A bit of History
In the United States, Children's Theatre's history is relatively brief. It
began to grow as a respectable branch of theatre in the early 1900's.
However, in other countries such as China and Russia, Theatre For Young
Audiences (or TYA) has been tremendously respected and an integral part of
performing arts for those countries, among others. In countries such as
these, only the best actors and actresses would be allowed to
act for children. I assume that this is due primarily to the respect that
these countries hold for the minds and intellects of children. And
regardless, the fact remains that all performers for children know that they
(the children) will be perfectly candid and frank with regard to their
responses to a particular performance. Therefore, only the most honest,
most genuine, and truthful, and best performances will satisfy and be
beneficial to an audience of children. With that in mind, let me start with
some of the major influences upon the field of TYA throughout the 20th
Charlotte Chorpenning made tremendous contributions to Children's Theatre.
Shortly after her husband died, she decided that she wanted to write plays
for children. She was 60 then. She began working as the artistic director
for the Goodman Theatre
in Chicago where she stayed for 21 years. All the
while was writing plays. In the time from when she began writing, until the
day she died with a play in the works in her typewriter (literally), she
managed to double the mid-century repertoire for children's plays by
She typically adapted well known titles such as Little Red Riding
Hood, or The Emperor's New Clothes to name a couple. This was
primarily based on the premise that children would desire to go see plays
that they recognize the titles of. This was the trend in TYA for quite some time, but has
more recently veered away from that concept, and many more original works
are being written. But Chorpenning saw a Universal quality in fairy tales
and tended to adapt quite a few of them. In fairy tales she saw the
archetypal issues of growing up, and if children could identify with a
character, or characters, in a play, then they would have more interest in
the play. This concept is quite true and followed even today. There is even a
children's literary award given to playwrights called the Charlotte B.
Dates and Accomplishments in the Life of Winifred
1884: Born in Eldora, Iowa, daughter of a prominent
1918: Began her 32 years as a Speech professor at Northwestern
University. It was during her work here that she is credited with being
the founder of Creative Drama. She was the first to offer courses in the
discipline at the university level, and she taught a generation of teachers.
1924: Introduced creative drama into the curriculum of Evanston
Public Schools and supervised it until her retirement.
1925: Co-founded the Children's Theatre of Evanston. The theatre
served as a national model of university and community cooperation, as
college students joined with children in the casts of productions.
1944: Founded the first national child drama organization which
is still thriving and is now called the American Alliance for Theatre and
1967: Designated a Fellow of the AATE, the organization's highest
1970: Received her 3rd honorary doctorate, this one from Eastern
1975: Died in Evanston, IL
1975-76: Memorial Committe and scholarship program established.
1978: First WINIFRED WARD SCHOLAR recognized.
1995-96: 20th Anniversary of the WINIFRED WARD MEMORIAL.
A Man of Style
Aurand Harris is a man who has written a tremendous
body of contrasting plays for young audiences. He continually explored new
and different styles, including a vaudevillian show (The Tobey Show),
a melodrama story (Rags to Riches), or even what he called his "death
show," The Arkansas Bear, which tells the story of a young girl
coping with the loss of a family member. Of course, he tells it with the
perfect amount of humor, sensitivity, and emotion for adults to cry at, and
children to learn from. He sometimes adapted traditional stories such as
Pocohantas or well known stories such as or The Magician's
Nephew, and often created original works such as Monkey Magic,
Pinballs, or his most recent and final play,
The Orphan Train.
Aurand Harris's accomplishments are many. In the 70's, he received an award
that was established in Charlotte Chorpening's name after she passed away.
It was established as an award to recognize playwright's who have written a
body of plays that lift up the field of children's theatre. Surprisingly,
though, he did not just win this award once, because later, in the 80's, he was
given the award again! He is the only playwright to win the
Charlotte Chorpening award twice. But truly, he is well deserving of the
award both times.
In the 80's, Aurand went into China on the heels of Arthur Miller's Death
of a Salesman production, (the first ever American playwright to direct
a play in China). At the request of the Shanghai Children's Art Theatre (the
oldest children's theatre in China -- a mere 40 years old at the time), and
the funding of The Children's Theatre Foundation of America, Aurand directed
the first ever production of an American children's play in China. The
play, Rags to Riches, was translated into Chinese and performed by Chinese
actors. Of course, the Chinese government did require some "changes" in
the script to accomodate for the political and economic differences between
the two countries, but nonetheless, Aurand would become not only a bringer
of joy to American children, but now, to children around the world.
The Children's Theatre World lost a great friend, playwright, and human
being in the Spring of 1996, when Aurand Harris passed away at the age of
82. His plays though will live on forever as he is the most produced
children's playwright in the United States..
A new style
Suzan Zeder has begun a new wave of children's theatre. Most persons
reading her plays for the first time ask the question, "Is this really
children's theatre?" Well, the answer is, yes. She has taken real
life issues that children face and made them into compelling stories that
help a child to understand difficult issues. For example, her play
Doors tells an extremely realistic story of divorce, from the
child's perspective. She deals with the pain involved with hearing parents
arguing in the room next door, and the pain of separation. She does all
this in a non-preachy manner that is simply a story of what a child goes
through. This is only one example. In another play, Step on a Crack
she approaches the subject of coping with a step-mother, while avoiding completely the evil
step-mother convention. All of her plays are realistic stories about
children. She herself has said that she writes about children, as opposed
to for children.
Suzan Zeder also has many plays that aren't as heavy as Doors or
Step on a Crack, but all of her plays are equally honest and
compelling. She has adapted Ozma of Oz and has written many original
titles such as Wiley and the Hairy Man and Mother Hicks . All
of her plays add to a new awareness that children's abilities to comprehend
serious material have been, for a very long time, underestimated. Her
plays give credit to children for being extremely intuitive and intelligent,
particularly when it comes to recognizing truth on a stage.
(C)opyright 1996 MEC & JWQSVV