Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Is going to the theatre an ephemeral experience? Or is it a long-term relationship?
This is a question sparked by reading the reminiscences that Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (YPT) audiences have shared in an online memory album about YPT’s 50-year legacy.
No one ponders this duality more than Artistic Director Allen MacInnis. Having helmed this prestigious institution since 2002, he hopes that — for those who visit YPT this year for the first time — the play will resonate long after the final curtain, and become a habit.
“Sometimes people think, ‘we went to the theatre; we did that.’ Well, it’s actually a cumulative experience,” he explains. “It does actually build up–and not just build up the love of the art form, but that every play is a whole new opportunity, a whole new kind of experience. And I’m hoping we’re building longer term relationships.”
What might a long-term relationship with the theatre look like? As a nine-year old, I remember getting a school permission form to see The Adventures of Pinocchio. My immigrant parents were still getting settled and establishing careers – which translated for me to a constant concern about money. I had been at my new school mere weeks, and wondered how I would tell my teacher and classmates that I couldn’t go because surely there wouldn’t be money enough for this frill.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Prior to emigrating, my father had experienced success as an actor, and my mother had been an award-winning dancer. So for them, me not attending a performance wasn’t an option. Funds were found, and I went to the show. I took away from this less the thrill of the performance and more the vital importance of the arts in our family (though how the puppeteers got the marionettes to work inside the whale’s belly is a feat of stage magic I marvel at still).
Was this an unusual reaction? It seems not.
Five years ago, while I was overseas to visit elderly relatives, I was woken out of a jetlagged sleep by an excited phone call from my children. They had just seen a play called A Year with Frog and Toad, their first show at YPT. It starred Louise Pitre and MacInnis (who also directed). To this day, it is hailed by my now 11-15 year-old children as “the best show we’ve ever seen!” This single experience stands out in their minds as a turning point, which has since evolved into a general love of theatre and a particularly comfortable relationship with YPT. They have seen almost every YPT show of the past 5 seasons. They’ve been enthusiastic students at the YPT Drama School. And they are learning to view the performing arts both as entertainment and a way to examine social and cultural issues.
I didn’t see Frog and Toad; however, I can speak to its appeal based on my children’s near-endless rendition of the “Snail with the Mail” song, even months afterwards. (This, and a fascination with both MacInnis and Pitre.) Based on my recollections, which are mirrored in the online memory album, YPT experiences resonate over the long term. MacInnis credits this to children’s enviable ability to enter wholeheartedly into the world of pretend so that imagined experience becomes real. Adult audiences, he believes, are resistant to this disbelief because they’ve lost the ability to surrender and go along. “Very often, adults seek escape. They seek distraction, whereas children don’t have that kind of judgment, and kids don’t generally seek distraction from things. They enter into an imaginative experience with both feet, so a performance can last for a long, long time.”
He has heard from parents that, even a year later, their children recall a moment from a play because they’re relating it to something in the household or at school, in another story. “And they’re quite shocked by the kind of depth and detail that their children are able to report. And I think it’s because children are open to that, and so the imprint is really quite intense.”
Having seen this kind of enduring effect has made MacInnis curious about the long-term, even multi-generational, impact on the children who’ve been coming year after year to YPT: “I have great faith in it, but I’d love to be able to point to it to help others see the value of developing a long-term relationship with YPT. We have been around for a long time, and I believe we have had this impact over these many years.” This impact stems in part from YPT’s skill in presenting provocative ideas in ways that are memorable and interpretive. Drama is especially conducive to presenting concepts from a specific point of view, which each audience member is then free to receive, consider and interpret uniquely. The enthusiastic barrage of questions that inevitably follows each post-show Q and A is just one example of a how a conversation begun by the performance becomes a dialogue developed and continued by the audience.
Likely, this audience engagement is a reflection of YPT’s strong vision and its mandate of impacting the intellectual, emotional and social development of children. “We are arguing over and over that our work is not merely entertainment…It is entertainment to a particular end,” reasons MacInnis. “Our work is about child development. We try to focus people on the depth of intention in our work and also the breadth of programming, so they can begin to understand that we’re a professional theatre company and an education centre–and that the two are dependent on each other.”
But how does this vision look to the young people for whom the meticulously-planned season is intended? My three children would consider their development fleetingly. Instead, they discuss the show they’ve seen, asking questions on the car ride home and bantering at the dinner table. It’s obvious from their reactions that, alongside the educational programming, MacInnis and his team create a positive and relatable experience that opens audiences up to new ways of thinking–without condescension and with a commitment to consistent high quality. “We’re doing our best never to talk down to kids so that we’re meeting them as they are and with a degree of respect to them. We intend that they have an experience that is really intense, something that they really get into. It’s when you really get into it that it makes you start to think differently and makes you see things in a new way. ”
In the end, as seen in the online reminiscences, YPT has become synonymous with something pleasant — but intense — that young audiences crave, and often with a visceral anticipation. “That’s the mark, the experience that we’re always aiming for,” MacInnis enthuses.”And to do that, it’s always about taking audience seriously and taking seriously the play that we’re doing . . . really looking into ‘what is this story?’ and ‘What is the experience being offered in this story’ that we then must live through, truly, honestly, and with full intention so that the audience can be part of that. ”
On October 8, Hana’s Suitcase launches YPT’s 50th-birthday year. And this is just the first in a season of original and remounted productions thoughtfully assembled in keeping with founder Susan Douglas Rubes’ adage, “it’s for children–it has to be the best.” This is the perfect occasion to begin a conversation. . . or rekindle a long-term relationship with this beloved institution.
My three children and I will see you there!
News You Can Use
What: YPT’s 5oth anniversary season begins with Hana’s Suitcase by Emil Sher, based on the book by Karen Levine; directed by Allen MacInnis
Who: Ages 10 (grade 5) and up
When: October 8-30, 2015
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street, Toronto, ON M5A 3Z4
For information and tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.ca and 416-862-2222
Resources for Hana’s Suitcase: Study Guide
Share your memories: youngpeoplestheatre.ca/50/memories
© 2015, Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya