There’s this Facebook meme going around where you ask people to comment with something you’ve done that you’re sure is unique. I like to throw my offering on the altar of the algorithm once in awhile and type: “I wrote and produced a children’s play about Chernobyl.”
I could just say “a play about Chernobyl” and end it there, but the “children’s” qualifier is the kicker. In 2005, I adapted a play based on Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich’s book of interviews with those affected by the nuclear accident in 1986, to encourage people to look at the world around them and to understand the complexities of nuclear power. There was a version of the play for adults that we presented around Southern California, and a version for kids. Neither was anti — or pro — nuclear power. Every April from 2006 to 2011, I directed a series of staged readings of the play, and any profit went directly to a Chernobyl charity in the US that helped Ukrainian children recuperate from lingering effects for a few months by pairing them with host families in America.
The ensemble hosted talkbacks when our work not only coincided with the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl but also the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, so audiences could begin to understand the terms in the news. I directed most of the productions with a dedicated ensemble that rotated in and out of roles based on availability; once, we even had the opportunity to collaborate with Deaf West Theatre. Some UK-based charities also took me up on offers to produce the play for free so long as it benefited their organization; they often used a short video we made as a way to attract new donor families to help the children. Marketing a play about Chernobyl was difficult enough for adults. Imagine the looks when I said I had an adaptation for kids?
I didn’t know how the children’s play would work until the first preview. One of the main characters in the adult show was a woman who was eight in 1986, and the decision to make her family the focus of the theater-for-young-audiences version was easy. I concentrated on how it was just another day to her, getting ready to go to school, when her mother gets a phone call. The tricky part was her slow revelation of the enormity of what was going on. Every child loves a surprise day off from school. It’s the parents who have to figure out how to explain it. Remember two years ago when the LA and NYC school districts shut down for a day because of a threat that turned out to be a hoax? That’s the first time that many of my fellow parents had to decide what to tell their children about school shootings.
But back in 2011, the local library gave me a date to host my play in a common room for a group of schoolchildren. The actors and I were more than nervous. How on earth would they react? What questions would they have? Would our show scare them? Would they know what “nuclear power” meant? Would their teachers storm out, thinking the play inappropriate? As the children filed into the room, I felt the same butterflies and anxiousness that I always did when I gathered people in a room to talk about a subject as odd as Chernobyl. This time was different, however, because I felt the gravity of responsibility more than in any other presentation — even when I showed my ensemble’s short film to the Chernobyl charities of the UK; even when people from the Ukrainian Cultural Center came to the original show’s opening night.
The beginning was a little wordy. That’s pretty normal for a preview. The children were respectful but antsy: a little rustling here, a little rustling there. The mother character got the phone call from the father, who couldn’t say too much for fear of their phones being bugged, a detail the children loved. Then came the turning point for me as the writer. The actress playing the eight-year-old girl asks: “What isn’t my mother telling me?”
Silence. I saw third graders lean forward. The too-cool pre-teens leaning against the wall stopped texting, looked up and didn’t stop until the end. The actors felt it, too, working with the new attention that the children sent their way. They were no longer simply speaking to the students; they were asking them real questions. The actress playing the mother addressed her line, directed as an aside, to the children closest to her: “What could I tell her?” The students answered her — and were audibly disappointed when the actress took their suggestions to tell her daughter the truth into consideration, then decided not to.
That’s when I understood the part of Chernobyl that related to a younger crowd. We all remember what it’s like for adults to hide things from us, to not tell the truth — at least not the full truth. We know what it’s like to be talked down to when we understand there’s a danger and no one will just say what it is. If adults cannot sort through propaganda and evidence, how can children?
We knew the story would be told through the eight-year-old daughter’s eyes. We did not know how to emotionally involve our young audience until they were in the room. They didn’t need a history lesson of Chernobyl, or even a summary of what happened. We only had to simplify the conflict to one they immediately understood, to invest them in the story, to encourage them to learn more about Chernobyl or nuclear power due to their relationship with this eight-year-old character. That was how we did it in the adult version of the play, but with multiple characters; for the children’s adaptation, we simplified it into this one child’s experience.
I’ve thought a lot about that moment in theatrical time. I’ve talked to such smart, wonderful people about TYA in order to understand what’s missing in it; to frame what I mean by “dumbing down”; to get at why it makes me grind my teeth to sit in the audience for some TYA shows. I thought about it recently as I watched yet one more light, kind-of-funny fairy tale, paying special attention to when my toddler was involved in the action and when he wasn’t. This particular piece — an adaptation — was all plot and zero emotion; the only feelings expressed were over the top to get a laugh. It was a way acting comically that wouldn’t get you a callback in the professional theater but somehow is deemed good enough for our children. If I wasn’t focusing so hard on the script of this recent show, I’d have missed the only moment of substance: calling out the villain as she bullies someone with less power than she has. I almost missed it because they emphasized her bullying with exactly the same manner as they attempted lazzi on a non-Commedia script. The only difference is they said it really slowly so we wouldn’t miss it, the way people slow down their speech if someone doesn’t understand their language. At that point, I wanted to grab the script and revise it to remove the villain’s stupid jokes and hand gestures and make her live up to the role of the bully instead of Goofy dressed like the Evil Queen.
That’s what I mean by “dumbing it down.”
I don’t think every, or even most, TYA should be as serious as my Chernobyl play. But why can’t we actually tackle the topic of bullying instead of throwing it in the middle of farce? Why do some artists think that you have to act like a birthday party clown to keep a child’s attention? Why don’t we use the power of live theater to our advantage?
Playwright Madhuri Shekar, who I interviewed for the CFR last month, knows that her process with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta is unique because they actually make the room and time to bring children to workshops. In other words, their target audience is part of their process, influencing choices before a script is even set. We know how long plays sometimes need to be in development to be their best. Why isn’t TYA always given that chance?
The answer, of course, is money. This is why I return to that preview of my Chernobyl play that made all the difference between talking at the audience and talking to them. I had a slight relationship with the library, which gave me the space for free. They already had a group of students there at a certain time every week and welcomed something new for the children. I didn’t have to pay for space or the marketing needed to get such a large group there. That day made all the difference in the quality of my script. As we got further into the rehearsals for the full production, I remember wishing I had scheduled at least one more library preview before opening, or scrapped a production in order to focus on library tours. Breathing the same air as our target audience, sharing the same small space with them, talking and listening to one another — it showed us how to simplify the story without condescending to our younger audience.
Can libraries become laboratories for TYA? I know the assumption is that we need big, colorful scenery and flashing lights to keep children’s attention, but I’ve observed rooms full of toddlers entirely focused on one storyteller simply reading a book aloud with feeling. I’ve seen babies through elementary school age stunned by the sound of a small orchestra quartet, only musicians and a narrator on stage. I’ve seen small groups of kids in LA watch eagerly to see if a young girl’s parents ever tell her the truth about an accident at a nearby nuclear power plant.
All these events happened in a library, against a backdrop of books and reading posters in a spare room.
If we use communities to craft the stories that we tell, can the necessary theatrical elements make themselves known instead of assumed? Just this morning, I had a blast with my 10-month-old son watching a simple puppet show in the library community room, with one-dimensional train puppets and tracks on sticks. He leaned forward — so far that he nearly fell off my lap — bouncing with every “I think I can I think I can I think I can” that the librarian chanted into her microphone. Children don’t lose their sense of magic just because they see more movies and media as they grow up. Theater offers them a different experience. Perhaps if we return to trusting the power of storytelling, we won’t feel like we have to make everything bright, shiny and over the top when all we need is a simple story and characters with whom we connect emotionally.