Theater for youth: Tips & trends


Performance art for young audiences is growing, according to Kim Peter Kovac, director of theater for young audiences with The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He’s been in the biz for three decades and says “there’s more and more of it than there has ever been.”

So what trends has he seen in performance art produced and presented for youth during the past decade or so?

"Harold and the Purple Crayon"

First and foremost, the quality is improving as theater professionals reflect the general public’s recognition that youth are able to understand and appreciate far more than we may have given them credit for in the past. 

During times of economic downturn, however, many performing arts professionals choose conservative programming. You may see more adaptations of literary works or other theater works than new works because familiar works often appeal to a broader audience.

The bottom line for theater, like any enterprise, is the fact that “you have to bring people in.” Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, agrees that factors affecting ticket sales must be considered along with artistic factors when weighing season selections.

"46 Circus Acts in 45 Minutes"

Kovak notes that groups who develop and deliver theater for adult audiences have much stronger education programs than was the case a decade ago–citing the work of Steppenwolf, which is increasing quality programming for young audiences (especially high school students).

As I ran through my mental list of Arizona theater companies (which is far too long to offer in its entirety here), I felt proud of the education work so many are doing.  Phoenix Theatre offers outreach and education to an incredible diversity of the Valley’s youth.

"The Cat Who Went to Heaven"

Companies like Actors Theatre of Phoenix and Arizona Jewish Theatre Company often produce or present work that appeals to both adult and teen audiences.

And groups like Arizona Theatre Company and Southwest Shakepeare Company are among those who offer extensive study guides and supporting materials for teacher or parent youth.

When I learned of The Kennedy Center’s “cuesheets,” which contain introductory information, related activities and suggested reading lists designed to “maximize the performing arts experience,” I immediately thought of our own Childsplay’s “360 degree” program with similar features and their lovely slogan: “Theatre for Everyone.”

"American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse"

We’re seeing “less of a separation of adult and children’s theater,” reflects Kovac. Other trends he shared include “more and more programming for young audiences, especially two and three year olds, and more programming for high school audiences.”

Among parents and teachers, Kovac is seeing what may be an overabundance of caution. “Often they’re more careful than they have to be.”

Kovac recalls a work presented many years ago about a young man in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. At one point in the show, the boy’s father hangs himself–a fact that kept many from attending the play.

But Kovac recalls that the event was tastefully presented–as the actor portraying the father stood on a chair, simply tilting his head to one side to signal what had happened.

“It was quite moving for the adults,” recalls Kovac, “yet the kids may not have really understood it.” I’ve noticed this many times when taking my own children to the theater. They rarely pick up on the things that aren’t a part of their world, such as drug or alcohol abuse, before they’re old enough to understand and discuss it.

"Snow White Rose Red (and Fred)"

Given his emphasis on good quality theater across the lifespan, I asked Kovac what makes for a good production.

“In the most successful shows,” says Kovac, “kids can see themselves on the stage.” It’s not that they imagine themselves performing the roles but rather than they can see at least of bit of themselves in the characters they are watching.

You should always try to have young protagonists on stage, he says, so that children will be able to relate to them–feeling empathy for their struggles. But forget about being preachy. “If you’re telling a good story, the message will come through.”



Note: Remember The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when you’re traveling to Washington, D.C. Performance art is a relaxing yet exhilerating break from the miles and miles of memorials and museums. 

Coming up: Focus on films, Imagining Cosette in the classroom, “The Lion King” and leukemia

Photos from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts website at


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