Dramatic Responses to a Short Tree with Tall Ideas

  • Jeanne Klein University of Winnipeg


In lieu of an abstract, here is an excerpt from this article: Unlike the more private readings of books, critical discussions of children’s plays are hampered by the fact that dramas also require page-to-stage interpretations, constructed among multiple artistic collaborators, and public receptions of site-specific productions interpreted during each somewhat unique live performance. In particular, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) depends upon teachers and parents to bring children to its performance venues. TYA producers must, therefore, select “age-appropriate” texts that appeal not only to intended grade levels, but to adult sensibilities as well—most often choosing popular, familiar titles from the children’s literature canon. To encourage adult attendance further, producers often advertise their plays as “family theatre for all ages,” thereby discounting age-group differences as a means of sidestepping ongoing “age-appropriate” debates. Given these market conditions, how might critics evaluate the artistic success of plays intended for child spectators? As a TYA critic and director, my solution to this quandary has been to compare my directorial intentions with child spectators’ responses. For those literary critics not versed in theatre practices, I propose a similar, two-pronged approach to performance criticism. First, as a means of judging artistic production values, critics may analyze the semiotic elements of a given performance by interpreting how artists manifest a playwright’s text. Second, critics may compare and integrate their interpretations of spectators’ responses that reveal what children understood and recalled. By including children’s aesthetic experiences in the equation of theatrical meaning-making, critics may question and illuminate how and why specific artistic choices encourage respective interpretations best.