Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Platform Papers No 54 by Sue Giles

Young People and the Arts: An Agenda for Change by Sue Giles.  Platform Papers No 54, Currency House, February 2018.

Commentary by Frank McKone

Expectations around theatre for young people are prescribed and the barriers to exploration and risk taking are many and high. Adults who bring children to works for young people have strong opinions on what is acceptable; and yet, and perhaps because of this concern, the arts for young people are not highly valued as art....

We work with and for a demographic that has no buying power or whose buying power is indirect and in the power of others.  Demanding recognition of the importance of this audience and of the merit of the work created for this audience is
a constant issue for the sector, whether we are outright activists or rely on our work to speak for itself in the world.

To appreciate what Sue Giles, Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Polyglot Theatre might mean by An Agenda for Change, I went to the website at to discover what her company does to put into practice what she means when she asks “Can we consider the child as a cultural citizen? Can we challenge the dominant definition of the child and consider a different one, where the child is the key to a more engaged sector and a more inclusive society?”

There I found videos of what I regard as exemplary presentations of forms of theatre for the very young, often including the attending adults, in which the children were clearly engaged in the action, initiating where the storyline might go, and therefore learning about drama by doing it themselves, guided by frameworks set up by the adult actors. 

If this is “seeing the child as a cultural citizen”, then I’m all for it.  I have in the past consistently been critical of the sorts of shows mentioned in Chapter 4. Content:

“There is a school of thought that says children’s theatre must have a particular aesthetic: colour and movement, slapstick, happy endings, simple story lines, engaging characters, costumes and songs. Blockbuster touring works like Disney on Ice, but also home grown works like Wiggles in Concert or High5, fulfil this brief and are considered purely entertainment for children and families. Distraction is central to this form of entertainment and it’s for this reason that ‘entertainment’ is seen as distinct from Art.”

Throughout the Paper Giles provides a series of definitions to frame her discussion, an overall rationale, and chapters:

1. The Landscape for young people and the arts – then and now.
2. Questions of value.
3. Our point of difference.
4. Content.
5. Artistic practices that are shifting the ground.
6. Shifting our thinking: Showing adults what is possible.
7. Conclusion, in which she states:

“If we, adults, can begin to hear clearly and without judgement the opinions of children, see clearly and without bias the ways children choose, we might start to
understand how the jigsaw will be more complete when children are involved. If we can accept the knowledge and power of young people in the creation of art as equals in the journey then our art will be the better for it. They know things that we don’t and we can benefit from their shared knowledge. So let’s do that. The artists exploring in the TYA sector in Australia have a handle on this that can open the door for others, and not just in the arts.”

In the end, Sue Giles’ Platform Papers No 54 is a detailed and highly valuable statement of advocacy.  The focus on this aim, however, limits her argument to assertions and descriptions, without showing more exactly how to turn the “handle on this that can open the door for others, and not just in the arts.”

Currency House at  has a webpage link to Paper No 54, and I will follow up Sue Giles’ important work with further discussion of the principles behind drama method which is focussed on the participants having agency in practice – in theatre work for, with and by the young, rather than at the young.  This will be available shortly in an extended form on my blog – search for Drama Education Principles - Platform Paper No 54.