Current Projects

Playwriting & Young Audiences
This book, co-authored with playwright Nicole B. Adkins and under contract with Intellect Press for release winter 2016/17, presents a comprehensive and polyvocal overview of the process of developing scripts for young people. While many texts addressing topics such as playwriting offer the perspective of a single artist and her or his process, this book is unique in that it explores the multidimensionality of all aspects of the playwriting process by drawing on original interviews conducted with over seventy-five playwrights, artistic directors, publishers, and others invested in creating new work for young audiences as well as a comprehensive literature review that ascertained the views of influential individuals in the field over the last four centuries.

The book tackles surprisingly difficult questions such as: "What is playwriting for youth?" Rather than offering concrete answers, it presents spectrums of views from established leaders in the field, ranging from arguments that writing for young people is no different than writing for any other audience to the idea that there are very detailed criteria that must be considered. While the authors ultimately sometimes advocate for particular viewpoints, these arguments are always contextualized in the broader conversation and acknowledge and articulate dissenting views.

Part one shares the perspectives of the theatre & education professionals interviewed regarding playwriting and youth culture through other complex questions such as: “Who are ‘young’ audiences?”  Some define “young audiences” exclusively as elementary-school-aged children, while others include infants as young as a few months or even people as old as 21. Still others argue that biological age is an artificial construct, or that age is an inappropriate measure to employ when considering theatre content and form. We review each of these perspectives in detail and provide rationales gleaned from our interviews.

The book next provides brief history of playwriting for young people designed to help readers understand how contemporary practices stem from the field's rich history that dates to at least Ancient Greece, challenging the concept that creating plays for children and adolescents is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. It details trends throughout history that inform our understanding of what theatre for young people “is,” has been, and could be, while

The second part of the book introduces factors that writers of plays for youth must consider, including potential audiences, performers, and venues. It discusses how production companies’ needs and resources, including cast size and physical performance spaces affect the playwright’s process, particularly for commissioned works or pieces that the playwright hopes will be playable in a variety of venues. It then reviews current debates regarding other considerations that inform the playwriting process, from scripts’ content (“appropriate” topics, themes, language, and ideas); imagery; voice / diction; characters, length and complexity; and genre (e.g. adaptations, musicals, and participatory theatre, et. al.).

Recognizing that there are a wealth of general playwriting texts available, the book next explores how the writing process can differ when writing for youth as opposed to “adult” audiences based on our interviews and experiences. For example, it presents views on if it is it necessary for collaborators such as directors, dramaturges, and composers to have prior experience in working with scripts for youth, and, if so, how one finds these collaborators. If one’s collaborators are new to the field, how can a playwright help work most effectively with them throughout the process? What is the importance of previewing new works before audiences of their target demographic(s) during the development process and how does one find young people to participate as respondents? What new play development processes already exist in the theatre for youth market? How does one determine their own best process?

The book then turns to the theoretical literature related to ethical issues in playwriting for youth, such as the representation of children on stage (often by adult actors playing roles written by adult playwrights), and how the ideological agenda of funding agencies, producers, and other agencies often play a strong role in forming the content and structure in plays for young people. It also reviews recent research in young audience response theory, detailing what is known to date about how young people respond to theatre in complex and nuanced ways not always dissimilar from adults.  

The final section of the book considers the "business" of writing plays for young audiences: getting paid to write, getting published, and getting produced. It presents a variety of views as to whether one can make a living writing plays for youth and if so, how. It explores how playwrights can see their work brought to life on stage, emphasizing the importance of developing strong collaborative relationships and professional networks in the field. A number of questions regarding publishing are explored including how to determine which publishing companies might be most appropriate for particular types of scripts, and what protocols are appropriate for approaching various companies.

The book's concluding chapter explores the question every reader may be wondering by this point: given the complicated and exhausting nature of writing plays for youth, why might one bother to do so at all? Drawing from interviewee’s responses and the authors' own passion for this field, it highlights the joys, rewards, and profits of writing theatre for young people, leaving readers to search for their own personal answers to this question as they pursue writing plays for youth themselves. 

