Friday, March 9, 2012

Language First: How What We Say Determines What Will Be

2012 has so far been a time of big ideas and great discussion at The New Victory. In my role as the Director of Marketing and Communications for The New 42nd Street (and its project The New Victory Theater), I worked on and attended several important events in the past couple months including the Zoem! New Dutch Theater Forum, TEDxBroadway and the New Vic Council meeting, with guest speaker Erwin Maas. At all of these events, the topic on everyone’s minds can be boiled down to, “what is the future of American theater and its audiences, and how can we most positively affect it?” An enormous question, indeed, and at each of these events, I found myself thinking about the language we employ to affect positive change and asked myself, “how do the words that we choose in our everyday communications affect the future of our industry?” (And why is everyone around me continually using double negatives?)

The language that we use in our industry to generalize about stuff on stage that’s appropriate for the kids is “theater for young audiences” or “TYA.” I personally don’t like this term, as I find it to be reductive. What it’s trying to say is that the work is “appropriate for young audiences,” which is very different than being “for young audiences.” I have seen plenty of TYA that I felt was made with both adults and kids in mind. Someone needs to bring these young audiences to the theater and chaperone them. Is what’s on stage not for them as well? We don’t call theater that’s not for family audiences “theater for adults,” so why the reverse?) 

The Dutch call this same concept “youth theater.” Their term strikes me as being reflective of their strengths in the field. As we discussed at the Zoem! New Dutch Theater forum, the Dutch work that I’ve seen has an exuberant and daring spirit to it. It comes across as not afraid to fail – which to me means it succeeds. The spirit of the work is indeed youthful. It makes me wonder if that difference in language makes a difference in terms of what the Dutch set out to create.

Language came up as a theme amongst several of the speakers at TedxBroadway, most interestingly to me, “does the tone of how we talk about ourselves affect what the future will be?” When I scrutinize how we talk about theater for young audiences in the U.S., I noticed a pattern: we very often speak in negatives instead of positives. I’ve participated in many a conversation in the world of TYA that starts with, “TYA does not get the same respect in the U.S. as theater for adults.” “Work for young audiences should not talk down to kids.” “We do not want a cultural landscape of TYA to be filled with saccharine offerings.” What if – starting with our language – we focused on how we go about changing the culture in positive terms instead of focusing on what is wrong with the culture? It’s a subtle shift, but I think it may benefit us (and I’m removing the “nots” from New Vic language starting now!).

At a recent New Vic Council meeting, guest speaker Erwin Maas - a good friend of The New Victory who worked with us on the Zoem! New Dutch Theater program as the Specialist for Theater, Contemporary and Classical Music for the Consultate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands - touched on language in a completely different way. Erwin spoke of how kids in the Netherlands are introduced to theater arts in schools at a very young age, and when they begin attending and learning, their adult counterparts do not have the conversations in the schools (that we have here in the States) about the possibility of the work on stage being too challenging or difficult for the kids to digest. Instead, there is an unspoken assumption that kids are perfectly capable of handling just about anything on stage (and really, off stage as well). The Dutch trust their kids’ capacity for understanding and absorption of big ideas enough that they don’t even use language around it. Their silence is their statement, and a powerful one indeed. I’m not suggesting that we go silent – it’s not the American way! – but I believe that there’s much to be learned from the Dutch in terms of how we approach conversations with our kids. Using positive language that reflects trust and respect for them is a good start.

Lauren Fitzgerald, Director of Marketing & Communications for The New 42nd Street, is in her 5th season directing all advertising, sales, promotions and design efforts for The New Victory Theater, The Duke on 42nd Street and the New 42nd Street Studios. Lauren came to The New 42nd Street from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she served as Press and Marketing Director. She has freelanced extensively in New York for theater, music and film clients, as well as working in the communications department of Blue Man Group and in general management at the Guthrie Theater and the 14th Street Y. She is a graduate of the University of Richmond, and is so proud to have grown up in a household that instilled a love of the arts and a belief in its power to make change.

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