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Dave Deveau talks TYA on an international scale

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Playwright Dave Deveau returned from the ASSITEJ conference in South Africa with fresh excitement about the power of theatre for young audiences.  Kathleen talked to him about the conference and TYA in general.  ASSITEJ is the acronym for the French name of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.  Canada has been a member of ASSITEJ for more than forty years.

KF:  Can you tell me about the conference itself and what you were doing there?

DD:  The conference itself was ASSITEJ’s annual conference – ASSITEJ is this umbrella organization for Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) around the world and they have a major conference every three years.  There’s a conference aspect, there’s a festival so there were about 50 shows from all around the world and there’s the Congress – they put a call out for TYA practitioners who are 36 and under to come, spend what they call a  residency, spend 12 days at the festival, taking part as a group, attending panels, attending shows, to try to introduce people from different parts of the planet who have somewhat of the same practice to each other. I was the one Canadian who was accepted.  And, of the 30 of us, 10 were from SA, and another 10 were from other African countries, and the remaining ten were from non-African countries.  Around our table were delegates, myself, one from US, one from Cuba, one from Norway, Russia, Wales, India, one from Honduras, from Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and on and on and on. It was really quite an amazing and diverse group of people in viewpoint, in how far they are in their career, and in practice. Of the 30 of us, there were about 8 playwrights, which was really lovely, and we’re now exchanging plays and reading each other’s work, which is cool. And it was just exciting… I mean my biggest question going into the conference was, “What is theatre for young audiences through the lens of wherever these people are positioned on the planet?” because I think in North America it has a particular context and it’s very different elsewhere, certainly in the work we were seeing. There was a lot of work that I might not necessarily have labelled TYA but it certainly resonated with a variety of patrons.

KF:  Wow, that’s fantastic!  So, what did you see?

DD:  I saw about 30 shows from around the world and some of them very much felt like what we would call TYA, they were narrative based. I will say that the South African work was a lot grittier. I just mean in the actual subject matter it was tackling and it took me awhile to realize that, while a lot of the TYA that we see in North America feels very safe, is that we live in a pretty safe bubble in our corner of the world.  I mean, I saw a show, a really phenomenal show, that dealt with gang rape, and depicted gang rape onstage in a really theatrical powerful and haunting way, and I thought, “This would never…this would just never happen in North America.” But gang rape of high school aged women is a thing in South Africa, it was in the news constantly when I was there, so the work is responding to the world of young people.

KF:  It happens in North America too, though.

DD:  It definitely does. I also think that it’s a different….the artistic conversation doesn’t get caught up in what administrators will allow young people access to. And so I don’t fully know what that looks like. There were tons of young people at the conference, attending the shows. I don’t know about the interior politics of what they did or did not pick to see, but that show sold out every performance.

KF:  So you’re saying in North America we have to go through schools ….is that what you’re saying?

DD:  In a way, yes. There was also a really really powerful show about terrorism called Us/Them by the Belgian company Bronks, which was out of this world.  Over the course of the show many young children die. It’s a hostage situation. Based on an actual case. I think because, certainly in Vancouver, and generally in Canada, we exist in a bit of a bubble… I mean, really, when you look at our continent, there are three countries, and we only border one country and it’s the biggest cultural exporter on the planet. We’re very much influenced by what the status quo becomes. Whereas African and European countries have so many other aesthetics around them to pull from and be influenced by, so I think it was really intriguing to see what that offers. There was a different point of view, an exciting point of view.

KF:  I guess you were excited.

DD:  I was. I came into the conference pretty exhausted and a bit deflated, you know, I was thinking, “Does theatre even fucking matter? Like, who cares?” I mean, I would say the average Vancouverite doesn’t, in all honesty. But there’s something really incredible, in the first day it became clear that theatre, certainly theatre for young people, matters so vibrantly in every cultural context that I came in contact with. I think in a way that we don’t necessarily give it credit here. I learned a lot. TYA in Canada is still very much regarded as a lesser form, which is fascinating.

KF:  By the professional theatre people?

