How can we make sure children’s theatre speaks for children from less privileged, less white and less monocultural backgrounds, too?

This session was both a core session and an action session, included here as one report.
With huge thanks to the 11 people whose opinions are included below and who represent a wide range of perspectives - and apologies that I haven’t credited you by name, I’ve mislaid the list! I’ll add people’s names to the comments if it turns up, or please do add your own name if you were there.

This session was about inclusiveness, but didn’t cover disability/access or gender in any depth, because the focus was on class, colour and privilege - of course, both of the above are really important and warrant whole sessions too.

Some of the group didn’t like the term “children’s theatre”: but I prefer it to “theatre for young audiences” because it implies that the theatre belongs to the young people rather than being created for them by a higher power. Young People’s Theatre maybe - but I’ve already finished the notes now.


There are lots of brilliant examples of companies and artists doing amazing work in this area - but there is also a lot of children’s theatre which excludes a lot of children, either through access issues or through the content. Often this exclusion is inadvertent, unintended and unnoticed by the company / venue / critics. We shared recent examples of excluding practice which members of the group had seen, been concerned by and had not fed back on, for example (there were lots):

CLASS: Representing people living in a detached house as a nice middle class family while in the tower block nearby the only character we meet is a snoring drunkard
PRIVILEGE: Closing reassuring moral which excludes children who lack stable parenting / Show about going home: what about children in the audience for whom that’s
CULTURAL: Simplistic musical choices which thoughtlessly draw on / relate to negative stereotypes or complex histories around other cultures, eg. snake charmer, hot jazz / Similar movement choices, eg black characters being uncontrolled, more expressive, relates to the Ham Fat song and early 20th century USA perception of white people as more refined, cultured, restrained etc, which is wrapped up in racism and oppression
GENDER - Young boys and girls portrayed in stereotyped ways, eg. boys represented as boisterous


We noted that it’s really difficult to feed back on such things, as it can seem like you’ll offend / upset people. The power structures of theatre can mean that almost anyone is a potential employer / key relationship, so saying something about this stuff could be damaging to people’s careers, especially freelancers. We worry that the pool of critics and amateur critics (eg. Mumsnet) writing about this work is even less diverse than that around theatre for adults, as there are so few children’s theatre critics.

We agreed that it’s important to encourage critical discourse about the implicit messages included in children’s theatre and their potential impact, because children soak up these messages: they are conditioning. How much are we limiting children’s life choices with these messages?

We wouldn’t do theatre for adults without expecting critical responses and thoughtful discourse, and accepting them as an important part of how we keep making our work better: we should be just as thorough and ambitious when it comes to children’s work, and that includes around inclusion/exclusion.

We’re lacking depth of critical discourse around children’s theatre anyway: the recent arrival of Children’s Theatre Reviews has made a big difference for the better, and other emerging children’s theatre criticis are starting to make a mark too, but there are still very few of them - and often they focus more on the skill of the performers and creators than on the broader context, messages, representation etc. Work for young people is really complex and extremely hard to do well, so it deserves great depth and breadth of consideration from really varied perspectives, which it’s not getting yet. Children are highly critical, so the least we can do is try to match their discerning perceptiveness.

It’s really important that critics see plays for children in a wide range of settings / contexts. If you make a show for inner-city community centres and then it only gets reviewed when it visits an arts centre in the suburbs with predominantly white middle-class audiences, can the reviewer really assess the value, impact and quality of the work? If reviews only assess productions when they’re performed in less inclusive settings, it’s harder for critics to spot/point out when the productions themselves are excluding.

We need to encourage more emerging critics who are interested in this kind of discourse, and in the needs of a wider range of children: it’d be brilliant if there was a development scheme for children’s theatre critics focussed on this area. We should encourage parents bringing children to see shows in less privileged contexts to be as vocal online as the middle-class amateur reviewers - how can companies encourage them? Actually reaching out to them about it would be a start. We could develop new ways of using social media to enable young parents to tell us what they think (esp. via mobile phones which are accessible to the widest range of people, and are ever-present in people’s lives).

