“Traces,” now playing in Union Square, is a unique blend of circus, street art, and dance, creating an emotional portrait of young people leaving their mark on the world. The show has been hailed by Time Out New York and Time Magazine as one of the top ten theater pieces of 2011.
But one audience segment was already familiar with “Traces”: kids who saw it years ago at The New Victory Theater, the first theater in New York City dedicated to youth and families.
The New Victory got its start as one of seven theaters revived by New 42nd St., the nonprofit created to revitalize Times Square in the mid-1990s. The organization took a dilapidated, shuttered theater with a risqué past (it was once a burlesque club) and renovated it to create something that New York didn’t have: a children’s theater presenting works from around the globe.
There were no children’s theaters in New York then. Though children enjoy it, parents tolerate it, and producers occasionally make money off of it, children’s theater is often dismissed as cutesy, condescending, and shallow. While there’s more respect for the loftier, artistic side of children’s theater in Europe and Australia, professionals everywhere struggle to prove its legitimacy.
But in recent years, noteworthy professionals from the adult theater world have crossed over into children’s theater, while exciting genres like new circus and physical theater are spreading and becoming popular. Such works, increasingly offered at spaces like BAM and Lincoln Center, aren’t designed for children or adults in particular; they appeal to any age group. But the New Victory was one of the first theaters to bring these genres to New York.
Everything that the New Victory stages originates with the programming department, a team of four who scour the world for the highest-quality children’s theater. Mary Rose Lloyd, the programming director, annually confronts the challenge of creating a season of shows that appeal to audiences ranging from preschoolers to teens. Some New Victory shows are age-specific, but most have universal elements that appeal to adults too.
Much of the planning, says Lloyd, is a happy accident: “It’s amazing to me… there’s some sort of thread from each show to the next, but it’s not something that’s prescribed. It’s about works that we love and we know children and adults are going to love.”
With its global range, The New Victory acts as a bridge between children’s theater in the US and the rest of the world, particularly Europe, whose children’s theater is quite different from ours.
“Children’s theater in the US is creating seasons of work that don’t tour,” she explains. “So we’re always looking for ways to help regional theaters think that they can tour. Being in New York is a national platform for them.” A number of regional theaters have presented work at the New Victory, and four have won regional Tonys, including The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the first children’s theater ever to do so.
But in European children’s theater, “there is an understood touring element. Most don’t necessarily have their own theater to present work. They just create it and use a touring network. They have it down!” Lloyd laughs. This creates smaller, more intimate shows that are easy to move without sacrificing production values. The New Victory encourages these companies to look for ways to scale up and create bigger, national work to fit the New Victory’s stage. The New Victory has hosted Scottish and Danish festivals featuring multiple works from each country.
With Lloyd frequently on the road, the rest of the staff reviews tape submissions. The team avoids saccharine fare. “Work for young audiences doesn’t have to be fuzzy bunny suits and simple language,” explains Lloyd. “There are opportunities for artists to create work that speaks to different ages in different ways. You can have an adult and a child in the same show and both have something interesting to talk about.”
“Traces,” for example, was produced by 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts de la Main in their native Montreal) with no particular age group in mind. Lloyd already knew them, having tried unsuccessfully to bring one of their earlier productions to the New Victory. The company pitched “Traces” as a younger-feeling show, perfect for The New Victory’s young but discerning audience. It ran in the spring of 2008, thrilling children with its circus-like acrobatics and moving adults with its powerful underpinning of young people trying to make a mark on their surroundings.
New Victory’s penchant for the cutting edge gives their shows interesting points of overlap with the adult theater world. For example, the popular immersive theater experience “Sleep No More” takes theatergoers into a haunted-house-like theater as Macbeth is performed. No one had seen anything like it – except the kids who saw the New Victory’s 2009 production of “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the audience trailed the main characters through the theater, past a memorable tableau featuring a forest of doll heads, en route to the witch’s house.
The New Victory’s Carrie Dubois marvels that “White,” a much-lauded New Victory show “won all sort of awards, yet it was specifically created for three-year-olds.”
With no doubt, audiences and professionals alike now look at children’s theater as a respectable artistic endeavor, making the New Victory programmers’ job a little easier. This season’s shows feature work from writers and producers with significant credentials. In March, “Lucky Duck,” described as a “fun, Glee-sque” musical from the Broadway-experienced team of Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls,” “Side Show”), Bill Russell (“Side Show”) and Jeffrey Hatcher (“Tuesdays with Morrie”) played to a target audience of four-to-eight-year-olds.
For ages 10 and up, there’s “The Book of Everything,” about an imaginative boy growing up in Australia. It’s directed by Neil Armfield, known for his work with Geoffrey Rush on “Exit the King” and “Diary of a Madman.” Rounded out by “Ahhh HA!,” a show combining acrobatics, comedy and live Afro-Hebrew music, this spring brings a New Victory mini-season with all sorts of crossovers into the adult theater world.
In fact, defining the precise target age for any given show can be a tricky matter. Laura Kaplow-Goldman, New Victory’s public relations director, observes that art is subjective and children mature differently. “What one five-year-old loves, another might be afraid of.”
Lloyd agrees, and isn’t too concerned about the occasional Facebook or Twitter complaint from someone who’s been offended. “As long as it makes them feel passionately one way or the other, that for me is what art is all about,” she adds. “The work is of a certain quality. It’s saying something interesting, and whether you disagree with what it’s saying or how it’s being said, that’s completely subjective.”
“Kids are such an avant-garde audience because their imaginations are limitless,” Lloyd says. “You don’t have to dumb it down for them.”
“The Book of Everything” will run April 20 through 29. Purchase tickets at newvictory.org