Childhood Studies Theater for Children and Young People
Matthew Reason, Karian Schuitema
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0243


The relationship between theater and children has a long and evolving history, mirroring the evolving conceptualization of childhood itself. Children have featured as performers, or had a presence within audiences, far earlier than the emergence of anything specifically labeled as theater for children. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whether a performance was for children was rarely clearly delineated. For example, while J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is now considered the most famous single piece of “theater for children” it is contested as to whether it was specifically intended for children when first performed in 1904. In the modern guise of theater for children (often also titled theater for young audiences, or TYA), a central tension exists, echoing that in literature for children, in the work being made for children, but created, performed, and written by adults. Among other elements, this often results in theater for children having a close educational ethos or moralistic focus, reflecting and reinforcing adult conceptualization of childhood and adult/child social relationships. Over the last several decades, however, theater for children and young people has entered a period of increased vitality in which some of these relationships have started to change. This vitality is manifested in professionalization, the growth of festivals, dedicated venues, and the increased commitment of innovative artists who have sought to develop the practice in new directions, including through participatory and applied theater practices that seek to give voice to and explore the lived experiences of young people. Accompanying these developments, the field has also received far greater critical and scholarly attention in the last several decades. Historically the study of theater for children has struggled to assert a strong independent identity, often subsumed into literary studies. What is emerging today, however, is something much broader and more vibrant, often interdisciplinary and embracing performance and literature studies, education and child development, psychology and politics. It engages with the core issues of our times, including a growing focus on inclusivity, whether in relation to race, sexuality, or disability. Nonetheless, theater for children has much work to do to decolonize and decenter itself from white and Western dominances. There is also a strong thread of research interest in audiences, which seeks to understand children’s lived experiences of theater and in creative and participatory research methodologies. Finally, and interconnecting all these elements, theater for children is often political and frequently deeply ambitious, driven by a strong sense of idealism that is perhaps childlike in the very best of senses.

General Overviews

While diverse in their focus and approach, the works in this section all share a desire to address historical omissions of theater for children from scholarly consideration and position it as a vital and independent area of practice and research. Manon van de Water, for example, writes in the introduction to van de Water 2012a that the book was produced in response to a concern that “despite enormous artistic output, serious research [. . .] in the field of theatre for children and youth was in short supply” (p. 3). Similar statements are found in other outputs here, with works such as England 1990, Schonmann 2006, and Reason 2010 all asserting the importance of establishing theater for children as an endeavor distinct both from theater for adults and from being considered as a predominantly educational endeavor. If there is one prominent theme across these books, it is that theater for children needs to be understood and considered as an art form in its own right. Consequently, the books included within this section have significantly shifted the seriousness, specificity, and rigor with which theater for children has been investigated. These publications can be usefully considered in three categories. The first are books that have been written with a practitioner focus: whether Goldberg 2006, a collection of essays drawing on personal experiences as a writer and director; England 1990, which focuses on play scripts; or Bennett 2005, a collation of the voices of practitioners prominent in TYA in the United Kingdom. These resources provide insights from the adult practitioners involved in performance making. The second category are edited collections, which largely shift authorship from the practitioner to the academic scholar and researcher. Two publications from the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ) are included here, van de Water 2012b and Wartemann, et al. 2015, along with Maguire and Schuitema 2012, a critical handbook, and Gubar 2012, a special issue of the journal The Lion and the Unicorn. All draw together diverse and international authors as part of efforts to strengthen and internationalize the field. These books are valuable for the range of voices, contexts, perspectives, and insights they provide. The final and smallest category are single-authored, book-length interrogations of theater for children, which draw on rich historical and theoretical scholarship to frame TYA within an academic context. Schonmann 2006 constitutes the first full-length academic text in this area; Reason 2010 shifts scholarship toward young people themselves in an analysis of the meanings and impact of theater for young audiences; van de Water 2012a examines social and cultural aspects through global and diverse case studies.

  • Bennett, Stuart, ed. Theatre for Children and Young People. London: Aurora Metro, 2005.

