Imagination is seeing things differently

by Michael J Bobbitt

in Diversity & Inclusion,Theatre for Young Audiences

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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity and Inclusion Blog Salon: Theatre for Young Audiences

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

MICHAEL J. BOBBITT:  I am the Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC).  Located in Rockville and Glen Echo, Maryland,  ATMTC is the DC Region’s longest running children’s theatre and training academy.  My job is to have oversight of the vision, art, education programs and advancing the institution.  One of the most fun things is choosing a season, commissioning plays and putting teams of artists together to create memorable theatrical experiences with the goal of creating life-long audiences and/or new artists.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and gender?

MB: Black and male.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre?

MB: As a gay black father of a Vietnamese child, diversity, inclusion and most importantly, the celebration of culture, has become an essential part of my life and my work.  I am always on the hunt for artists, staff, board members, collaborators, partners, colleagues and supporters of diverse backgrounds.  It simply makes my life and art richer.  And, I believe that diversity is great for business.  Because of our efforts on this front, ATMTC’s patron base has grown from 18,000 patrons in 2007 to over 100,000 now.

JL: Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are?

MB: Absolutely.  Because of my race, I have gotten grants and scholarships to programs that have helped me become a better artist and arts leader.  It’s thrilling.

JL: Have certain doors been closed to you?

MB: None – that I can recall.  I certainly pressure myself to achieve “excellence”, perhaps, definitely and possibly because of my perception OR the reality of being an arts leader of color in a field that is predominately lead by non-people of color.  My work has to be better than others…because failure is not an option.

JL: What inspired you to work in the Theatre for Young Audiences field?

MB: The visceral and immediate gratification of seeing the affect that theatre can have on children.  Also, had it not been for those very early theater and art experiences, I would not have been “saved” from my situation.  The memory of seeing my first play is so strong.  Participating in arts programs in grade school saved me from an “at-risk”, “disadvantaged” life.  I want to give that to millions of other kids!

JL: What impact do you hope to have?

MB: I truly want to save kids like me…to create artists and turn young people into life-long audiences and supporters of art.  It haunts me daily.  It makes me very excited to come to work daily.  It is my life’s work and the reason that I was put on this planet.

JL: Do we need more organizations dedicated to fostering new plays for Theatre for Young Audience?

MB: YES.  I truly believe that the genre is growing.  In 2013, at the time of the Tony Awards, there were 7 shows on Broadway, adapted from works originally created for children.  This is huge!  If more organizations could jump aboard the bandwagon the genre would grow tremendously.  The astronomical benefits of creating lifelong audiences and supporters would grow tremendously.

JL: What is gained by focusing our attention, talent, and resources to this community?

MB: In Europe, the respect given to TYA is overwhelming.  Many European artists thrive on TYA.  The belief is that you must give them a GREAT experience when they are young and with that you will create great adult theatre artists and audiences.  It all starts with GREAT plays and then those great plays must be executed by great artists at great theatres.

JL: I’ve seen a number of YTA plays successfully address Bullying and Bad Behavior, Class and Economic Issues, Living with Disabilities, Diversity and Inclusion, Family Structures, Life Cycles (birth of a new sibling and death of a loved one) and Injustice and Violence. Why is it important that we introduce these topics to our young people?

MB: I believe that most TYA plays and most adult plays are written to shed light on specific societal issues.  I personally am not a fan of what I call “prescriptive theatre” or issue-based theatre.  I think great story telling that is theatrical, inventive and well-written will cover the “issue” and make it more memorable than writing plays based on specific issues.  Didactic and preachy theatre can be problematic.  However, theatre is a tremendous way to illuminate.  Imagination is seeing the world differently.  Creativity is bringing the imagination to life.  And…Art is the product of creativity.  Theatre can use imagination to assist in dealing with issues outlined.  But, for me, it always has to be entertaining.  Entertainment, for me, means diverting the mind.  This can be a fun, dramatic, silly, dark or tearful diversion.

JL: What can TYA Theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

MB: Seriously, I think we already do this better than any other genre of theatre out there.  And, I applaud us.  I want the world to recognize the profound effect that TYA has on the overall art form.

Michael J. Bobbitt is a director/choreographer (DC Region) Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre, Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Center Stage, Roundhouse Theatre, Strathmore, Kennedy Center, Helen Hayes Awards and Washington National Opera. (National/International) NY Musical Theatre Festival, Mel Tillis, La Jolla Playhouse, Jefferson PAC and Olympics.  (Training) Susquehanna University, Washington Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, AMDA, and Cap 21.  (Education) Coaching Initiative for Non Profit Leaders of Color – National Training Laboratories and Harvard Business School’s – Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management.  (Teaching) George Washington University, Catholic University, and Howard University, and the Washington Ballet.  He served on boards for Theatre for Young Audiences and American Alliance of Theatre and Education.  He was President of the League of Washington Theatres and currently, he serves on the board of theatreWashington.   His new musical, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, recently appeared at the New Victory Theatre in NYC.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.