TVY Rising: Peeking Inside Theater for the Very Young

Photo: Cindy Marie Jenkins.

If you don’t spend time around babies regularly, bringing them to the theater — say, for a performance of Theater for the Very Young, or TVY — may be a strange concept. As primary caretaker to a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old, I’m often astonished by how very simple parts of our world can entertain them for extended periods of time. As I type this introduction, my own baby is completely consumed with trying to open my water bottle. He also stayed enthralled through 45 minutes of the clown antics of Beau and Aero at the Orlando Fringe Festival (suggested age: 7 and up).

For overviews of TVY, as distinct from Theater for Young Audiences (TYA), read these good articles in American Theatre and The New Yorker. I want to help artists understand how to create better, smarter theater for all ages, so I interviewed playwright Madhuri Shekar, who worked with the Alliance Theatre in Georgia to adapt the picture book A Bucket of Blessings into TVY.

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Madhuri Shekhar wears a purple top and leans against an orange wall.
Playwright Madhuri Shekar.

Cindy Marie Jenkins: As a playwright, how was the process of working on TVY different from TYA?

Madhuri Shekar: The play that I wrote for teen audiences, that was also written specifically for teen actors — the writing process was pretty straightforward and pretty much exactly like any other play. But the one I wrote for ages zero to five was such an intense piece. Several months before we actually started rehearsals, we did a workshop without a script. We worked with the actors and we developed a very simple framework of the book. Then we tested it out on little kids that the Alliance had contact with. It was purely physical, just the actors working with their bodies. Then, several months later, I came in with a very basic script inspired by what I’d learned with them.

It changed hugely. For one thing, Rosemary Newcott [the Alliance’s Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth and Families] and Olivia Bosworth [the Alliance’s Family Programs Manager] are like child development psychologists at this point, because they’ve been working in TYA for almost a decade now. They just know what kids respond to and how differently they respond at every age. It’s like I was writing a play for seven different audiences because I had to write something that would engage kids who are pre-verbal and can only respond to images and movement. Also, by the time you’re five, you understand conflict and logic and you will have questions if something doesn’t make sense. Whereas 2-year-olds are not necessarily following the logic of the story, but they can follow emotional beats. If something emotional doesn’t make sense to them, they will tune out.

It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on play, really, because I was there for six-hour rehearsals, working as hard as an actor does, and also writing before and after. That was my most intensive writing process.

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The cover Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong of "A Bucket of Blessings"
The cover of the best-seller on which the Alliance Theatre’s production was based. Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong.

CMJ: So much of TVY is immersive and the children have some influence or agency in the story. Did A Bucket of Blessings have either of these elements?

MS: Yes. We have to invite children into the story, and that is a big challenge. How do you carefully structure it so children can move in and out in a way that all interaction is purposeful and gives them agency, like helping move the story along?

I always think about the moment in Peter Pan when the audience is part of the story and they bring Tinkerbell back to life. In the storybook, Monkey finds Peacock, Peacock does a rain dance, then rain is brought to the village. So we adapted the story such that Peacock teaches everyone the rain dance, and everybody dances together and then the rain falls. That’s the biggest moment of audience engagement and empowerment in the play. There were other little moments, too.

The trickiest part was figuring out how to end it. Once you have the kids so invested in something, you can’t just say, “It’s the end of the show. Bye.” We have to make the kids think that it’s their choice to leave the show, so what we did was that Monkey has finished her journey, water’s come to the village, and then the narrator says, “Monkey’s taking a nap now, so everybody take a flower, and stick it on Monkey’s tree house, and bless her so that she could have a good night’s sleep.” And this was an Indian story, in an Indian setting, so the concept of blessings was very much there. So they all took a flower [attached to a magnet] and stuck it on Monkey’s house. As they left, a baby elephant sprayed them with a little bit of water, as kind of her own blessing, so there was a little series of activities and a reason for the children to exit, and they all felt like they had accomplished something.

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Young child's silhouette against stairs leading up to an outdoor stage.
Sometimes you get to dance with the show. Photo: Cindy Marie Jenkins.

CMJ: What did you find in terms of emotional intelligence and developmental intelligence with working with zero to five? Anything that really surprised you?

MS: As a writer, it was the most thrilling thing ever because I knew that I could trust the feedback I was being given, which never happens otherwise. People are nice and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Children don’t think like that. You literally just watch them reacting to something and you know if something works or not. Also, I think a lot of TYA is not developed in a very intensive and, frankly, probably expensive way that the Alliance was able to do, so maybe that’s part of it. But the Alliance — both Rosemary and Olivia — just genuinely love kids, and they care and they’re amazing professionals. If you’re developing material with kids, if you’re workshoping your material with children, if you really really care about feedback, if you’re really paying attention to their feedback, you won’t be dumbing down. That’s not how you will do it.

What you will be doing is finding ways to make the story simpler and more honest. And also kind of letting your own ego go. I can send you the script for A Bucket of Blessings and it reads like the most rudimentary, basic thing ever. I had to let my playwriting ego go and just [ask] what will actually serve the audience; what is the specific way I can convey this emotion that will keep a 2-year-old emotionally engaged, and a 5-year-old logically and emotionally engaged?

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CMJ: Why is TVY a good idea?

Avery Sharpe, Corinne Weintraub and Isake Akanke Slaughter in A Bucket of Blessings. Photo: Madhuri Shekar.

MS: It’s the greatest thing in the world! I’m not a parent myself. But something I realized working with the parents of young children…there are no spaces for them. In American society, particularly, there’s nothing that you can do other than parent them at home, really. And when they’re old enough to maybe start going to parks. There are so few places where parents can enjoy something along with their babies. TVY kind of gives you that. It’s such a relief for parents. They’re in a space where children are still welcome and you’re still welcome and it’s such a wonderful break for them.

The other thing that’s amazing about TVY — and I honestly can’t believe that every major theater that has the money doesn’t do this — is it’s the best way to get new audiences in. You will reach out to an entire community of young parents, new parents, who will be so grateful to your theater for giving them something to do on the weekend. And then they will look at your season programming and use that for bringing in new folks.

For kids, there must be so many studies already on how baby theater helps with cognitive development and all that, but kids just have a great time: they get to feel empowered and included; they get to tell a story; they get to identify and empathize with characters that are not like themselves.

One thing that is also really cool about TVY is the number of things that you can do that you just can’t do with adults anymore. I saw one play at the Alliance that was half in Japanese, half in English. And it just worked. TVY is very hard to do correctly because it takes a lot of hard work. But when you do it right, it can be quite beautiful.