Theater as a Path to Activism

How Young Audience Theater Instills Ethical Values in Children and Teens

Opposite: Robert Gibby Brand (left) plays Kurt Grunwald, with Morgan Lynn Sterrett as Sophie Scholl and Jordan Luty as Hans Scholl, in the Coterie Theatre’s production of “The White Rose: We Defied Hitler,” Jan. 21 – Feb. 9. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Plays staged by young-audience theaters often have a simple, direct message for adolescent and pre-teen audiences: You can make a difference.

The Coterie Theatre, for example, is preparing to open “The White Rose: We Defied Hitler,” by David Meyers. The coproduction with UMKC Theatre revisits the story of Sophie Scholl, a young anti-Nazi activist who, with her brother Hans, was found guilty of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich. At the age of 21, she was executed by guillotine.

Director Jeff Church, the Coterie’s producing artistic director, said he plans to conclude each performance by raining leaflets onto the audience — English translations of actual leaflets distributed by Sophie and Hans. One example: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil . . . I ask whether you hesitate . . . We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

And another: “We have grown up in a state in which all free expression of opinion has been unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to regiment us, to revolutionize us, to drug us in the most promising years of our lives . . .”

Church said each performance will ask the young theatergoers to consider a basic question: What would he or she be willing to sacrifice for the greater good? Sophie and Hans gave their lives for distributing leaflets at a time when there were virtually no public protests against the Hitler regime.

“People think Sophie Scholl is a Holocaust story, but actually it’s a Holocaust-related story,” Church said. “Sophie was German but not Jewish. They were just a group of students who were disturbed by Hitler’s fascism and nationalism . . . Our goal is for young people who see the show to get a frank picture of Sophie and what happened to her.”

The Coterie, of course, also programs musicals and holiday shows, but when it comes to consciousness-raising, Church said the Coterie does two kinds of plays.

Theatre for Young America presents “The Toughest Kid in the World,” a play about conflict resolution, bullying and violence prevention, Jan. 28 – Feb. 1. Actors (left to right) Hailey Jones, Bradley Thomas, R. H. Wilhoit, John Mulvey and Kyra Weinberger performed in the 2018 production. photo by Valerie Mackey)

“Where the play has an audience-participation element, the students are called upon to think through an ethical dilemma the characters are in,” he said. “We have another version, where the play isn’t written for the ethical dilemma but where after the curtain call we have the students talk to the actors in a guided discussion.”

All valid theater, whether aimed at adults or kids, asks the audience to consider the ethics involved in human relationships, the exercise of power and when and how to make a difference. That goes all the way back to the Greeks. The kids are asked to contemplate conflicts that don’t necessarily have easy answers. The difference, of course, is that most adult theatergoers know who they are and what they believe. Kids aren’t there yet.

“I like asking students about taking on civic responsibility,” Church said. “That’s a strong thing that is coming into their minds, in some ways thanks to social media — which is usually the villain in all things — but in this case it proliferates kids’ modeling for other kids. We’re going to try to ride that wave.”

The Coterie has a history of doing these kinds of shows. It began the current season with “Rise Up,” by Lisa Evans, depicting the idealist young Freedom Riders who traveled to the Deep South in the early ’60s to register African Americans to vote. The young audience members were encouraged to ask the actors what happened to the characters they played — what they did with their lives.

All of this leads to a question about the long-range effects on young people of seeing these plays and, in some cases, performing in them.

The Power of Theater Kids

Following the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a handful of students, most of them members of the drama club, organized the March for Our Lives, which drew hundreds of thousands of adults and kids to Washington in 2018.

An essay by Stephen Sachs reprinted in “American Theatre” magazine began this way: “They are young. They are bold and self-confident. They are articulate. They are passionate. They are leading a national movement. And they are theater kids.”

Later in the piece Sachs posed and answered a rhetorical question: “Are you surprised these teenage drama nerds are now taking the international stage by storm? I’m not.”

And consider teen climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden. If you watched her speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit last year, you witnessed a dramatic monologue of fierce intensity. To world leaders she said: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words . . . We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

The intensity should come as no surprise. Her mother is an opera singer and actress. Her father is an actor, writer and producer. And her grandfather is an actor and director.

Indeed, Gene Mackey, founder of Theatre for Young America, said he wasn’t surprised in the least.

“I still work with high school-age and younger, and now college students, and I tell you, we’ve got a generation coming up and they want to be activists,” Mackey said. “They’re taking the future into their own hands, is the way I see it. People involved with young-audiences theater have been preaching that for years, but I don’t think we need to preach anymore, because they’re ready to face the real world.”

Tackling Tough Issues Through Theater

In January, TYA opens the 2020 edition of “The Toughest Kid in the World,” a play Mackey wrote years ago about bullying and violence. First produced in 1986, the script is revised often to reflect issues in the present. In 2020, that inevitably includes references to gun violence.

Mackey’s play, which includes music composed by the late Molly Jessup, depicts a boy named TK, who wants to be “toughest kid in the world.” In the course of the play, TK learns how to resolve conflicts by listening and employing different strategies.

The play begins with three actors seated at their dressing room tables getting ready to perform “The Toughest Kid in the World,” and at one point the performer playing TK punches his fist through his dressing room mirror, through which he enters another world — the world where we, the audience, are watching.

“There’s a fist fight onstage, and in his excitement he punches another actor,” Mackey said. “And we play it like it really happened. The stage manager turns off the stage lights and brings the house lights up and rushes down to the stage. That turning point tells the cast and everyone they need to do something about this.”

The trend towards young-audiences theaters tackling heavy subjects has been happening for years.

“I remember being at a children’s theater conference where there was a panel discussion of sex, death and violence,” he said.

And, yes, Mackey concedes that addressing guns and violence can be controversial.

“We’re touching on the subject of guns and weapons and what kind of laws might help school violence and mass violence,” he said. “Anytime you mention that, it riles some people up. But it’s hard not to accept that some of these simple restrictions on gun sales could make a dent in the violence.”

Church emphasized that addressing a real issue isn’t the same as advocating a solution. The Coterie isn’t trying to indoctrinate kids politically. Nor has the theater ever received a complaint about pushing ideology — although the Coterie staff was shocked when their promotional video for “Rise Up” was rejected by YouTube. Without a human being to whom the Coterie could lodge a complaint, the reasoning remains a mystery. Church speculated that an algorithm flagged the title.

“If we’re going to take an attitude about something, it is to say, ‘Understand history,’ and be involved in a civic-duty sort of way,” Church said. “Who would deny that? We’re not coming down on gun control. We might come down hard on white nationalism. These plays are about ethical dilemmas and choices and hidden history.”

“The White Rose: We Defied Hitler” runs Jan. 21 – Feb. 9 at the Coterie at Crown Center. For more information and tickets, 816.474.6552 or go to thecoterie.org.

Theatre for Young America presents “The Toughest Kid in the World” Jan. 28 – Feb. 1 at Union Station. For more information and tickets, 816.460.2083 or go to www.tya.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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