IPAY 2017:

Unpacking The Can’t

How often has our desire to engage with young people been derailed by questions of means, consumerism, or cultural censorship?  As theatre artists / practitioners / participants, we frequently face a wall of can’ts: you can’t show children that, you can’t afford this space, you can’t cross that line, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t. But what is really keeping us from practicing / experiencing that which might be far too experimental / expensive / intellectual / controversial / culturally inaccessible?  Moreover, as this year’s keynote speaker Dasha Kelly of Still Waters Collective suggested, how might we use our privilege: be it privilege of thought, privilege of space, privilege of experience, privilege of imagination, and/or privilege of education to turn the impossible into the possible?

Theatre makers from all around the world gathered in Madison, WI, USA to explore these central questions during the International Performing Arts for Youth Showcase (IPAY), January 17th-21st 2017. The IPAY “showcase” is held each year in a North American city, and it provides a space for presenters and venues to interact with artists and productions they may want to program in their upcoming seasons and with the option to book those productions on the spot.  As a marketplace for TYA touring productions, the Showcase features full length productions of theatre, dance, and musical acts for the young (both in age and at heart), Spotlights focusing on ten minute snapshots of additional shows, and there is an exhibit hall for agents and presenters to gather and highlight additional shows for booking.

This year, IPAY showcased 17 full-length theatre, music, and dance acts for presenters and members, ”spotlighted” 11 additional acts, and facilitated a large number of exhibit hall presenters.  Alongside these shows from across the world, IPAY also included “Kindling” sessions comprising of panels and roundtables in order to discuss topics surrounding TYA.  This year’s Kindling sessions were framed by the central theme of “Unpacking Can’t” and covered topics from gender and identity to accessibility to young people’s mental health to very young children in relationship to performance art for youth.

The organization also annually awards the Mickey Miner “to a person who has made a significant impact on the field of the performing arts for young audiences.” This year the award went to Finegan Kruckemeyer, a Tasmanian playwright known for his magical plays for young audiences. The Showcase concludes with the announcement of the People’s Choice Victor Award; this year the honor went to The Young King by Oscar Wilde, presented by Slingsby Theatre Company from Australia. The last few years have also seen the addition of the Jim Rye Fellowship and the Colleen Porter Artist Development Award. While the Jim Rye Fellowship “offers an outstanding opportunity for graduate students in the fields of TYA directing, management, curating, and education to be involved with the inner workings of a major performing arts for young audiences conference,” the Colleen Porter Artist Development Award provides an opportunity for emerging artists to experience the showcase under the mentorship of an established artist.

By placing these spectacularly varied styles of performance in dialogue with each other through the combination of Showcase productions, spotlights, exhibits, and Kindling sessions, IPAY demonstrated the various ways in which TYA can be experienced and enjoyed across the United States and throughout the world.  How powerful are the can’ts of our limited theatrical experience when there is no definition for the theatrical style of Theatre for Young Audiences?  This variety and aesthetic creativity is part of what makes our field so wonderful because, not only does it encompass a spectacular plethora of aesthetic and production qualities, it also speaks across cultures, oceans, and generations.  This diversity speaks to the power of Theatre for Young Audiences: a space where we can come together to share perspectives and privileges, and through this sharing the various can’ts can be overcome.

The 2017 Jim Rye Fellows, which we were honored to be part of, found ourselves especially invested in questions regarding the future of Theatre for Young Audiences.  As we experienced the shows and discussions, we found ourselves in the center of the conversation – and for some of us, for the first time.  We were delighted to interact with a myriad of theatre artists and programmers from around the world where we were also offered the chance to engage directly in the conversation through a series of workshops and discussions in which we found ourselves continually cycling back to our own central questions of: Why do we do this at all?  Why, in such uncertain times, do we continuously turn to theatre?  Above all, why TYA?

As we continued to experience the shows, listen in on the Kindling sessions, and engage with conversations between the art entrepreneurs and artists, we eventually began shifting the conversation from the constant barrage of the can’t to a realization that we can: we can make theatre accessible to all, we can stretch the boundaries of performance, we can create a community of artists, and through that community of artists we have privilege. While some issues remain unsolved (as Rye Fellow advisor Erwin Maas would say, “there is an end, but no conclusion”), many of us walked away from the experience feeling energized to do the work that needs to be done.

If there is one takeaway from the 2017 IPAY Showcase, it’s the importance of art and community to our lives as cohabitating humans on this large mass of dirt and stone. Art can reach across oceans and walls (both imaginary and very, very real) to create a global community that celebrates both the elements that make us unique, and the ties that can bind us together. In a world where people are determined to divide us and make us fear those who are not the same as us, the theatre can provide us with the power we need to demolish those walls.

Showcase 2017 existed in a specific time and place and we were all very cognizant of our location in history as artists performing/spectating in the United States during the inauguration of a new president.  Moreover, with a global women’s march on Saturday January 21, in which many showcase participants took part, the theme of this year’s kindling sessions, “Unpacking Can’t,” took on an even deeper meaning for those searching for hope in an uncertain time.  This search leads us to wonder if we cannot start to unpack our own persistent can’t in hope of a more nuanced and complex future. This hope for the future, however, can only happen when we are willing to listen to each other.  When we can see our differences as a privilege we can use. Where we take those differences be it our personal aesthetics, our politics, our ideology and engage with each other to create our can. For through this conversation and engagement we may find that, as immortalized by JK Rowling through the voice of Albus Dumbledore, “A child’s voice, however honest and true, is meaningless to those who’ve forgotten how to listen.”

Claire Mason and Bridgett Vanderhoof are PhD students, specializing in Theatre for Youth at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

By Claire Mason and Bridgett Vanderhoof