It takes a long time making children’s theatre and considerable determination to discover the more rigourous discourse: which means that although it’s out there, it risks being self-filtering. Encouraging amanteur and professional critics to feed back on issues around inclusion in our work would help the ideas reach practitioners who are less focussed on inclusion and implicit messaging.

Does the lack of critical discourse stem partly from conventional categorisation of theatre for children and young people as less important, less rigorous, less good, than its adult counterpart? (This perspective is common outside children’s theatre but practitioners making work for young audiences rarely see it that way).

We mentioned that things are improving in this respect already, eg. some of the outcomes of Assitej’s recent funding of several UK practitioners to travel to their festival in South Africa and report on their discoveries. The London Children’s Theatre Consortium is a really useful network which facilitates critical feedback, but it’s only London (I think this is peer-to-peer feedback but wasn’t sure).

People are more likely to fall into traps / stereotypes when they’re making children’s theatre. A lot of people have a ‘lazy attitude’ when they’re devising theatre for children: just being delighted with every idea that’s formally strong, even if it’s let down by being excluding. There’s a risk the whole culture of saying Yes and accepting offers in devising could exacerbate that. It’s not intentional - but how can you remind people early on in a process, and keep reminding them, to consider inclusion? There’s a general feeling that too many people making theatre for children simply aren’t thinking about this stuff, so they don’t see elephant-sized problems.

One person confirmed these suspicions, saying they’d worked in a larger organisation which just doesn’t have any culture of thinking about this stuff: “it’s not in their consciousness”. Yet larger organisations and umbrella companies have a big responsibility when they’re commissioning and presenting work to have oversight on these issues. We all agree that it does take conscious hard work, it’s not easy to get this stuff right. We should be consulting widely about our work, not just consulting with white middle class people.

Dramaturgical input has the potential to make a big difference: but smaller companies often don’t have someone in the room who’s got perspective, keeping an eye on the bigger picture. This ties into the lack of mid-scale work getting made, too. Obviously with co-productions the other venues or companies might be able to contribute to this.

How can people feed back on this stuff? Could send anonymous letter to the venue, who might pass feedback on to the company. Audience feedback forms often land with you before you’re processed your thoughts. We need to find new ways to facilitate feedback which challenges children’s theatre makers around exclusion: because someone who’s feeling excluded doesn’t feel invited to contribute their feedback!

Perhaps some high-quality children’s theatre awards would help? Fantastic for Families / the Family Ats Awards are already covering some of that ground, albeit across a wide range of artforms.


“Hard-hitting” / emotionally challenging issues Vs. perception of the role of theatre for children being escapism. Many children are really going through some difficult stuff, eg. poverty, losing parents, caring responsibilities, and they can process it through theatre if the theatre allows the space for that. Patrick Lynch (presume this is referring to the director of Lyngo Theatre) has taken a philosophical approach, he took a child’s thought about death offered up in the moment into the show: he accepted the weight of that. And by accepting the weight of what a child is going through, you’re actually accepting that child, validating what they have to offer. The theatre is an important safe space to open avenues for difficult conversations. This is even more important for children growing up in more challenging environments, who might be facing very difficult issues on a regular basis.

Some theatre-makers and parents may frown on that, seeking a more ‘frothy’, ‘escapist’ offer - which is also seen as more commercial. Yet popular tales always have lots of darkness in, from fairytales (cutting off toes etc) to Peppa Pig (who is allegedly ‘mean’). It’s crucial we see the difference between populist and escapist: Hetty Feather is a brilliant example of an optimistic, celebratory show which doesn’t shy away from poverty, death and all sorts of darkness which reflects the experiences of children in Britain today. Gritty issue-based TIE has an important place, but you can also do fantastical, humourous, magic realist stuff about the problems and challenges young people face in their daily lives. Of course, if you’re using theatrical metaphors and analogy, it’s even more crucial to think about what those images represent: during rehearsal / development processes we need to keep asking ourselves “what are we actually SAYING with this image / idea / moment?”.