 

 

 

Voices of Now: Devising Oringinal Autobiographical Theatre with Communities at Arena Stage
This book, co-authored with Arena Stage Director of Education Ashley Forman, explores the Voices of Now (VoN) educational theatre program at Arena Stage, an internationally recognized professional theatre company in Washington, DC.  Forman founded the program eleven years ago for the purpose of engaging urban youth in the processes of devising, rehearsing, and performing original theatre productions based on their lived experiences while engaging critically with contemporary issues and advocating for social change. The young participants (referred to hereafter as “artists,” the term used by VoN facilitators) identify relevant themes and develop plays based on their lives and communities. Each ensemble writes a script using solely the words of the young artists, who eventually perform their plays in both public, professionally-supported productions at Arena Stage and in their schools and communities. VoN has grown exponentially over the last decade and now serves hundreds of young artists annually. Many ensembles are based at under-funded schools in densely populated neighborhoods in the DC area. Others are based in suburban communities in Virginia and Maryland, while VoN has recently developed international ensembles in India and Croatia.  

While the program has gained national and international recognition and acclaim, no major research study has considered the history, practices, and possible impacts of the program. This book project helps fill this gap in the literature through a critical exploration of the program’s theoretical foundations and programmatic practices. The book seeks to serve both scholars in the field of Applied Theatre as well and practitioners seeking to replicate, adapt, and build upon develop its practices.

Several key components of this research project address the intersections of devised theatre & social justice. In particular, the book will document and analyze how young people engage with, interrogate, affirm and/or critique cultural constructs of gender, sexual identity, race/ethnicity, ability, class, and religion as they create original theatre pieces that represent themselves and their world. The VoN program is grounded in progressive philosophies and actively seeks to engage its participants in critical discourse with social issues. This book interrogates how both the young artists and adult facilitators shape the representation of youth and culture throughout the process as they collaborative build an original theatre piece.

This project explores the important but under-documented and under-theorized work of an internationally recognized Applied Theatre program and will be of value to both scholars and practitioners in the field. Furthermore, books of this nature, which consider contemporary trends in theatre practice through the lens of particular companies that exemplify those practices, have become popular in recent years as ways for scholars to share the work of specific groups of artists/practitioners while also allowing others to replicate or expand on those programs. For example, Sonja Kuftinec demonstrates how the Cornerstone Theatre’s work with community-based arts practices can serve as a model for other artists interested in creating theatre grounded in the context of particular communities in Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theatre, while Michael Rohd documents the work of the Hope is Vital theatre company in Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue to illustrate how theatre can be used as a tool to resolve conflicts through theatre-based dialogue.

Multiple research methods are used throughout the book. Chapters documenting the program’s founding, major events in its history, and early plays created by young artists draw extensively on analysis of primary documents from the archive. While documenting historic events, however, these chapters maintain a historiographical focus, analyzing how the story of VoN has been told and promoted (or not) in various contexts, epochs, and to particular audiences, and attempting to reveal how ‘official’ narratives of the broader history of the field of Applied Theatre may have marginalized or omitted information about VoN and similar programs while emphasizing the work of a few selected practitioners.

Much of the book draws on qualitative methods. I spent much of calendar year 2014 observing and interacting with current VoN stakeholders including young artists, adult facilitators, Arena Stage administrators, and community partners. Specifically, I am conducted semi-structured interviews with VoN staff, community partners, and the many of the young artists who participate in the program. I am also conducted over 100 hours of participant observation with multiple ensembles (including one at the underfunded urban school that was the first site VoN ever partnered with, one in a wealthier suburban school, and with ensembles focused on specific themes such as advocacy and mentorship. While with these ensembles I am took extensive field notes on devising sessions, rehearsals, and performances that will allow me to compare the intended objectives for each session with the actual practice in the rehearsal hall.

 

 

 

Qualitative Research: Analyzing Life
This book, co-authored with Professor Emeritus Johnny Saldana (Arizona State University) and under review by SAGE Press,is an introductory research methods textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in education and social science disciplines. This book discusses the standard subtopic canon of qualitative inquiry such as research question development, conceptual framework design, interviewing, participant observation, ethics, writing reports, and so on.

What makes this project different from the numerous other introductory titles in print is that while virtually all introductory methods books in qualitative research place their data analysis chapters in the latter third or latter fourth of the contents, Qualitative Research: Analyzing Life begins with data analysis as Chapter One and maintains analysis as the through-line of the work.

Analysis is addressed each session to cultivate within students a skill set and literacy base so that, when actual data collection and analysis occur with their own fieldwork projects, they are better prepared to design and work strategically with their empirical materials. Data analysis is not as intimidating or formidable to them because they have been taught to think analytically from the very beginning of the term.

Qualitative Research: Analyzing Life outlines the inquiry process from initiation to closure for novices to social science investigation. The title is not intended as a dense, exhaustive textbook, but as a reader-friendly, introductory overview of qualitative research design and implementation.

 

© 2016 Matt Omasta, Ph.D.

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