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By Lola Lara

Writing for the new generations: Where is theater for children and young people going? It is definitively going in the direction of today’s reality. This is the positive aspect of it. 

But it also has a strong tendency towards political correctness, this would be the negative aspect of it. 

Political correctness is to the children’s theater of the 21st century what censorship was to the theater of the 20th century.

Eagerness to morally reform and to instruct the child are two forms of control and both are present in theatrical writing. This is radically opposed to the creative freedom and the drive to freely communicate that all creative work entails. The artist is not an educator. The artist needs to communicate with whoever is watching his play (whether a child or an adult) and, respectively, the child needs to connect with the art. This communication is necessary (not education) and it is essential that it be a horizontal dialogue, and that the omnipresent hierarchy in adult-centered society must be avoided at all costs. 

If we focus on the positives in today’s theater that I indicated before, namely the commitment with today´s reality, it can be deemed that this tendency improves theater for children and young people. The fact that we have overcome the moment in history in which the only plays that were put on were increasingly moralizing adaptations of fairytales, or even worse, the exemplary lives of children martyrs or saints linked to religion, is without a doubt, cause for celebration. Speaking to children about timely issues is a tendency that, in principle, operates in favor of the dramatic process as long as it resists the temptation of falling into oversimplification and the reductionist idea that everything that comes out of this viewpoint is correct. 

Today’s children obviously watch today’s theater, but today’s theater is not defined as only dealing  with today’s current events pulled from newspaper headlines; The latest news can undoubtedly be a source of inspiration but it is not the only one; and, on the other hand, this dominant tendency not only forces us to deal with current events but also to do so in a socially acceptable way according to the dominant parameters postmodern society.

It is fine that theater reflect reality, but it has no monolithic or flat structure. Reality is a prism and only as such can we understand that “committed theater” is not only one that speaks of child labor (for example), but it can also be one which addresses the primal childhood fear of the dark (as another example). Reality is also within the human psyche and therefore the ghosts manufactured by our mind are part of it.

The theater, like any other form of art has a transformative and subversive role and offers a new way of looking at sociological analysis. Its stance/point of view does not have to coincide with the political discourse and in fact in adult theater it almost never does.   

We must banish the idea that the only transformative theater, the only valuable theater today is the one that deals with topical themes, as long as it does so from a politically correct viewpoint.

Why do I say all this?

I watch about 800 plays a year, most of them live and some recorded. I have been in this field of children´s theater for 25 years and during this time I have observed tendencies that clearly dominate the stage.

For some years now, the dominant tendency has been to address issues that are very present in the public opinion: environment, gender, diversity, multiculturalism …

The approach is made from very similar positions, almost identical to the prevailing political discourse. In extraordinary and increasingly rare occasions, the artist’s view does not agree with official ideology; less often it goes against it.

Last year, I found one of those rare points of view at FIET, a festival for children and young people on the Mallorca island. By Les Impuxibles, a Spanish group, the play Limbo is a beautiful, intense and courageous poetic approach to transsexuality, which does not remain in shorthand clichés. In the play, the author poses the question about whether the chemical or surgical treatment for someone who does not recognize himself in the sex with which she/he was born is a solution or a new form of aggression. Simply posing that question on a stage can make people feel uncomfortable despite the degree of respect and tolerance, more than any other society till now, towards minorities and other members of society that had previously been marginalized. Nevertheless, this idea coexists with a belligerent intolerance towards that which is considered politically incorrect. 

That children and young people’s theater deals with current issues in a society that is more and more respectful of difference and freedom of choice is in itself positive, but that can become a heavy burden that acts to the detriment of dramaturgical creation, if the eagerness to raise a particular issue (from environmental protection to sexuality divergences, for example) becomes more important than how it is done. It is a poor approach that prioritizes discourse over expression, the slogan over symbolism; the important thing is what is proposed, not how it is done.

