Van de Water sparks young artistry through drama

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When Manon van de Water crafts theatre productions for children and youth, she searches out stories that will ignite their creativity, sharpen their minds and expand their worldviews. But the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor also embraces a much more fundamental goal.

"It's very important that children discover for themselves what it is to be an artist," says the Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor of Theatre and Drama and Slavic Languages and Literature. "It can be through visual art, it can be through music, it can be through dance movements, or it can be through theatre and drama."

As part of her post as the director of the Department of Theatre and Drama's Theatre for Youth Program, van de Water runs the Theatre for Young Audiences Program (TYA), an outreach venture that shares productions tailored for young audiences with schoolchildren in the Madison area and beyond.

But, as she notes, "I don't do Cinderella." Instead, she prefers unfamiliar stories with relevant themes, relatable characters and unexpected locations.

Van de Water led a workshop on theatre for social change with Russian teenagers in 2011 in Rostov, Russia. Van de Water led a workshop on theatre for social change with Russian teenagers in 2011 in Rostov, Russia. (Photo by Mary McAvoy)

Most productions are geared for elementary school students, like 2012's Pedro and the War Cantata, an Argentine play that explores themes of resiliency and imagination. But some, like 2010's The Yum Yum Room, an Australian play that covers some of the classic causes of teenage angst, are aimed at adolescents.

"We want to give [the audience] something meaningful," van de Water says. "And if it's not meaningful, then why do it? … It doesn't mean that everybody has to like it. That's kind of a misconception in children's theatre."

The TYA program has received two Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment grants, the latest funding an initiative that brings the shows to the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. — allowing children from small towns such as Black Earth, Mineral Point and Plain to participate.

Van de Water, the chair of the board of the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network, is always on the lookout for new stories during her trips around the globe. She's always been a world traveler, dating back to her first job out of college as a tour guide for a bus company that chartered trips around Eastern Europe.

A Slavic languages and literature major at Leiden University in her native Netherlands, she had always held an interest in theatre since her childhood, when her mother performed in amateur groups.

She decided to pursue her passion and eventually settled on specializing in theatre for young audiences, after stops at the Utrecht School of the Arts, Penn State (M.A.) and Arizona State (Ph.D.). Van de Water arrived at UW-Madison in 1997, first as a visiting assistant professor, before joining the faculty on a permanent basis a year later.

In addition to heading up the TYA program, she teaches and oversees courses on the history of the discipline, the use of drama in education, and the wider applications of theatre, including one course that was inspired by her experience working with teachers who survived a school shooting in Russia.

Each spring, students from van de Water's Theatre and Drama 462 course visit schools to lead activities with the children ahead of the TYA show and provide study guides to teachers. Then, after the performance, the audience gets a backstage tour and participates in a workshop that allows the children to interact with the actors and explore key points from the story.

After performances of Pedro and the War Cantata, the audience of 8- to 12-year-olds empathized with the protagonist, a child who is trapped after a bombing raid. Later in the story, Pedro struggles to convince his mother to believe all the details of his predicament.

"I think it is really powerful when children connect with characters in a play who are disempowered by virtue of them being children and express how frustrating that can be," van de Water says.

Van de Water, who won the American Alliance for Theatre and Education 2013 Distinguished Book Award for Theatre, Youth and Culture: A Historical and Critical Exploration, is spending the 2013-14 academic year on sabbatical, so there won't be a regular TYA production this spring. But she has already chosen a play for 2015: At the Ark at Eight, a well-received German play about three penguins' journey to Noah’s Ark.