DD:  I think so. And I saw some exquisite [work]…I also saw some total garbage, let’s make no mistake, it was a real mix. But I got to meet practitioners and artistic directors and curators from nearly every part of the world, and it was eye-opening.  I think so much of my practice revolves around TYA and I think that I’m now taking ownership of that in a way that I haven’t previously. I like writing for young people and I’m good at it and it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to write for other audiences, but I think that might be my primary focus in writing (laughs).

KF:  So, you’re saying in some ways that going to this conference actually affected your practice.

DD: Definitely. No question. And I think I’m at an interesting career crossroads in some way. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success in getting my work produced, locally anyway, and I’m trying to figure out what the next 10 years look like. And I think I’m keen to take on a more active role in the global TYA conversation. So, what does that look like? I don’t know yet, but it starts with getting more involved with helping build the Canadian ASSITEJ to something that it’s not yet. Compared to the other ASSITEJ organizations that we were in contact with, the Canadian one doesn’t exist.

KF:  So, what is the Canadian conversation in TYA about?

DD:  I think we’re still very much at the mercy of what school boards are equipped to handle. Because a play does open up a conversation in the student body and if a board or a principal or a teacher is not equipped to handle what that conversation becomes, then they can’t work with the show.  I was really curious, watching that show about gang rape with a bunch of young people, “What is that conversation that’s now happening when they get back to class?” Certainly the show that I’m now working on with Roseneath that will open in March in Toronto is about transgendered kids and my friend Mark Crawford has had a show on tour this past season with Carousel Theatre about transgendered kids that was met with a lot of…um…defiance and a lot of the tour dates got cancelled because schools panicked. Which makes me believe that that’s exactly what we should be writing about. It’s a funny thing. I think we’ve become really comfortable with bringing in something safe and uncomplicated that won’t engage young people to ask too many questions. And that feels like a backward approach to art. So. The work that I was seeing that really has meaning for me was work that…provoked people, that actually made you talk about things and analyze things and question your politics about things. I think we don’t think that young people are, in North America… (laughs) I don’t want to talk shit about North American TYA because I write a lot of it, but I think kids are way smarter than we’re giving them the opportunity to be. I mean, I did get a commission out of the festival. The festival didn’t commission me, but I’m going to be writing a show for the Nashville Children’s Theatre as a result of my time at the conference, which is great.  Also, interesting for me to start learning what that US model looks like. It’s a different thing. I mean, I would say all of my TYA at least started in the model of work that is touring to schools. Some of my shows have been picked up and have been happening in a theatre context, but it’s very different for me now to conceive of a show for a theatre that people are going to come to. In October I’m going to go to Nashville to see the space, what is possible here? what excites me about this? It’s important – space and creation are so intrinsically connected.

KF:  When you’re writing for tour you have to think differently, don’t you?

DD:  Yeah, Patrick [MacDonald] at Green Thumb, when he commissioned my first show for them, the important lessons were:  You will never have a lighting design. So, stop thinking in the context of blackouts or spotlights or anything that’s drawing focus, it’s not going to happen, you’re in a gym. And you really have the first 90 seconds of a show to win over your audience. Because they’re in a gym sitting on the floor. None of them bought a ticket to the show. There is no one in the audience who has purchased a ticket to the show, so you gotta work for it. Great lessons.

KF:  Did anything depress you that you saw? You talked a little bit about what excited you, and if you want to go on with that…

DD:  I think what simultaneously excited and depressed me was that a lot of the work we saw does not end “beautifully” nor particularly hopefully. Which I found interesting, because certainly within my practice and in the companies that I work with, you can get a bit of darkness in there, but there does need to be – it doesn’t have to tie up tidily, but there does need to be a sense of hope. But I did definitely see some fairly hopeless work, which I found really… there was one show, actually the show that had the gang rape sequence in it, that really angered me and it actually took me a few days to realize how much I was affected by the show and how much I actually liked the show.  Because it… I have a hard time onstage with completely unlikeable characters, because I don’t actually believe they exist. Everyone must have some element of… I think it’s simplistic for there to be good guys and bad guys and those guys are thoroughly good and thoroughly bad. And there was just this character, I just wanted some sort of lightness…somewhere…

KF:  So it made you angry?

