for Youth at the University of Northern Colorado where she teaches pre and in-service teachers. In 2014, she served as the Conference Chair of the AATE national conference. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin.




Works Cited

Honold, Jackie. Personal Interview. 29 January 2014.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. Myra Bergman

Ramos, trans. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. Print.

Messiou, Kyriaki. Confronting Marginalisation in Education: A Framework for

            Promoting Inclusion. London and New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Spring, Joel. Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom,

            and Culture from Socrates to Human Rights. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge,

2007. Print.

Zeder, Susan. “On My Mind: Of Young Turks and Old Farts.” Children’s Theatre

            Foundation of America – CTFA. Children’s Theatre Foundation of America,

2013. Web. 11 April 2014. <


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