The Inclusivity of Young People’s Theatre
The Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, Ontario was formed in 1966 with the goal of bringing high-quality productions to the stage for children to enjoy. Since then, they have brought a variety of great stories to the stage. Theatre is a powerful form of art for all ages that incorporates storytelling, music, and dance in a live setting to provide an experience unlike anything that a screen can offer. But the nature of live performance can also exclude large groups of individuals. The storytelling is lost on blind children who cannot see the onstage action. The music is nonexistent to those who are deaf. The entire experience can be overwhelming to ones on the autism spectrum. Young People’s Theatre is aware of this, and have found an ingenious solution.
The theatre has strived to offer presentations of their shows with these specific groups in mind. The intention is not to dilute the art, but rather to increase inclusivity. For the deaf or hard-of-hearing, Young People’s Theatre offers interpreted performances. The play is presented as it usually is, but with the addition of interpreters who “shadow” the actors by following them as they move about the stage. These interpreters use American Sign Language to translate what the character they follow is saying. In 2018, this was utilized to bring the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel The Secret Garden to life, as well as a translation of Selfie, which was originally in French.
Bringing theatre to the blind or partially sighted is another challenge. On television, audio descriptions can help describe the action. Yet this would be a distraction for others in the audience in a theatre setting. Young People’s Theatre utilizes technology to circumvent this. These performances feature live audio description provided by professionals, but done through earpieces and small receivers for audience members who will benefit from it. The information shared includes set pieces, costumes, and physical action onstage. This was done for The Secret Garden in 2018.
For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the loud noises and high energy of the theatre can negatively affect them and tarnish any of the positives that the art provides. Young People’s Theatre presents relaxed performances in which the plays themselves remain intact, but the performances are subdued with a more relaxed attitude. Noise and movement are reduced, and the lighting is adjusted so that the room is not as dark as usual. A relief area is provided for those who need a break during the play. In addition to The Secret Garden and Selfie, Young People’s Theatre has presented six other plays this way in 2017 and 2018.
The theatre continues to strive to be an inclusive environment for kids of all ages. Their production of One Thing Leads to Another has babies and their parents sit on the floor and encouraged to play during the performance. The performers utilized colours, sounds, and movement catered for those babies, who became as much as a performer as the professionals. In another example, Arabic interpreters were used at performances welcoming children of Syrian refugee families. Amber Ebert, the School and Community Programs Manager, stated that they “are not just welcoming people in,” but also “making people feel welcome when they are here.”
The Young People’s Theatre has been around for over 50 years, and is not going anywhere anytime soon. That means more and more plays presented in new ways to encourage inclusivity. Instead of looking at it as an obligation, the company instead employs creative techniques that enhance the plays and bring them to life with new and exciting methods. This taps into the universality of the art of theatre, which brings stories to audiences in ways that no television, laptop, or phone screen ever could.
Fields, Sabrina, and Andrea Pothiboon. “Young People’s Theatre: Building community and learning through play.” Neighbourhood Arts Network. http://www.neighbourhoodartsnetwork.org/learning-room/learning/young-people-s-theatre-building-community-and-lear
Young People’s Theatre. “Accessibility at YPT.” https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca/about-ypt/accessibility/