NEA report covers challenges, impact for theatre for young audiences

actor interacting with children

'Babies in Space,' performed by the Alliance Theatre (Photo by Daniel Parvis).

The report reiterates the academic, social, and emotional benefits children experience seeing live theater.

Student theater audience

Student audience members meet the performers after an HOT Season for Young People show at TPAC.

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.

"Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences" flyer

The report follows a meeting convened to tackle some of the challenges.

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:

  • Funding: Among arts funders, some classify TYA as education rather than art, while education funders look at the work as art and not primarily education. So TYA organizations are caught in the middle
  • Limitations of the business model: Theater organizations targeting adult audiences are able to charge higher ticket prices for productions of equal artistic quality and complexity to those offered by TYA organizations. This leads to a discrepancy in earned income potential
  • Leadership development: Most training programs for TYA organizations are practice-based, while training for adult-focused theater tends to center on organizational management, providing business skills for emerging theater managers and encouraging their hiring by adult-focused theaters
  • Research: Despite more and better research on the impact of theater on young people, the TYA field has not been able to incorporate that research into its programs and to forge partnerships with other youth-serving organizations
Cane Ridge Elementary students perform Disney's The Jungle Book at their school.

Students perform in TPAC’s Disney Musicals in Schools program (Photo by Mimosa Arts).

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.

Read the full “Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences” report here.

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