- Aurand Harris:Children's Playwright
Only within the last few years have plays for children's theatre found their way into textbooks and anthologies of children's literature. Not that such plays are written only to be read; a play for any age must be effective on the stage before it can be considered a success. Today, however, there is an impressive list of titles which unquestionably qualify both as good drama and good children's literature. One of the persons most responsible for this up-grading of the genre is Aurand Harris, often described as "America's most produced children's playwright." One could also add, "and most honored children's playwright."
In order to assess Harris' contribution, it is necessary to take a brief look at the development of children's theatre in this country and the plays it has generated. During the first twenty years or so of the century, dramatic activities sprang up throughout the United States, most of them located in the ghettos of our large cities. With all of this interest, however, few good plays emerged; most of the plays were written to meet a need, by social workers, teachers, and librarians, not by professional playwrights. In the twenties and thirties, however, the center of children's theatre activity shifted from the communities to the schools, as educators assumed the leadership. Winifred Ward's pioneering efforts in Evanston, Illinois were felt in several areas. It was here and at this time Harris' interest in children's theatre began. In making a distinction between the drama that children create themselves—creative dramatics —and that which they enjoy as spectators—children's theatre —Ward clarified the roles of teacher and director; and by establishing the Evanston Children's Theatre, she created a model for a special kind of theatre which, until then, had had no clear guidelines and little appropriate literature.
Winifred Ward also helped found the Children's Theatre Association of America, later a division of the American Theatre Association; it was the first professional organization for children's theatre practitioners, including teachers, directors, writers and community leaders. By joining this organization, playwrights had an opportunity to see productions at conventions and conferences, and were further encouraged through an award given annually for outstanding work. Aurand Harris was to be the first recipient of this and other awards and honors. It was fortuitous that Harris's career began as these developments were taking place; for the time was right and the stage was set.
Born in Jamesport, Missouri, on July 4, 1915, the only son of a country doctor and a drama teacher, James Aurand Harris developed an early interest in theatre. It was encouraged by his mother, who not only saw that he enjoyed the local cultural opportunities—music, dancing lessons and literature—but also took him with her to Chicago to see adult plays, and to other cities when she toured her own students' productions. As a child, Harris was fascinated with every aspect of theatre: acting, writing and directing. Performance continued to interest him most as he went on to high school and college; it was not until several years later that writing emerged as his main interest. Meanwhile, he was learning through practical experience what goes into the production of a play, and he was acquiring valuable background in the related arts. Although he had planned to go on to drama school, the depending depression when he finished high school prevented him from leaving home, and instead, he attended Trenton Junior College for the next two years. He continued his academic education at the University of Kansas City, from which he received his baccalaureate degree in 1937. In college as in high school, he pursued [End Page 114] theatre, and continued to build a background in the performing arts, while studying literature, psychology and education.
Unable to find a teaching position after graduation, Harris went on for a master's degree at Northwestern University's School of Speech, which by this time was offering the leading program in child drama in the United States. Here he was in classes with several other graduate students who were to pursue...