Growing Up in the Theater
December 15, 2017

Director Dmitry TroyanovskyAs a child growing up in the former Soviet Union, I watched a lot of theater. The state invested generous funding in specialized theaters that staged productions for young people. Much of what these theaters presented toed the official party line, resulting in puerile, safe material. Yet a group of forward-looking artists, who did not consider children's theater to be a separate art form or an isolated subgenre, pushed the boundaries of form and content. 

Legendary Russian directors Anatoly Efros, Oleg Efremov, Lev Dodin, Adolf Shapiro, and Kama Ginkas, just to name a few, got their start in theaters that focused on productions for children and youth. They believed that young people deserve to see daring theater of the highest quality. Also, they may have felt that the ubiquitous Soviet censors scrutinized children's theater with less zeal, making it possible to sneak in non-conformist meanings under the guise of allegory, fantasy, fairy tale, and myth. 

In the late 1980s, when the glasnost era finally permitted unprecedented freedom of expression, youth theaters heralded inventive and relevant productions that addressed young people and adults alike. At the age of twelve, I saw Adolf Shapiro's adaptation of Tomorrow Was War, based on a popular novel by Boris Vasiliev. Set on the eve of World War II, it dealt with the lives of high school students caught in the grip of Stalinist ideology and paranoia. The stage looked like a precarious construction out of a child's building block set, on which characters played decidedly un-childish games. 

Around the same time, I attended a brilliant adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, which tackled very problematic chapters of Soviet history in visually dazzling and darkly funny ways. The image of black snow falling on people, who howled like abused dogs, haunted my imagination for years to come. These theatrical gems were created as family fare, with both adult and teenage audiences in mind. The ability to see heady pieces with my parents and discuss them at home afterwards made it all the more satisfying. No doubt I chose to become a professional director thanks to such eye-opening experiences. 

Today, Germany leads the way in innovation. Recently, I witnessed the work of Berlin's GRIPS Theater. Combining up-to-date social critique with humor, music, clowning, and other forms of popular entertainment, GRIPS tells stories about the lives of children and young people in contemporary Germany. In the past few years, the theater has confronted immigration, racism, extremism, poverty, cyber bullying, and sexual identity. Discussions and workshops accompany most performances. When I attended a morning matinee of a play about tensions between native Germans and their Turkish immigrant neighbors, a house full of ethnically diverse ten-year- olds raptly watched for two intermission-less hours. In a healthy society, theater is not only entertainment but a civic conversation about weighty issues. The theater's mission states that GRIPS "is and always will be a theater which wants to give its audience the courage to know that the world around them, large or small, is changeable." Like their Russian colleagues a generation ago, GRIPS theatermakers and educators do not compromise their values as citizens or artists. 

Theater for children and young people can address controversial social issues and explore the human condition. Last year, I directed my first family production, an adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. Enormous insects, rampaging rhinos, sadistic relatives, and ravenous sharks populate Roald Dahl's topsy-turvy world. While working on the show, I often thought of Bruno Bettelheim's notion that fairytales help children come to terms with the most incomprehensible, unsolvable, and menacing aspects of existence. Of course, our production did not dwell only on darkness and anxiety. In Dahl's story, violence and pain live side by side with friendship, pleasure, and adventure. 

Another children's classic that perfectly balances heartbreak and joy is E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. As I write this, I am preparing to direct an adaptation of the book. I am struck by White's honest and unsentimental approach to existential problems. "After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die," says Charlotte to Wilbur. Despite these harsh facts, the story's living creatures perform acts of astonishing generosity and kindness. White seems to tell us that yes, we are all vulnerable in the face of physical frailty, pain, loneliness, and inequity. But we can strive to make something beautiful out of the time given to us and learn to share this earth with those who do not resemble us. 

In my experiences as a spectator and, now, a maker of children's theater, imagination seems to be key. The productions I saw growing up communicated metaphorically and gave me a glimpse beyond realism and literalness. While it may be tempting to sugarcoat family theater with kitschy bromides and aggressively cheerful stagecraft, young people will find intellectual and aesthetic complexity far more rewarding as they mature. We can tell stories that do not shy away from the challenges of life and upend the limitations of form, genre, and style. 

Dmitry Troyanovsky (A.R.T. Institute '00, Director of James and the Giant Peach) is an Assistant Professor of Theater Arts at Brandeis University and the Director of Charlotte's Web.

Dmitry Troyanovsky
Publication date:
November 26, 2017

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