DD:  It did. Because, I mean… a few things made me angry. And sometimes I would be frustrated because I would see a show and I’d think, “This is utter garbage.” and other people would say, “This is brilliant work.” And we’d be able to have that discussion of, “Okay, I’m totally willing to be wrong. What’s successful about it?”

KF:  What did you find?

DD:  A lot of it is context. I come from a North American character narrative-driven shows, and some of the work has elements of narrative that aren’t followed through, and, like some people are against narrative, don’t have time for it.  So it was nice to see, it was nice in no way to be an expert. None of us was. We were all accomplished in our own right in whatever the context, but there’s nothing…everything can only exist in the context in which it’s seen. So some shows that I think would be a resounding hit here, fall flat with that audience. I saw a few dance shows that I thought were cool and there were two contemporary dancers in our group, “Oh my gawd, that’s brutal, that’s the worst thing I’ve seen!” “Probably, because I know nothing about contemporary dance, so…” It was nice.

KF:  Tell me about the terrorism show. Can you describe that? Was it a successful piece?

Young woman and young man kneeling amidst a 3-D blueprint

WIJ/ZIJ (US/THEM – NOUS/EUX) Photo: FKPH

DD:  Hugely successful piece.  I would have seen it again if I could. A two-hander. It was probably the most playful and funny show we saw. Which feels like a real achievement. It starts off with two characters dressed as school kids, a boy and girl, on an empty stage except there’s a wall with a bunch of hooks that look like you’d hang coats on, a vestibule.  And they spend the first ten minutes chalking out a very elaborate blueprint on the floor of what their school looks like, every individual room. And it’s pretty exhaustive. And then eventually. (snaps fingers) What I liked about it was you had to keep up with it. It didn’t introduce ideas, it just, it would just make declarative statements that you would have to “what? what?” So, they’d explain, this is the blueprint of the school and this is why we couldn’t get out that door because if we exited out that door we’d run right into the other terrorists. “What? what?” It’s about a whole school and a whole bunch of kids and teachers who get taken as hostages by terrorists. And it became interesting as it progressed because it’s an actual case that happened in, Beslan, near the border with Chechnya. It’s a Russian story, but told by Belgians. And it felt like, “Oh, interesting, and you’re telling it in a particular context. And I’m in, I’m really resonating.”  But I was sitting with my colleague, the delegate from Russia, who had a VERY different experience watching the show.  And…. anyway, the set ends up being very elaborate, it’s all hidden and it’s playful. The whole thing feels like a schoolyard game, these kids one-upping each other, about how crazily and aggressively they can tell the story. And over the course of the show, they die, and they continue telling the story as corpses. It’s really dark! But it’s powerful.

KF:  Your Russian colleague, what was her reaction?

DD:  Well, she had questions about whether it was their story to tell.  She had questions about whether the depiction of the terrorists felt a bit culturally unsound, perhaps. She’s in a difficult place. She’s an artist and curator who lives in a country run by Putin. It’s complicated. That show’s amazing. I’m really really hoping we’re going to find a way to get it here. There’s such an audience for this, and it includes young people, but it includes everyone. It’s a great conversation starter.

KF:  Fantastic. Do you have anything else you want to say?

DD:  For me, getting out of the one particular postage stamp of the world in which we create work was unbelievably useful in shaking up my understanding of what’s possible in theatre. And I know that it’s not easy for everyone to say, “Okay, I’m going to fly across the world and experience theatre.” But, it was pretty powerful for me to see representation from truly every part of the world, who all believe in how important it is to expose young people to artistry of one kind or another. And all of those styles of artistry were so drastically different from the very specific context of artistry that we see here. And I think it’s important for any artist to remember that. We’re all struggling to find enough work and the frustrations we have with the work we see, “Oh, this doesn’t resonate with me.” Maybe you’re just not seeing work in the right part of Canada.  And that’s tricky in theatre, because we just don’t document it in the same way. But it did a world of good for me.

KF: Thank you, Dave.