That reductionist view banishes humor and an ironic point of view from any subject on which a political discourse has been established. Most of the taboo topics that concerned us a decade ago are no longer taboo. Today, what is taboo is the manner in which these themes are addressed. Thus, child abuse cannot be addressed in any way other than as a tragedy, as if talking about the subject in a grotesque, ironic or even comical key meant that the author hides in humor the endorsement of an action not only morally reprehensible, but criminal.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the limits of humor, especially when the audience is a minor because censorship, the development of preferences, as well as freedom of expression are all involved in that digression. However, one must admit that using humor when dealing with a fact, an attitude or an action does not mean the endorsement of it. 

Did anyone think after watching Thelma and Louise, with its tremendous and triumphant end, that Rydley Scott was hiding an incitement to suicide?

Today more than ever Romanzo d’Infanzia, a text by Bruno Stori, staged by the company Abbodanza Bertoni, that breaks the mold and draws attention for being unusual, demonstrates the full freedom of its creators to talk about child abuse in the family. It is significant that this work was released two decades ago, when the dogma of political correctness had not yet become strong, that new type of censorship. In it, two brothers abused by their parents decide to escape from home. It is a leap into emptiness, they are small, and the work does not ask if they can survive or not out of the paternal roof, but it does not matter, that is not the issue. The theme is a refrain without solution, of continuity to get rid of what hurts us even if what hurts us are those who gave us life. I would be very surprised if that play would be put on today and had the audience it has had. 

Pippi Longstocking also would never have found an audience, the character created by Astrid Lindgren in the middle of the last century represents childish rebellion above all, the independence of the adult world, autonomy and effective self-management as the best way of life for a girl who shows that no matter how absurd their world (a horse with polka dots), it has a superior coherence to the adult “disorder”.  

Moreover, the character is not just the result of the author taking some poetic license.  The expert neurologist in resilience, Boris Cyrulnik expressed in an interview that children who were victims of wars survived better if they lived in free communities with other children than those who remained in the family. The ability to overcome traumas while living with other children was greater than if they lived with traumatized adults. 

It is interesting that Lindgren created Pippi’s character for her sick daughter. When there is no other desire but to connect with the sensitivity and intelligence of a child, when what really matters is writing something that interests the child so much that he cannot easily disconnect from that fiction, the adult does not put false limits on himself. The desire for communication precedes the desire to teach because the adult artist knows and understands that what distinguishes artistic creation is the possibility of connecting in a universe that does not necessarily have to be realistic. And even if it were, the essential symbolism in every creative work elaborates reality using a sieve of fiction and re-creation of the same reality. Even the most faithfully realistic work of art, whose maximum expression is the pictorial current of hyperrealism, introduces a point of view that is subjective, personal, unrepeatable.

Pippi has been translated into 70 languages and was undoubtedly one of the all-time phenomena of children’s literature.  But we can surmise that today, with the canons of promoting values in art for children in full force, the work of the Swedish author would have remained in the drawer.

“Since when have books set an example?” The expert in children’s literature Ellen Duthie asks in the prologue of a 2016 edition, the 70th anniversary of the book.

Since when is the theater a tool for learning?  Who has said that the theater should be instructive and full of lessons? It was already a vehicle of indoctrination at another time in recent history that we now consider happily overcome, but it seems that we are not sufficiently immunized. 

Because if this were the case, it would not cause any scandal that a character who is a girl, motherless, daughter of a pirate father, who lives with a monkey and a horse, who does not go to school and has fabulous strength capable of lifting her horse with one hand, she sleeps when she wants to,  and fools with authority, represented by two stupid and clumsy policemen.

Manolito Gafotas, the creation of the Spanish author Elvira Lindo was the main character of nine novels.  Most of them were written in the 90s and the last one in 2012. It has been translated into more than 20 languages, but the author has commented on several occasions about the modifications that she had to do in order for her work to be published in different countries.

In an article published in El País (June 5th 2017), Lindo said:

“When Manolito came out in the 90s,” says Elvira Lindo, “Spain was a more relaxed country, and therefore with a better sense of humor. Parents and teachers understood that they were, above all, humorous novels. I had more problems in other countries, because being politically correct and pedagogical considerations already marked children’s literature. I always put Spain as an example of tolerance. In some European countries some adjustments were made, but in the United States the censorship was atrocious.”