There is a value in the conversations children have with parents afterwards to facilitate children processing what they’ve experienced in the theatre and how it relates to their lives: but why aren’t those questions being asked within the production itself? Is it excluding to presume proactive parental involvement? Since this session was inspired by a 37 year-old feeling excluded from a show which presumed proactive parental involvement, well - yes.

C. HOW MIGHT FORM/STYLE EXCLUDE CHILDREN? It’s not just about the content…

We need to approach making theatre for children in the same way as we approach making theatre for adults. It needs a good story, told with the same intention as you’d have when telling any other story: not a didactic, ‘child-friendly’ mode, which implies that you think they’re as important in this performative transaction as you are. Above a certain age, parents don’t talk to their to children with a singy-song voice and intense eyes, so why do some performers? There’s value in letting children take the lead in engagement, being almost a bit standoffish so they’ve made the choice to invite you into their emotional world rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into yours.

Problems around teachers and parents enforcing their own expectations of traditional “sit up and shut up” “seen and not heard” theatre behaviour which is redolent of Victorian culture and of British cultural conditioning: a lot of accepted rules for behaviour in the theatre are closely tied in with class, status and cultural background. If a child isn’t drawn into the performance, that’s the theatre-maker’s fault - not the child’s or the adult’s. We had an interesting discussion about different ways of communicating different kinds of rules to adults who instinctively want to police the space, eg. pre-warning them that our expectations are different from theirs, eg. “No shushing!” signs. The added benefit of this is many adults feeling the theatre is ‘not for them’ because of their expectation of the rules, so if we can show them the rules have changed they’re more likely to bring their child along - and more likely to pass on a positive feeling about engaging with the production and with the venue and theatre more widely. We need clear info about the rules on publicity eg. anecdote about lots of potential audience members not going to a show because they didn’t know what they should wear.

Parental engagement is a crucial factor in reaching a wider range of children. Children don’t make decisions about what theatre they see! We could counteract this with much better pre-engagement materials aimed at children (these can also be used to help a wider range of children engage), giving children more agency in making informed choices, and creating recognition when they see the show.
Eg. Parent at show “well I had had to bring her cos she wouldn’t stop watching the video: after she played it ten times I bought tickets!”

Creating child-friendly apps or websites modelled on Cbeebies etc, where children can encounter the characters, music and imaginative landscapes of several different productions, and choose which ones they want to get to know better. Look at doing this locally across lots of different venues’ programmes, or for larger venues / festivals to do it across their season. Could be tied in with feedback generation, eg. forms for contact with makers, interactive child-friendly feedback games for each production, etc

Foyer design has a massive impact on how people feel like they should behave (what they think the rules are) and hence whether they feel like they fit in / are welcome. I think foyer design is one of the most excluding factors in theatre and one of the easiest thing to change! Friendly participatory foyer events can help to change the perceived rules of that space.


There’s a more privileged / narrower pool of people making theatre for young audiences because of UK’s changed financial situation, from drama school fees to the benefits system, pricing out poorer creators.

Often you find people trying to be inclusive but getting it wrong because they don’t have a broad enough life experience within the company creating the show, to have an informed understanding of the complexities of it: ie. they don’t have lived experience of what they’re putting on stage, so it doesn’t ring true, doesn’t work or even offends. I mean, how many AfroCaribbean children’s theatre companies exist? Theatre for young audiences is a deeply exclusive world, more so than a lot of theatre, and it’s unreasonably and dispiritingly weighted towards white middle class audiences’ needs and concerns.

Helpful to go directly to the source (children! and their parents!) ie. to include a wider range of people (with more varied life experiences) in the development process of children’s theatre in different ways, from early workshops and feedback sessions feeding into the shape of a show, to contributing to programming (like at Manchester’s Contact Theatre) and contributing within performances themselves.

