“As soon as I started to think of ‘education’ as a sort of mini production or event, as a way to widen the child’s experience, I started to really like it” 
- Moniek Merkx (2007)

In the United States, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) productions, audience education often connects to two principles: 1) children’s comprehension of the play’s narrative and themes, and 2) clear connections to mandatory education standards. Together, these principles enable both TYA companies and teachers to link pre- and post-performance activities to the curriculum and help justify theatre in an increasingly crunched school day. While professional TYA companies in the United States must comply with these unwritten, yet ubiquitous requirements given their reliance on school audiences for a large percentage of ticket sales and grants funding, university TYA programs have more freedom to experiment with the content, form, and style of the productions they offer. This freedom also provides opportunities for experimentation with audience education that so often accompanies production for young audiences. Given our interest in dialogue about experiments in theatre for youth, we approached this essay as sampling of our experiments in audience education focused on issues of adaptation with two recent productions: Falling Girls by Moniek Merkx and Pedro and the War Cantata based on the original play by María Inés Falconi. These plays, US premieres of international works that are fundamentally different in form, style, and content from more conventional US plays for young people, opened a space to innovate with audience education around issues of cultural translation.

As part of our artistic values at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), our annual Theatre for Young Audiences productions regularly include strong international and multicultural influences.  Historically, many of our productions serve as US premieres of original adaptations from countries like Australia, The Netherlands, Argentina, and beyond. These plays often resist “realistic fantasy” and leave room for experimenting with content, form, style, cultural representation, and target age groups. While we regularly experimented with form and aesthetics in productions, our audience education followed more dominant models: written study guides tied to school curricula, pre-show assemblies to prepare audience for live theatre, and post-show workshops that helped audiences make sense of the play. However, in the late 2000s, we started to think more critically about these education components and how we might similarly innovate with how we taught about our productions. Taking Merkx’s above quote as inspiration we prioritized audience engagement that was just as experimental and exciting as the performances themselves. Both productions discussed here afforded us opportunities for collaboration, innovation, and risk in regards to challenging dominant understandings of what plays for young audiences should look like and how audience education might support these goals.

Falling Girls   

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Falling Girls by Dutch playwright Moniek Merkx, our first production for very young audiences between 3-7 years old, takes place in the desert and follows three girls’ adventures in a series of short, non-linear vignettes. The play is a fantastic journey of imagination and creativity, with sounds, songs, creative movement, and drawings. Our first experiment with theatre for the very young afforded our designers and performers opportunities to experiment with design and physicality. Simultaneously, the non-linear narrative and fantastical style made traditional education materials an imperfect fit since explicitly teaching about production themes would undermine opportunities for our young audiences to interpret the story on their own terms. Thus, instead of preparing audiences for a trip to the theatre, we simply engaged them in performance workshops that mimicked much of the process-oriented rehearsal process. We wanted the young audience members to move like colors, explore the space, and engage in play—much like the show’s actors.

We also played with traditional expectations of the theatrical experience and developed new ideas about how to incorporate opportunities for the audience to more fully engage with the production. These ideas manifested into a performative sensory journey into the theatre, blurring lines that might define the performance’s beginning and end. As audiences entered the theatre space, they entered into a promenade-style sensory journey. They ventured through a cloth tunnel, practiced making shadows in front of giant floodlights, and continued down a hallway lined with different materials they were encouraged to touch.  They danced at our “Hamster Disco,” a dance party with swirling lights, thumping music, glow-in-the-dark-stars, and giant video projections of dancing hamsters on the walls. After the disco dance party, audiences climbed the theatre stairs and slid into the theatre space on a giant wavy slide. The theatre space was truly magical, with spinning mirror balls and a giant vertical set reminiscent of a jungle gym, and giant, cozy, sand-color faux-fur pillows into which our groups snuggled down for the performance. Then, the show began with our Girls (the actors) emerging from the ceiling. Even for us adults, the result was quite exciting.

We originally prepared follow-up workshops in individual classes after the production. However after the first pre-school performance we encountered a crisis— the bus transporting our 4-year-old audience was extremely delayed. Faced with a theatre full of squirming, bored children, we decided to improvise the workshop with all sixty audience members on the spot. This quick solution was an excellent idea: After rolling out large sheets of drawing paper, the children drew their own planets, made their own stars, and creatively moved about the space as they mimicked the performers. After a few moments, the actors joined the group, and the children eagerly interacted with them.  Because of the open and intimate nature of Falling Girls, the young audiences offered their own impressions and ideas of the show through dramatic play and in their drawings. After the success of this impromptu workshop, we cancelled all follow-up school visits in favor of the immediate workshop after the performance.  This immediate post-show experience became a principle we maintained successfully for future productions.

