Tag Archives: Theatre for Young Audiences

What I Learned Writing for Toddlers

Tomorrow my first play for Very Young Audiences – A Bucket of Blessings – will close at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta after a one month sold-0ut run. The play is an adaptation of the best selling children’s book written by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal, and as a TVYA play, is meant for an audience of 0-5 year olds. A Bucket of Blessings was directed by the ridiculously brilliant Rosemary Newcott, and I developed it in the rehearsal room with Rosemary, our cast, our choreographer, designers, and of course, our multiple adorable test audiences.

Me, top right, with our lovely cast.

It was a very intensive writing process, perhaps the most intensive theatre project I’ve done so far.

Here are the two things I want to take with me from that experience into future plays.

1. Theatre as service.


Theatre for very young audiences is, more than anything else, 100% about the audience and only the audience. There’s no room for the artist’s ego, the artist’s special voice, for flourishes, for statements. The only thing that matters is the audience. For a TVYA writer, this comes from a point of love. How could you not love these little ones? How could you not desperately care for them, and want with all your heart for them to have a safe, enriching, adventurous time in the theatre?

Now let’s take that same sacrifice of ego and unhesitating love for the audience to our work for grown ups as well.

2. Every second counts. Every line matters.

When children are that young, and their attention spans so brief, we are aware that every second we have with them is precious. The work we did in rehearsal was the most precise, exacting writing I have ever done. We worked hard on crafting every single moment to mean something, to engage the audience, and to carry the story forward.


Let’s be as ruthless as that with our writing for adult audiences. Even when we don’t have to be.

We must admit that playwrights are often coddled. What we lack in monetary compensation we make up for in creative control, but sometimes that can get indulgent. So the next time we’re in a room with our collaborators, let’s take our play to task, moment by moment. Is every single line crafted in the exact way required to communicate the story to the audience? Is every pause earned? Every word vitally necessary?

Seriously, what if our audience had the attention span of a toddler? Would our play still work? Have we built something captivating enough, engaging enough, to truly serve the audience that’s spending their precious time with us?


We should be doing these things anyway, but nothing brings it into perspective like trying to keep a room full of 2 year olds inside the world of your story.

Have you seen or worked on a play for very young audiences? What did you take away from the experience?


Day Two: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation – part three

Theatre for Young Audiences – Michael Bobbitt – Adventure Theatre and Kim Peter Kovac – Kennedy Center

TYA includes adults performing for kids, kids performing for kids, and teen theatre. Theatre for Young Audiences is the operative word these days. Denmark has 60 children’s theatres. The best theatre professionals in the country work for it.

Trends: theatre for the very young – 2-5 year olds, baby theatre, which is all about discovery and sound, where seeing yourself in the mirror is a theatrical event. (Just like actors!) Baby theatre is becoming huge.

Over the past ten years, there’s been more money and resources available for TYA. Regional theatres are doing more. Perhaps because Disney went to Broadway. And made money. Also, there’s grant money. Similar to black theatre in the 1990’s, funding organizations are looking at whether a theatre is doing educational and youth theatre. There’s also a trend where performing arts centers are booking shows…but the person who does it is also the “community engagement” person.

New work? People are looking at more popular titles. Michael Bobbit says he has the same administrative needs as a big theatre, but only charges 15 bucks for tickets. So famous titles brings in an audience. There’s a huge amount of work for adaptations.

Length: 45-hour length for under ten. One study showed the ideal length for 4-8 year olds – idela length is 47 minutes. For an older audience, 50-70 is ideal.

Getting the rights: sometimes a playwright has the rights. The Kenendy Center gets rights from the publisher, pays them, and then commissions the playwright. Make sure everyone knows there’s no money. 3-12% of gross box office is given to the picture book writer, 1.5% to the playwright or $1500 (Adventure Theatre). Kennedy pays 3% to the book writer; playwrights get 6-8% of the box office.

Who owns the play? At Adventure, they own it. Kennedy never owns the play.

Look for works in the public domain to adapt. Don’t discount movies, songs, TV shows, poems, lots of possibilities for adaptation. Only about a third of plays produced are new scripts not adaptations.

Cast size: 2-6 is great. Two is the best. Think about how a cast can be doubled – or shrunk.

Other advice: know your audience. Knowing how to tie your shoe is a big thing to a kid. Know what’s on a kid’s curriculum and reading list to see what they’re working on in school. Fairy tales are out of fashion right now. Teen theatre is issue related. But above all, it has to be a good play, not a lesson.

Popular TYA plays:
For very young (2-3 or 5) audiences: “Go Dog Go,” “Good Night Moon,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” “Knufflebunny,” “Tick Tac Moo,” “Miss Nelson is Missing (Joan Cushing),” “Flat Stanley,” Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day,” “Ferdinand.”

Ages 8-12 – “Holes,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Anne Frank and Me,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” Laura Ingels Wilder, “Skellig” by David Almond.

Cold submissions: Adventure: no capacity; only doing popular titles. Kennedy – only commissions.

Last thoughts: parents and teachers are the gatekeepers, deciding what shows kids come see. Diversity is good business.