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Theatre for Young Audiences: An Important Field in Chicago!

An interview with artist and educator Rives Collins. logo

Rives Collins (photo used with permission of Rives Collins)

Here at Northwestern, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is a hugely popular field. The theater department's season includes a series of productions for kids called "ImagineU," which is part of Northwestern's subscription series. Last autumn's "ImagineU" show sold out most performances, engaging tons of kids from the area. There's even a student group devoted to producing TYA and workshopping new plays for young audiences by professional playwrights. This group, the nationally recognized Purple Crayon Players, also takes a production on tour to Chicagoland schools each year.

Unsurprisingly, TYA classes fill quickly here, and I was lucky enough to score a spot for this quarter. I've learned so far that the established field of TYA originated right here in Evanston! Since I'm realizing the importance of this type of theater, I thought I would investigate how it is implemented in Chicago.

Last week I was fortunate to interview Rives Collins, past president of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education and professor at Northwestern University. Most recently on campus, he directed The Bluest Eye, adapted from Toni Morrison's novel, and last year he enchanted audiences with his direction of The Secret Garden. Here's what this master storyteller has to say about this field in Chicago (imagine his responses with a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye):

DARCY ROSE COUSSENS: As an artist and educator in the field of TYA, what drew you to Chicago? RIVES COLLINS: I was doing graduate work at Arizona State University, which has a renowned program for TYA. I was applying for jobs and applied for one here, and I came to the Chicago area specifically to work at Northwestern in this field.

DRC: What are your thoughts about TYA in Chicago? RC: I think there is a sunny side and a shadow side. The sunny side is that right now in 2012 there are so many options for families to go see excellent theater for young audiences in Chicago.

DRC: What theaters come to mind? RC: Immediately I think about the work of Chicago Children's Theater, which I think is beautiful. As we speak right now The Houdini Box is playing at the Mercury Theater, and they tend to do very high quality work. I think about the work of two universities. Both DePaul and Northwestern have a long history and tradition of producing TYA. I love the work that happens even at a small place like Lifeline Theatre, which does remarkable adaptations of literature for young people. It's literally a place for storybooks to come to life. I love the fact that some of the really talented directors from Lookingglass are also young dads and have recently directed really beautiful productions for young audiences. I love that Steppenwolf has embraced theater for young adults, and I thought that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was gorgeous earlier this year. I'm really excited about their production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life. It's going to be amazing; it will be quite stunning.

So I think there are many, many options for children and families both in the city and in the suburbs. Northbrook has an equity children's theater company, so there are opportunities in many different places.

DRC: So, many Chicago theaters are producing work for young audiences even if they aren't known as children's theaters. RC: I think more and more theaters are recognizing that family fare can be of artistic high quality and in some instances, can help pay the bills. The Goodman traditionally has done its great family offering of A Christmas Carol annually, and that is their biggest seller. I love the fact that Chicago Shakespeare Theatre does a TYA production on the pier every summer and also produces what it calls Short Shakespeare, a 75-minute production of Shakespeare designed for middle and high school students.

DRC: That's a lot on the sunny side! What's the "shadow side" of Chicago's TYA scene that you referred to? RC: If I said there's a shadow side... What Chicago doesn't have is a flagship (TYA) theater company in its own building, like the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis or Seattle Children's Theater. However, I think we probably have more, and I think more quality TYA work, arguably, than any place else. I prefer the quantity and the quality of our work to a flagship company.

DRC: That's a great way to put it!


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