Posts tagged #Theatre for Young Audiences

A magical moment of empathy: Inside Out & Back Again

Krystle Piamonte, who plays lead character Hà in the current production of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, recently shared this story on social media, and it was so sweet I just had to include it in my blog:

IMG_5473.JPG

"Today after our first matinee performance, I received the most precious note/gift from one of our littlest audience members. A mom and daughter duo came to see INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and handed this to me after the show. The mom said her daughter felt bad that I was having a rough day (I cry about 3x in this play) and that she wanted to write me a note to make me feel better. She also included this cute lollipop. I’m overwhelmed by this little girl’s empathy and kindness. It’s these kinds of interactions that remind me why theatre is a powerful way to connect to our humanity. Thank you, little girl. You made my heart so full today."

My Year in Review!

A shorter version of this year-in-review was e-mailed to my Newsletter recipients earlier this week. I can often be hard on myself, focusing only on what else I need to achieve, and staring at task lists and check boxes in order to feel like I'm getting somewhere. I can feel like I'm falling behind or failing or not doing enough. So these kinds of reviews help me see the things that I have accomplished, and remind me to take a moment and be proud of my work.

--

I want to start by acknowledging that for many of my friends and colleagues, 2017 has been a very difficult year. I know too many people who have felt the ripple effects of political policies that seem to strengthen messages of hate and bigotry, rather than freedom and diversity. Additionally, there seems to have been an onslaught of natural disasters this year that continues to this day with the Southern California Fires.

Still, in the face of these trials and traumas, I have also seen amazing creative work flourish around me. I am honored to be part of a theatre community that is committed to being bold and unrelenting in its story- and truth-telling. 2017 has also yielded much fruit for me in my writing endeavors. Here's just a snapshot of highlights by month:

JANUARY
Bad Kitty On Stage! opens at TYKEs in Rochester, NY
Conducted in-class workshops for Story Explorers

FEBRUARY
World premiere of Story Explorers at Bay Area Children's Theatre

MARCH
Invited as a Guest Speaker at UC Berkeley to discuss Story Explorers
Helped out as a "Resume Doctor" at the Theatre Bay Area Conference

APRIL
Workshop of The Four Immigrants at Playwrights Foundation

MAY
World premiere of Step Up Crew begins touring Bay Area schools
Bad Kitty On Stage! opens at the Gifford Family Theatre in Syracuse, NY
Table Reading of Song of the Nightingale at Town Hall Theatre

JUNE
Rehearsals for The Four Immigrants begins at TheatreWorks

JULY
World premiere of The Four Immigrants at TheatreWorks - my first LORT Production

AUGUST
First Table Read of Inside Out & Back Again at Bay Area Children's Theatre

SEPTEMBER
The Song of the Nightingale opens at Town Hall Theatre

OCTOBER
Taught a "Song-aturgy" class at Musical Cafe

NOVEMBER
The Four Immigrants receives the Theatre Bay Area Award for Outstanding World Premiere Musical

DECEMBER
Workshop for Inside Out & Back Again at Bay Area Children's Theatre

Now onward to 2018!

 

 

Story Explorers: A Post-Production Reflection

When people would ask me prior to the opening of Story Explorers what creating theatre for autistic children looks like, I would lay out specific elements: emphasis on sensory experience, less reliance on verbal storytelling, more reliance on moments and patterns, inviting and non-constrictive seating, loose script and song structure that allows for interaction, etc. Now that the show has closed, I believe all of these elements can be encapsulated into two words: openness and flexibility.

Creating a theatre experience where autistic children and their families felt welcomed meant letting pre-conceived ideas about theatre get challenged and revised. It meant creating space for ticks, interruptions, outbursts; for runners, dancers, sing-alongers; for kids who loudly and unabashedly share their opinions about the show mid-performance. It meant making it easy for parents to exit the space if needed without feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching them. It meant structuring the show in such a way that if a moment really connected with a kid, we can linger there just a bit longer than rehearsed.

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

Me, as Clayton - who loves to play with clay and pretend it's different things!

In order to accomplish all of this, it was paramount that we assemble a team of actors who worked well with children, who could improvise and think on their toes, and who were open to a collaborative and often amorphous creative process. In short, we needed actors who were also teachers. Director Hannah Dworkin and I both decided early on that it made sense for us to be two of the performers, since the knowledge we had gained from the research and in-classroom workshops for the show seemed inextricable from the final performance. This didn't feel like a show to "hand-off" to actors. We found excellent collaborators in Anna Smith, André San-Chez, and Austin Zumbro, each of whom contributed ideas, talents and hard work to bring the show to fruition. We also had a ton of fun, playing and joking around along the way - another form of being open and flexible with each other!

Even though there was a script, we all understood that the show could change depending on the moment. If a child vocalized or spoke, we responded or repeated back what we heard. If a child seemed keen to help us perform part of the show, we invited them to the stage area and encouraged them to do so. If a child backed away from us, we respected their space and didn't insist on interaction.

One particularly memorable exchange I had was with a boy who made it very clear at the beginning of the show that he would provide his unfiltered commentary throughout. For example, of Sharky, the Story Shark, he declared "That's not a shark! That's a stuffed animal!" One of my tasks in Story Explorers was to float an inflatable astronaut around the room during our outer space sequence, asking kids to high-five it, which would result in a "Whoosh!" and the astronaut floating away. When I asked this boy to high-five the astronaut, he said, with a rather serious expression on his face, "I'd rather high-five one ounce of atmosphere." So, I pinched my fingers in the air, as if I had grabbed a speck of dust, and held my hand out to the boy. "Here," I said, "One ounce of atmosphere." I knew I had successfully made contact when a small smile crept onto his face. He high-fived my pinched fingers, and I released the ounce of atmosphere back into the... well, atmosphere.