Positive representation makes a real difference to children’s self-esteem and aspirations: for instance, young girls often stop other girls playing the “wrong” roles in imaginative play, because they’re so powerfully conditioned about what women can and can’t do - and children’s theatre has the power to send different messages, to widen their expectations of what women can be. There still aren’t enough brown faces visible to children in the media / popular culture, which is really damaging to children’s perception of their own value: we theatre practitioners must challenge that. But how many theatre shows focus on non-White/Western characters without that being the crux of their role, or being specifically used to highlight something?

Why are there sometimes excluding messages in productions with diverse casting?
Some diverse performers might not mind if the way their role develops is culturally insensitive: eg. the Mum of the boy in the monkey T-shirt in H&M advert didn’t have a problem with it. But does that mean that no other black people can have a problem with it? It’s a bit like a blonde woman perpetuating / playing the ditzy stereotype and other women being like (raises eyebrow and looks unimpressed) “Oh, really?”. Or if performers do mind, they might not have a voice - again we come back to the question of how do you raise these things? There’s a worrying culture of silence around this stuff - it’s too hard to say what you think. We need to make it ok to do that.

We all need to take a step back and think about how what we’re presenting comes across: we must think more carefully about how we’re making children feel. It basically just comes down to caring about your audience and their role in the experience.


‘Known titles’ are encouraged by venues as they’re a safer bet commercially, but this focus on children’s literature is especially problematic: the canon of children’s literature overwhelmingly favours British cultural heritage, representing a mainly white, ‘western’, middle class worldview which often teeters on the edge of outright colonialism and misogyny (and regularly falls right in!).

It’s not enough to just tell stories from less diverse societies with colour-blind casting: we need to be telling more stories from different cultures / backgrounds too. I can hardly name any, which is really bad! If I try and think of really well-known non-European children’s stories and I lump Aesop’s Fables into one that’s shocking - we’re talking fingers of one hand! Even the Arabian Nights are edited and in some cases actually written by an English man in a much more prejudiced era.

It’s worth noting that most fairy tales have multiple versions across a wide range of cultures: the Aarne-Thompson classification system is an attempt to assess this, for instance the tale collected in Germany, 'Hansel and Gretel' is story type 327a, ‘The Children and The Witch’. This story-type is represented in different cultures as Little Thumb (France), Jan and Hanna (Poland), Magic Flight (African American), The Witch (Russia), Juan and Maria (Philippines), Ninnillo and Nennella (Italy), Old Grule (Moravia), The Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother (Romania) and Molly Whuppie (England). When practitioners are approaching / adapting stories familiar in our canon, we could at least check out how the same stories are told in other cultures and be open to those tellings informing our interpretations.

We urgently need a more diverse lexicon of stories. We need to develop and use an easily-accessible archive of children’s stories from around the world, and theatres need to take braver programming decisions: to step away from the safe draw of the known story in favour of making a wider range of stories known.

Children’s responses can also raise complex questions: eg. someone told an anecdote about “two little white boys” who REALLY loved the Disney film Moana and therefore covered themselves in fake tattoos to look like a character from the film, a Polynesian God: which could be problematic in lots of ways!

Fairytales can be really interesting to explore from a class-perspective, but are all too often told through the lens of earlier British interpretations of them: so all that rawness around poverty etc somehow becomes twee, it loses its weight.

Children’s theatre is really far behind when it comes to including disabled artists and audiences! We didn’t discuss this in much depth I’m afraid, but it’s obviously really important. I hope there’ll be a session on this at D&D soon. In the meantime I recommend everyone books ‘A Square World’ by Daryl Beeton (@darylbeeton) which is mind-bogglingly brilliant and funny and also it’s about inclusion.