    This publication brings together some of the main figures involved in creating theater for young audiences in the United Kingdom. It has a practice- and practitioner-orientated focus and includes issues such as writing for young audiences, adapting material for performances, building specialist theaters, theaters for special audiences, and educational theater. Published in 2005, the book captures the moment when TYA in the United Kingdom was accelerating in prominence and creativity.

  • England, Alan. Theatre for the Young. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-20540-0

    This is one of the first studies of theater for children in the United Kingdom and focuses on stage plays written and produced specifically for young people. England draws upon interviews with directors, actors, and writers, along with what he describes as “considered reviewing,” to interrogate theater for teenagers and children and asserts the need for this work to be considered as a distinct phenomenon in its own right.

  • Goldberg, Moses. TYA: Essays on the Theatre for Young Audiences. Louisville, KY: Anchorage, 2006.

    A collection of personal essays from US playwright and director Moses Goldberg, author of Children’s Theatre: A Philosophy and a Method (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974). It is divided into three sections, considering, in turn, the politics, art, and business of theater for young audiences.

  • Gubar, Marah, ed. Special Issue: Children and Theatre. The Lion and the Unicorn 36.2 (2012).

    Edited and with an introduction by Marah Gubar, this special issue focuses on various aspects of theater and performance particularly in the context of children’s literary studies and from historical perspectives. Papers range from staging the book Little Women to children performing in historical productions of Peter Pan to child actors in 19th-century theater.

  • Maguire, Tom, and Karian Schuitema, eds. Theatre for Young Audiences: A Critical Handbook. London: Trentham, 2012.

    An edited collection bringing together a diversity of chapters with a range of approaches and conceptual orientations. Includes contributions by authors featured elsewhere in this article, such as Jeanne Klein, Matthew Reason, and Tim Webb, and chapters focusing on specific audiences, such as children with profound disabilities, nonverbal audiences, and teenagers.

  • Reason, Matthew. The Young Audience: Exploring and Enhancing Children’s Experiences of Theatre. London: Trentham, 2010.

    This book uses a draw-and-talk methodology to address fundamental questions regarding children’s experiences of theater. It is divided into three parts: the first contextualizing chapters on education, audience development, and cultural rights; the second focusing on the theatrical experience; and a final section that advocates how children can become active and self-reflective audience members. It is an important moment in the engagement of theater for children with empirical audience research.

  • Schonmann, Shifra. Theatre as a Medium for Children and Young People: Images and Observations. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006.

    A significant and extensive investigation that at the time of publication was the only book-length academic engagement with theater for children. Schonmann’s text includes a recurring focus on the intersections between educational and theatrical settings—a theme accompanied by the assertion of the importance of theater for children not defining itself as an educational endeavor. Other key discussions include aesthetic distance, catharsis/moral narrative, and children’s understanding of theatrical conventions.

  • van de Water, Manon. Theatre, Youth and Culture: A Critical and Historical Exploration. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012a.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137056658

    This book explores TYA globally, from the United States to Russia to countries in western Europe, from theory to history to theater for the very young to issues of diversity. As such it stands out because of its range and international scope. It was awarded the 2013 American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Book Award.

  • van de Water, Manon, ed. TYA, Culture, Society: International Essays on Theatre for Young Audiences. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012b.

    Published by the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ) through its International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (ITYARN), this book is possibly the first scholarly publication in TYA that is truly international in scope. Chapters range from discussion of the conceptualization of childhood in Nigerian theater to virtual puppetry in video games to staging the Holocaust. The book is part of ASSITEJ’s efforts to profile diverse and critical voices engaging with theater for children.

  • Wartemann, Geesche, Tülin Saglam, and Mary McAvoy, eds. Youth and Performance: Perception of the Contemporary Child. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015.

    A second publication from ASSITEJ and ITYARN, this book draws together papers responding to the theme of the “contemporary child.” Chapters examine the role of children as participants, experts, and audiences within theater for children. As with other ASSITEJ publications, the book has a consciously international and diverse flavor, combining both academic and practitioner voices.

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