Theater 33.2 (2003) 49-63
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Lessons in How the Planet Should Work
Peter Brosius, Interviewed by Erika Munk
ERIKA MUNK In our issue on theater and social change (vol. 31, no. 3), you wrote an eloquent statement about theater's usefulness in making children aware of their situation as America's underclass, saying that theater can both be a tool and give them tools to help change their lives. In the five years since you became artistic director of the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, how have you tried to realize these ambitions?
PETER BROSIUS Let me first use an example from 1999, when we produced A Village Fable by James Still, an adaptation of John Gardner's In the Suicide Mountains. The play tells the story of three characters—a dwarf who is blamed for all that goes wrong, a prince who would rather make music than war, and a young girl who is forced to play the coquette against all her instincts. They are shunned by their village and their families and climb Suicide Mountain to end their lives. When they struggle at the top of the mountain against a common villain, they are able to gain enough self-worth and solidarity to confront their village and return home. I was interested in making sure that people took away from this what it means to be an outsider, what stigmatization means, and how we can be active and/or passive in the face of stigmatization. The postproduction discussion became a kind of community healing. Parents were revealing times when they didn't stand up for someone who was victimized though they could have, kids talked about when they didn't and wished they had. Watching children and parents see each other in a new light was one of those moments when the theater becomes not only a place of beauty and transformation but also a place for a different level of dialogue, which can bring strangers and even family members together in ways that are new.
When we did it with a second play, however, it wasn't as successful.
What was the second play?
A Starry Messenger, about the life of Galileo and what it means to have an unpopular idea, what it means to be against the grain—as a child, to see things a different way and not be accepted. We tried to move the conversation a step forward to look at the history of unpopular ideas, how it may take hundreds of years for an idea to be embraced. The discussion didn't take off. The problem was how the questions were framed and how the discussion was guided. In this particular discussion it felt as though we were attempting to guide the audience into a specific set of answers. The discussion was less open, less connected to how the audience actually perceived the piece, with its troubling issues of scientific ethics and censorship, and more related to a simplistic request for a very defined response. We learned the hard way not to do that again.
When you arrived at the Children's Theatre Company in 1997, what kind of plays were you looking for? Did you start right out with scripts that addressed such large issues? How did the public and press react?
The Children's Theatre Company, which was founded in 1975, has a long history of doing new [End Page 49] plays. The majority of these were adaptations of children's classics with notable new pieces as part of that body of work. What I wanted to do was move forward in a number of ways: expand the aesthetic range of the work, increase its diversity, engage artists who had never created for young people, and bring in artists with experimental vocabularies to the theater.
The first year that I programmed I brought in work that had never been seen in Minneapolis. These pieces, Afternoon of the Elves by Y. York and Whale by David Holman, explore contemporary reality and the hard choices made by young people. Afternoon of the Elves is about a friendship...