Matthew Reason’s The Young Audience explores elementary-aged children’s engagement with theatrical performances. Drawing on extensive research, Reason illustrates children’s often sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities, and calls for those in the field of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) to build their work on a foundation of respect for children. Throughout the book, he scrutinizes a priori assumptions and theories about children and TYA, challenging these assumptions with empirical evidence from his original qualitative case studies. This book testifies both to young audience members’ abilities to engage with theatre on multiple levels and to the value of empirical research with young people.
In the book’s first part, “Contexts and Questions,” Reason examines how historical and contemporary relationships between TYA and education led many adults to assess TYA primarily in terms of its pedagogical rather than aesthetic merits. He critiques the perception that quality art and quality education are mutually exclusive, noting that while most students have opportunities to learn through theatre (for example, through drama-integration strategies in core subject areas), most are far less likely to receive formal instruction about theatre. By associating theatre almost exclusively with academic curriculum, schools can foster negative perceptions of the art form that students carry into adulthood.
The perceived link between TYA and pedagogy frames TYA discourse in terms of audience development rather than cultural rights. While most adults consider children to be future audience members, Reason urges us to regard them as present ones and to provide rigorous instruction in the arts. Failure to do so, he argues, results in “cultural apartheid,” perpetuating a society where only an elite group gains the cultural capital needed to fully appreciate the arts.
Viewing young people’s theatre experiences as a cultural right might also address the next challenge to TYA that Reason tackles: the perception that TYA is “other” or less than “real” (adult) theatre. He calls for TYA of equal quality to any other theatrical form, while articulating how “equal” and “same” are not synonymous. Reason suggests that children are most engaged not by “simplified” performances, but by theatre that embraces appropriate levels of complexity.
Reason justifies the theoretical assertions he offers in part 1 in the second part of his book, “The Theatrical Experience,” wherein he reviews the methods, results, and implications of his qualitative, art-based research projects and presents data documenting how young people engage with theatre. In each study he describes, children attended TYA and then responded to performances through drawings, discussions, and interviews. Reason succinctly outlines his approach’s benefits and limitations, recognizing that the findings of any qualitative project cannot necessarily be generalized. Nevertheless, his results are significant because they deploy empirical evidence to challenge a priori theories that presume that children lack aesthetic competence.
Reason’s first key assertion in this section concerns two realms of theatre: “Theatrical Illusion” (the evoked “world of the play”) and “Material Reality” (the actual circumstances of the production). He challenges dichotomous theories of young audience reception that claim that children either 1) imaginatively “buy into” performances completely, believing that the characters are real, or 2) are literal processors who deal entirely in material reality. He demonstrates that children can accept contradictions: they “give in to [theatrical] illusion and take pleasure in theatrical technique at the same time” (75).
Reason presents evidence that children can “follow the complicated sensory, artistic, and symbolic levels of a performance [and] extrapolate from the literal staged action to the evoked references” (86). Furthermore, young people can articulate how they understand productions; participants in Reason’s studies explained how they decoded referential signs in performances, sometimes demonstrating a nuanced understanding of theatre semiotics. Of course, there were also times that children “didn’t get” a performance; Reason outlines plausible explanations for this, such as that certain plays employed conventions that were completely unfamiliar to the children or, in some cases, that may simply have been poor-quality theatre.
Adults who believe that TYA should instill social/moral lessons may be pleased to learn that children usually understood...