By Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, Executive Director of TYA/USA
Where is the field of Theatre for Young Audiences today, and where do we need to go next? How can I support us in our growth as a field? These are the questions I ask every day in my work as the Executive Director of TYA/USA, the ASSITEJ National Center in the United States. My day to day work is focused on the theatres and individual artists who make up the TYA sector in my country, but I must admit that I rarely consider how we fit into a larger ecosystem beyond our borders. My perspective was completely changed after attending my first ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering this past month in Kristiansand, Norway.
While we are all technically a part of ASSITEJ, it can be easy to forget given how autonomous and idiosyncratic each national center is in its programming, structure, and regional landscape. I now understand how critical it is for us to participate, live and in person, at the ASSITEJ gatherings. I had the unique and incredibly valuable opportunity to connect with colleagues from across the globe, all passionate about creating theatre for young people and their families. It was particularly interesting for me to build a network with other individuals in my position, running the national centers in their own countries.
Through the range of ASSITEJ programming, including the stellar Artistic Encounters each morning, I was able to contextualize the issues across the global TYA field alongside the geopolitical realities facing us all. It was fascinating to discuss issues of international significance, like migration, the growing influence of populism, and climate change, and how these issues intersect with our work as artists. I saw some of those issues at play through the diverse range of TYA productions from across the international landscape. I also got to attend the open Executive Committee meeting, which allowed me to better appreciate the work of ASSITEJ International. The experience simultaneously made me feel so much smaller and so much bigger — smaller in realizing that the TYA field is so much larger and more diverse than I previously understood, and bigger in recognizing that I am a part of this interconnected tribe.
There are definitely major differences in our community across the world, including our aesthetics, our funding structures, and our societal norms around childhood itself. But over the course of the week in Kristiansand, I continued to feel the power of our similarities rather than the weight of our differences. We all fundamentally believe that theatre has the power to change the lives of young people, and our global dedication to this cause is both inspiring and energizing. How can we all take more advantage of the ASSITEJ network, especially those of us who live an ocean away from the powerful artistic hub of Europe? How can we create more opportunities to connect virtually, and share resources across time zones, language barriers, and borders? How can we find more ways to advocate for the importance of our work as a united international community?
If you haven’t yet attended an ASSITEJ event, I urge you to consider a way to get involved. Step back from your day-to-day work, and zoom out to see the vastness of our international TYA community. Now more than ever, building bridges across our divides will strengthen our own work, our impact on our communities, and our ability to use TYA as a force for change in the world we are building for the young people we serve.