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 century...

Charlotte Chorpenning

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 herself.

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. Chorpenning Award

Winifred Ward

Dates and Accomplishments in the Life of Winifred Ward

1884: Born in Eldora, Iowa, daughter of a prominent lawyer.

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 Education (AATE).

1967: Designated a Fellow of the AATE, the organization's highest honor.

1970: Received her 3rd honorary doctorate, this one from Eastern Michigan University.

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.

Aurand Harris

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..

Suzan Zeder

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