This is just one of the many magical encounters we all experienced throughout the run. These moments would not exist if we were insistent on keeping the show running on one track every single time. Because the actors had practiced openness and flexibility with each other during rehearsals, everything flowed quite well when needing to practice it with our audiences. A visible transformation would occur where parents - who at the beginning of the show would be tense and concerned with monitoring their kid - would discover that they could relax a bit, and that their kid's behaviors were neither shocking nor disruptive in this theatrical space, but rather accepted and incorporated into the show experience. I think the cast (and our stage/house manager Chris!) would agree that performing Story Explorers often left us speechless and moved.

Of course, this does not mean that we got everything right. Being open includes the strong possibility of getting things wrong, which is why we are conducting post-show surveys and encouraging our audiences to get in touch with us and tell us what they thought about the show. We want to make sure that we stay connected to the community we're reaching out to, instead of simply patting ourselves on our backs without a second thought.

The journey of Story Explorers isn't over - we are looking at future opportunities for the work, possibly turning it into a local touring show. Personally, I want to carry what I've learned from the experience about openness and flexibility into my other work. As a writer (indeed, as a human being), I can fall into the trap of rigidity, whether it's having a narrow viewpoint or only wanting things to be executed my way. While there's something to be said for asserting oneself and one's boundaries, there is also great value in balancing that with an open spirit, one that can loosely grip instead of clutch; one that can have intense, critical dialogue without it turning into a fight about who's right. I also want to see my life as full of open possibilities rather than merely consisting of set tasks and goals. As Shades, one of the characters in Story Explorers, raucously tells us:

"Your life is your own story,
A story to explore,
Your life is your own story,
A story no one's ever heard before,
Now you can tell your story,
A story to explore,
Yeah, you can tell your story,
A story no one's ever heard before!"

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children’s Books

I was recently invited to write a blog post for the Theatre for Young Audiences Blog. Here is the text of the blog:

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children's Books

As a writer of musicals, I am often drawn to books or written stories for inspiration. My first show Tales of Olympus was based on Greek mythology, my second show The Song of the Nightingale used a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as its source material, and my last show was a musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. My next two projects also pull their inspiration from books. Books are the most appealing source material for me because, unlike visual media such as film, there isn’t already an idea of what the universe of the story should look like. Even though vivid illustrations might accompany certain written stories, for me they serve primarily as a starting point for what a theatrical adaptation of that work could look like.

Looking at the season line-ups of many non-profit TYA companies in America, it is clear that books and written stories are the source of most of the work that we produce. This makes sense because our audiences often want to see something that is familiar, even beloved, on our stages. And yet, oddly enough, this is part of the problem we face as theatres trying to embrace multiculturalism. Earlier this year, I heard a KQED Forum discussion on the topic of diversity in children’s books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that of the 3200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 6% featured a character of color. Read that again: 6%. This does not reflect the diversity of America. This means that books from which TYA companies want to create new works skew towards the ethnic majority in our culture. If only 6% of children’s books feature characters of color, then that percentage will most likely be transferred to our stages.

This troubles me for two reasons. One: It limits the level of empathy that we can introduce to children. Two: It keeps children who don’t identify as belonging to the majority in the realm of the “other.”

On the first point, theatre companies of all stripes tout empathy as one of the most important experiences we offer our audiences. I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own. The depth of empathy we encourage them to experience will be limited to the culture they already know. If, however, we give them an opportunity to relate to characters from different cultures, it can help broaden their knowledge of the human experience. This not only teaches them the richness of cultures that exist outside their own, but that the people within those cultures experience hopes, obstacles and emotions just like any other human being.

On the second point, if our stories remain in the realms of the majorities, those who do not self-identify as part of those majorities are unintentionally sent the message that they are an outlier, an “other.” They merely get to observe the stories of the “main culture” on our stages, but are not encouraged to think of themselves as the leads in our stories. Personal example: As an Asian American, I have grappled with feeling like a career in musical theatre was not an option for me. There were (and still are) very few examples of musicals about or starring Asian American men, and musical theatre’s pantheon of writers remains overwhelmingly white. Thankfully, I have forged a career for myself despite this dearth of predecessors. But I know first-hand how a lack of seeing myself on-stage led to a profound internal struggle about what I “was allowed” to aim for and accomplish.

One thing we do to address this is to practice open casting, where characters who are white in book-form are played on-stage by actors of a different ethnicity. While I think this is a great way of getting multicultural representation in our casts, it does not get at the question of “Whose stories are we telling?” In light of this question, the idea of open casting merely becomes a short-term solution to an on-going problem.

In order to see multiculturalism more accurately reflected on our TYA stages, we need to start by supporting multicultural story-generators, namely, writers. Again, TYA organizations have already begun doing this by commissioning new works written by playwrights and composers from a variety of backgrounds (myself included). But I think we can go even one step further. TYA organizations should be actively supporting multicultural children’s book authors, since they often provide the source materials for TYA writers to adapt.

There are at least two ways TYA producers can do this.

  1. Support the development and promotion of diverse children’s book authors. The good news is that there is already a movement within the children’s book community toward promoting multiculturalism (check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign). We could partner with such movements knowing that supporting them will directly affect the stories that will come to our stages.
  2. Focus in on that 6% of stories that actually featured a character of color. Get to know these authors who are already creating multicultural stories. Find which of their stories excite us, and adapt them into new TYA works. Express to their publishers and/or agents that we are interested in seeing the future work of these authors.

I know the problem of bringing more multicultural stories to our stages can seem insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s about solving the problem in one fell swoop. It’s finding what small steps we can take to eventually find traction toward solving the problem in the long-term. And a very tangible step we can all take is supporting the creation of multicultural children’s books, the birthplace of so many of our amazing works.