In the United States, the nickname of El Imbécil (The Imbecile) as he is called by the main character’s younger brother had to be changed, but it was not the only demand. 

The translator Mª Carmen Velasco dissects those changes:

 Among the changes that had to be made was the replacement of the famous smacks on the back of the neck by Manolito’s mother as sermons / reprimands / scoldings …

Other elements that have undergone various modifications are the proper names:

  • Susana Bragas Sucias (dirty underpants/panties) is Susana The One and Only (much more politically correct, I must say).
  • Yihad is not called that because it is a name of Arabic origin and they have decided to change it Ozzy (and now I imagine Yihad biting bats during his free time).
  • El Imbécil is The Bozo.
  • Manolito Gafotas is Manolito Four-Eyes.

 Additionally, any expression that could be considered racist is eliminated, such as:

Andar como un chino (walk like a Chinese) Walk like a penguin (andar como un pingüino)
No se lo esperaban los chinos de Rusia (The Chinese of Russia did not expect it) It could not have been expected, even for Martians on Earth (no se lo esperaban ni los marcianos que viven en La Tierra)

I remember years ago that a Spanish theater author of great prestige criticized the play Mur Mur by Dynamo Theatro because it could set a bad example for children in the sense that they saw no danger in balancing on the edge of a wall. In that beautiful allegory about the fragile balance of the adolescent testing out his newly acquired relative autonomy, a theater person saw the possible bad example. 

Corrections continue growing and expanding, they extend like an oil stain on artistic creation. This correction has particularly gone after anything created for children and young people, insofar as the adult always sees the child as a person without the capacity for aesthetic enjoyment and with a constant need to receive teaching and instruction at all times and in all circumstances.

The efficient symbiosis between political correctness and adultcentrism situates the child in a place where, under the false argument of protection, brutal censorship is actually taking place; and all of this is happening in the internet age in which children have access to everything without any limits. 

Art, and particularly theater has a great mediating potential. After all, artistic creation with its expressive symbolism is a way of reimagining a complex reality.  

As I see it, these are today’s tendencies but, fortunately, like with all rules, there are exceptions.  

When Suzanne Lebeau, talks about gender though her reworking of the classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel transforming it into the play Gretel and Hansel, she not only discusses a fashionable topic, gender issues, but she also speaks about the feelings of a girl by the arrival and presence of a little brother. When she presents the drama about child soldiers El ruido de los huesos que crujen (The Sound of Cracking Bones) she does so with the same rigor as when she takes on overcoming familiar anxieties such as the fear of growing up (El Ogrito) or when she tackles two children’s drives par excellence, fear and curiosity, in Souliers de sable.

In this context I also want to express my appreciation for a brave play entitled, Tengo una muñeca en el ropero (I Have a Doll in the Closet), by María Inés Falconi.  It is courageous not because it addresses homosexuality, which, as I have said several times throughout this talk, could be considered a prominent theme today; but for the enormous truths which it presents. Tengo una muñeca en el ropero does not dictate absolute truths, it does not make value judgments, rather it presents a life experience, with a great deal of humor I might add, about a youngster’s discovery of his homosexuality and the fear of posing it to a very traditional father. 

They are only two exceptions among many. But they are exceptions, the trend goes on different paths, and in my opinion, it is convenient to get out of these other tendencies as soon as possible.  

Creation must be kept away from any form of correction.

Creation must be free as well as aimed at children and young people.

The creative process should not have any other measure than the genuine and creative drive of the artist, with the desire to communicate with the audience in whichever code the artist chooses, and not inciting hatred or violence as its only limit. 

This text  was written for the Opening Conference of the 5th International Theatre for Children And Young People Researchers and Critics Forum that took place in Buenos Aires in September 2018.

Lola Lara is a Spanish journalist specialized in culture for children and young people. She is the director of the Teatralia Festival in Madrid, and has been president of ASSITEJ Spain until 2018.

Translation to English: Marimar Ropero

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