Theaters for young audiences are preparing the next generation of Americans to inherit an increasingly complex world by making some of the most exciting art in the country today — but that doesn’t come without its challenges.
Historically, little research has been conducted assessing the value of theatre in the lives of young audiences. That has changed in the past few years. Several studies now provide tangible evidence of the impact of watching live theatre on our children and collective future.
“[Our audiences] are the next people who are voting, our leaders who are deciding cultural policy, political policy,” says Ernie Nolan, Executive Artistic Director at Nashville Children’s Theatre and international representative for Theatre for Young Audiences/USA.
In a report released last week, “Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences,” the National Endowment for the Arts, TYA/USA, and Theatre Communications Group tackle some of the structural and societal challenges facing the field and consider ways to overcome them.
“At a moment when the TYA field (and the entire arts sector) faces so much uncertainty, this landmark report from the Arts Endowment is a shining light in the darkness,” said Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, executive director of TYA/USA. “The research it offers makes a compelling case for the impact the arts have on young people at a time when articulating this message has new urgency.”
The research provides concrete data to support what has been demonstrated anecdotally through the experiences of these audiences for decades — seeing live theatre offers a range of academic, social, and emotional benefits to children.
“This includes a greater ability to accept people with different opinions from their own; an increased hope for their own future, with the ability to imagine attending college and envisioning success; improved engagement and behavior in school environments; increased success on standardized tests; higher writing scores; and a stronger command of narrative devices,” the report states.
Though the TYA field has steadily grown as an art form and as a cultural industry, the report identifies obstacles to achieving greater organizational stability, including:
Evidence is more clear than ever that theatergoing has a huge impact on the social development and emotional growth of young people. Another major takeaway of the report is that children should be introduced to the live performing arts as early as possible, ideally prior to the age of eight.
“They should be exposed to a range of performing arts, both within their school day and with their families,” the report continues. “Children should be provided opportunities to engage with and further explore the theatre they see on stage, ideally before and after the show.”
The report concludes with optimistic next steps, which include: paying artists more competitively; lobbying elected officials about the importance of the arts; forging deeper collaborations with college theatre departments and arts management programs; speaking with various industry unions about raising their awareness of TYA; and engaging more with funders and arts journalists to make sure they’re as informed as possible about TYA and why it’s important.