(Walsh’s article appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine, 12/17.)

Child's Play:  Making Theatre for Young Audiences

We are increasingly aware of looking after minority groups within the arts, either through representation or provision. But when it comes to children, responding to their needs can be a trickier affair. Some of this has to do with the fact that young people are rarely at the helm of decision-making, where they might express their wishes as their grown-up counterparts can. A greater deal has do with the fact that the provision of cultural experiences for children is often determined by the education system, where funding is traded in for learning outcomes. This complexity is also influenced by commercial ventures, with large sums of money being swapped for entertainment-by-numbers. Given this dynamic, there is always a risk of compromising the artistic integrity of theatre for young people if performance is dictated solely by pedagogical or financial standards.

While youth theatre, theatre in education, and commercial theatre are reasonably well-established in Ireland, there is not the same amount of quality children’s theatre available. At its best, theatre for young people does not compromise the aesthetic experience in favour of offering acting opportunities to young people, fulfilling the objectives of school curricula, or providing easy entertainment – although there is often some overlap in intent and appeal.

The concept of catering to young audiences emerged in the early twentieth century, at a time when childhood was seen as a relatively separate phase of human development. Russian actor Natalie Sats is credited with founding the first theatre for the young to be performed by adult professionals in Moscow, shortly before the 1917 revolution. Later, similar groups were established in the US, the UK, and throughout Europe, particularly after the second World War. In her essay, ‘A History of Children’s Theatre in the United States (1961), Nellie McCaslin claims that children’s theatre had “the express purpose of giving wholesome pleasure”, while theatre in education and drama in education aimed at providing learning opportunities.

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