Writing for the Child Audience

July 24, 2017

Matt Buchanan, author of One Smart Pig, Prince Ugly and An Avalanche of Murder, discusses his "rules" for writing Theatre for Young Audiences.

As a playwright most of whose work is intended as Theatre for Young Audiences, I am often asked what makes a successful (in all senses, not just commercial) TYA play. (For the purposes of this blog post, TYA is theatre intended primarily for an audience of children. This is different from plays intended for an audience of teenagers [I also write those, but that's a different post]. It is also subtly different from plays intended for a "family" audience of mixed children and adults—because children often react very differently to material if they're surrounded by other children than if they're in a mixed-age setting.)
So what makes a good TYA play? In brief, I think the following list covers it well:
Good TYA is about children and childhood, or about ideas that are of serious concern to children.
Good TYA has active protagonists.
Good TYA deals honestly with its subject matter.
Good TYA respects its material and its audience.
Good TYA challenges, both intellectually and emotionally.
Good TYA is visually stimulating.
Good TYA is direct and fast moving.
One at a time:
Good TYA is about children and childhood, or about ideas that are of serious concern to children. I'm not saying every children's play should have a child protagonist—though that's ideal. But the central issues explored in the play should be of interest to children in a visceral way. Stories about romantic love, for example are likely to be intensely boring to children who have not yet experienced it. Good TYA deals with questions children are grappling with: What does it mean to grow up? Why are some people different? How will I learn to control my own fate? What if the structures in my life—Mom and Dad, home, etc.—are impermanent? What is fairness? The writer who can recall her own childhood and what was important to her will be much more successful writing for children.
Good TYA has active protagonists. Contrast Sleeping Beauty to Gretel: Sleeping Beauty is the ultimate passive protagonist. She takes no role in the dénouement of her own story—the Prince simply swoops in and rescues her. Even leaving out the inherent sexism, that's not ideal in a story for children. Gretel is an active protagonist. She solves her own problem. Brutally, to be sure, but she takes matters into her own hands. That doesn't mean a character can't have help—Gretel is an extreme case—but stories of people rising from adversity (all stories have adversity, or they're not really stories) through their own accomplishments and effort are most satisfying to the child audience.
Good TYA deals honestly with its subject matter. Grandpa is really dead. Mom and Dad are not getting back together just because you really, really want them to. Bullies are not going to suddenly reform. It is fine—even essential—to take on serious topics in TYA, but not if the intention is to brush them aside. Quite apart from the fact that lying to children can be harmful, they'll see through it and you'll lose them. It's not about realism vs. fantasy. By all means have a talking dog if it serves the story—I've written plays in which all of the characters are animals. But tell the truth about life. Happy endings come because characters are strong enough to rise above adversity, not because there isn't any.
Good TYA respects its material and its audience. Respecting the material means you treat it as important and legitimate. Parody (especially if it is mostly about making fun of the source material, as opposed to simply reimagining it) is usually out of place in TYA. It may be funny to you to point out how stupid Frozen is but if it's the favorite movie of two thirds of your audience, that's not going to work, and it shouldn't. Ditto common childhood fears that adults know are "silly." If you must write a play about the fear of going down the drain with the bathwater, you can't make fun of children who actually experience that fear—to them it's real.
But respecting the audience is even more important and that has two legs—giving them credit for the intelligence they have, and not expecting them to know things they don't. You accomplish the first by trusting the child audience to "get it." If an action is performed by the actors, it is not necessary for a narrator to describe it. And don't assume kids can't follow complex storytelling devices. In David Saar's The Yellow Boat, which is about a child who contracts AIDS from a blood transfusion, there is a scene in which we see the young hemophiliac getting a routine transfusion, represented by a long chain of red bandanas tied together and passed from hand to hand by the company. When a single blue bandana is introduced into the chain, no one has to explain to the audience that it represents the tainted blood—they get it. I have seen children's plays in which much of the storytelling is done through drawings made by one or more characters, or in which there is essentially no dialogue at all. It doesn't have to be See Dick Run. On the other hand, there's a difference between intelligence and knowledge. It is unfair to expect a child audience to have access to all of the cultural references you have in your head. If a joke depends on the audience knowing who Johnny Carson is or how to drive a stick shift, it's going to fall flat—and it's going to make the audience feel stupid. That's insulting. Even worse are jokes that play on the "cute" naivety of children (the "Family Circus" school of humor). Respect your audience.
Good TYA challenges, both intellectually and emotionally. TYA ought to make kids think and feel. In a discussion about an upcoming production of The Yellow Boat in grad school, an aspiring drama teacher said, "but what if it makes the children cry?" The facilitator responded, "How many times did you see Titanic?" (About 10.) "Did it make you cry?" (Every time.) "Then why did you keep going back?" (Because it was so moving.) "Why do you want to deny children that experience?" (Um…) Obviously one doesn't want to traumatize children, but they deserve to be taken seriously as thinking, feeling humans. In an age when even most "adult" entertainment is spoon-fed, the theatre is one medium that can still present material in innovative and challenging ways, both emotionally and intellectually. Let's not deny our kids that.
Good TYA is visually stimulating. Talking heads aren't going to cut it. Especially in today's media-soaked world, children need visual stimulation to hold their interest. The word "action" as applied to drama need not necessarily mean physical activity (saying "off with her head" is unquestionably an action, and children's plays, like all plays, need action) but movement and color are important too. Children love physical humor, but beyond that, we need to see stuff happening on stage. Engage as many senses as you can. This doesn't mean huge, Broadway-style production values—a single actor can provide all the visual stimulation required—but not if you've written him sitting in a chair talking on the phone for ten minutes.
Good TYA is direct and fast moving. In addition to keeping things literally moving on the stage, it is important to keep the story moving forward. What is the main dramatic question of the play? Once you know that, it is best to avoid wandering off into side issues that don't relate to that question. In my own experience I have discovered particularly that the climax of a play for young audiences belongs at the very end, with a very short dénouement, if any. Once the main question has been answered, the play is over as far as the audience is concerned.
Naturally none of the above is a hard and fast rule. And anyway, rules, in art, are meant to be broken. I've seen good TYA plays with dominant narrators. I've seen a few that, far from sticking to the plot, basically had none. But in general, these are the guidelines I try to keep in mind when writing for this very rewarding audience.


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