Pedro and the War: A Cantata


We geared our 2012 production, a US premiere of María Inés Falconi’s Pedro and the War: A Cantata, towards audiences 8 years old and up. Consequently, audience engagement strategies took a much different approach than with Falling Girls. Pedro tells the story of a young boy living in a non-specific South American country ravaged by war. During the play, a bomb explodes in Pedro’s school, and he is trapped below ground under the rubble with an old man from his village. The intimate storytelling between Pedro and Don Jose, the old man, coupled with the play’s raw engagement with war’s impact on society’s most vulnerable members presented a challenge to us regarding our young audience. As artists and scholars working in Madison, Wisconsin in the United States, we are, by and large, very safe. Similarly, our young audiences have little knowledge and even less personal connection to the experiences of war. On the other hand, many have family members who are in the military and fighting in places far away from home. Given these realities, we made it our goal to help our young audiences, mostly students between ages eight and thirteen, find resonances with Pedro and his story without forcing connections between two disparate cultures.

For this production, the Education Team (E-Team) traveled to the schools for pre-assemblies, working with groups of students to improvise around themes of the play: destruction and recovery, shelter, working together, loss.  However, these workshops included an extension activity bridging the pre-show assembly and the production. We presented each class with a box of “found” objects (textiles from the costume shop, leftovers from the scene shop, art materials, etcetera) with which they created and named a sculpture with members of their class. We then displayed these sculptures in the theatre lobby during the run of the production and included pictures of the students coming together to generate this artistic symbol of their unique community.

This focus on united communities directly related to follow-up workshops after the show. For the post-show workshop, we wished to give audiences a sense of agency in exploring different acting perspectives related to the show. To accomplish this goal, we used Forum Theatre techniques. Immediately after the production’s curtain call, an education team facilitator entered the stage and reintroduced our actors as the characters from show. The actors physically transformed, returning to their in-role selves, and we facilitated a question-and-answer session with the performers. This in-role Q&A set the interactive and engaged tone for the rest of our post-show activities. We started with issues from the play we felt might be more resonant across cultures. We discussed how young people deal with bullying by recreating a scene in the play in which Pedro bullied his classmate, Lucia, by pulling her ponytail, and our audiences watched the actors attempt solutions to help Lucia deal with Pedro’s taunting. Regularly, our audiences also pointed out Pedro’s motivation for teasing: he might have liked Lucia or might have wanted extra attention from the teacher.

We also explored issues of power in child/adult relationships, with our young audiences expressing deep empathy with Pedro’s experiences having his mother accuse him of lying about what happened to him after the bomb fell on his school. Repeatedly, our young audiences expressed exasperation and feelings of disempowerment at trying to convince adults to believe them— a theme that resonated with the adults involved with the production as well. Throughout all of our facilitated scenes, we drew from the audience’s ideas and encouraged them to come on stage and try out solutions. The result was a synergistic, exciting exchange between characters, actors, facilitators, and our audience, and this dialogue helped our young audiences connect their life experiences to those of children, like Pedro, in different locations, time periods, and economic circumstances.



Through these experiments with Falling Girls and Pedro and the War: A Cantata, we realized that focusing on the unique and inspiring qualities of the production and its cultural context helped us resist tendencies to treat audience education as didactic instruments in service of learning standards and explicit curricular connections.  Although many artists make the valid argument that the full theatrical experience can be contained to the production itself and that pre-or post-performance education is steering and unnecessary, we hope our experiences demonstrate a few tactics that marry the educational and aesthetic dimensions of TYA productions in ways that honors the circumstances— and the need for audience education— within which so many of us create performance. Our encounters working with young audience members and their teachers show that with the right approach, even the most unfamiliar and unusual plays can be made into an aesthetically rich and holistically educational experience for children.




Manon van de Water is the Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Chair of ITYARN, the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network, the Research Network of Assitej.


mary mcavoy 2014

Mary McAvoy is an assistant professor of Theatre Education and Theatre for Youth at Arizona State University. She is the AATE 2012 Winifred Ward Scholar and 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award recipient. Her articles have appeared in Youth Theatre Journal, AATE’s Incite/Insight, and the Journal of American Drama and Theatre, and her co-authored book, Drama Methods for Teaching and Learning, is forthcoming from Routledge Press.

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