Representation is about so much more than just people’s physical selves (race, gender etc - which obviously are very important), for example:
- language: 44% of children in Birmingham have English as an additional language, but surprisingly little of the work made for them tries to reach out to them in different ways or celebrate their rich linguistic experiences
- geography: how many shows represent urban inner-city environments, or council estates, or tower blocks, in any kind of positive way? Why are the fantasy landscapes almost always rural? And European-looking?
- cultural heritage, eg. welcoming a wider range of musical and choreographic influences into the work, and doing so sensitively, respectfully and skillfully

Fairytales and many modern stories are deeply problematic from a gender perspective: especially when considered as a body of work, as a cultural canon. The gender roles portrayed are so out of date they’re both damaging and ridiculous: how come having a female character who’s a mechanic or an engineer is still surprising in children’s theatre, in this day and age?! The heterosexual romantic love wrap-up is still the accepted norm in children’s theatre: and yet “there are so many middle aged men in therapy because things haven’t worked out according to the plan they learnt from children’s books (and plays)”.

It’s not as simple as having some non-heterosexual romance, or making the happy couples representative in other ways: the problem is that marriage and romantic love themselves are so ingrained (Bella di Paolo is doing interesting research on this). So arguably more important is counteracting the idea that being single is bad: a state to be overcome. We need more happy endings which don’t rely on romance! We need to explore different kinds of love more: romantic love is only one of SEVEN types guys. We need even more shows that celebrate friendship, and parent-child love, and sibling relationships, and elderlyperson-child double acts, etc etc!


Below are all the actions people suggested during the sessions, taken from the notes above. I’m thinking about how I could move some of them forward, but I don’t have huge resources and we don’t have one perfect solution: it’s about lots of people deciding to take action because this stuff matters.

If people have ideas for making any of these happen, or suggestions of other actions to help make children’s theatre more inclusive, please add them to the comments below :-)

1. Work to change the culture of the organisations/ensembles we work in/with, developing a culture of thinking about inclusion and exclusion and making sure it’s in people’s consciousness. There’s a worrying culture of silence around these issues - it’s too hard to say what you think. We need to make it ok to do that.
2. Stimulate broad critical discourse in the industry about the implicit messages included in children’s theatre and their potential impact
3. Keep reminding people to consider implicit messages and inclusion/exclusion throughout rehearsal and development processes: keep asking ourselves “what are we actually SAYING with this image / idea / moment?”. Take a step back and think about how it comes across.
4. A website which invites articles and reviews specifically relating to exclusion in children’s theatre
5. It’s really important that critics see plays for children in a wider range of settings / contexts
6. Encourage emerging critics who are interested in this kind of discourse, and in the needs of a wider range of children, eg. a development scheme for children’s theatre critics focussed on this area.
7. Encourage parents bringing children to see shows in less privileged contexts to be as vocal online as middle-class non-professional reviewers, develop social media feedback technologies
8. Find new ways to facilitate feedback which challenges children’s theatre makers around exclusion
9. Get or offer dramaturgical input, oversight, CPD or support: create/join peer-to-peer networks
10. Creating a safe space for difficult conversations, and accepting the weight of what children might be going through (complex safeguarding / pastoral care responsibilities arise from this)
11. Let adults know when the ‘rules’ aren’t as strict as they expect in the theatre, both in advance and during the show
12. Develop child-friendly pre-engagement materials like apps or websites modelled on Cbeebies etc where children can encounter the characters, music and imaginative landscapes of productions
13. Work with artists to make foyer spaces more welcoming and less excluding, and put on participatory foyer events which invite children and relatives to contribute to the space
14. Include a wider range of people (with more varied life experiences) in the development process of children’s theatre, from early workshops and feedback sessions feeding into the shape of a show, to contributing to programming and contributing within performances themselves.
15. Tell more stories from less white and less privileged cultures: theatres must be braver about programming and commissioning stories that aren’t as “known” (by them)
16. Create an easily accessible archive of stories from around the world, to make different stories “known”
17. Re-imagine fairytales and classic stories from perspectives other than the Victorian / early 20th century English interpretation
18. Enhance class/cultural representation in terms of language, geography and cultural heritage too
19. Create children’s shows with non-romantic happy endings, celebrating friendship and other kinds of love!
20. Make sure we’re teaching students in drama schools and drama degree courses about inclusion, exclusion, conditioning messages, our responsibilities as children’s theatre makers: this stuff should underpin everybody’s practice, and that means people need an in-depth awareness of it.