I had a sheltered upbringing. A small, sparkling island off the coast of San Diego called Coronado—mainly comprised of a Navy base and bored high school students—oftentimes felt like a Utopia, where nothing ever went wrong and everything was tidy. With a globetrotting military father and an anxious, doting mother, I was shielded from reality.
Like many teenagers, I rebelled. After moving to New York City as soon as I got the chance, I realized exactly how sheltered I’d been. Suddenly I was the target for lies and manipulation when “friends” used me for drug money and married men tried to seduce me in dark nightclubs. I spent nights sobbing into my pillow, overrun with disbelief that people had the capacity to be so cruel yet so guiltless.
I began to wonder: what would have happened if I hadn’t been so sheltered? What if I was exposed to adult topics at a younger age?
At what point do we decide children are old enough to know the “truth” about life? Why are children usually raised with false expectations? As 24th STreet Theater executive producer Jay McAdams puts it, “Kids live in an adult world. They just don’t know it yet. They’re dealing with all the same issues adults are.”
The 24th STreet Theater may be dedicated to performing works for children, but don’t expect to see dumbed-down scenes and characters. The company is known for choosing plays classified as Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), which is a national membership organization that aims to foster global appreciation and cultural impact of high-quality theatre by “empowering, connecting, and inspiring” young audience members.
“Our version of children’s theatre doesn’t look, smell, or taste like children’s theatre,” McAdams says. “Our basic approach is this: we treat [the script] with respect. We try not to talk down to kids, and and we try to talk up the material.”
In 24th STreet Theatre’s “Man Covets Bird,” like most TYA works, both children and adults are challenged with complex ideas that are taught metaphorically, requiring a fair amount of interpretation from the absorber. Man’s relationship with Bird, for example, is a fantasy-driven idea. Bird’s existence is not to be taken literally; in fact, he represents the idea of Man’s love for a forbidden object.
The two-man-show penned by Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, who McAdams admiringly referred to as the leading TYA playwright in the country at present, made its U.S. premiere at the 24th STreet Theatre on September 26th.
With this in mind, McAdams and artistic director Debbie Devine sought to present “Man Covets Bird” in a manner that is both visually and audibly immersive by adding original music, choreography, and lighting design.
With a score composed by multi-instrumentalist Leeav Sofer (who also plays the part of Bird onstage), “Man Covets Bird” is about the private conversations one has with himself when growing up, and in this case, a special relationship that is shared with a wounded bird. “They were the first eyes in a long time that seemed to truly recognize [me],” Man proclaims of Bird.
Together, the two conquer life’s ever-present battles, from adolescence to adulthood. When Man feels uncomfortable in his pre-teen skin, Bird helps to build his confidence. When Man is disappointed by his mundane factory job, Bird provides a listening ear and a warm body to cozy up to every night. When Man is forced to take shelter in an abandoned ice cream truck, Bird helps him remodel it and makes it feel home-y. Their relationship provides solace to Man from the big, cold, hard world.
Because McAdams treats the audience members like adults, he believes that children take the responsibility more seriously. “I think not talking down to them really makes them lean forward,” he says. “When they feel like they’re seeing an adult show, they hang in because they have to. Because we’re not handing it to them on a platter.”
Devine, who won the 2013 LA Weekly Award for Best Direction for the company’s highly acclaimed production of “Walking the Tightrope,” cast two actors who understand the responsibility they have to their audience.
The focus on Man’s innermost emotions—especially in his childhood stage—reveals the playwright’s belief that children’s feelings deserve be heard, despite society’s tendency to discount them. He aims to narrow the gap between children and parents by kick-starting mature conversations.
“I acknowledge them as astute audience members outside the plays, and worthy subjects within,” playwright Kruckemeyer said in an email interview. But make no mistake about it: Kruckemeyer does not force-feed. “Man Covets Bird,” he explained, offers elements that are both easy and difficult to identify with. “It’s an exercise in offering things familiar and things foreign, and inviting them to latch onto what they wish.”
While the metaphor behind Man and Bird’s relationship might be interpreted in several ways, the directors intended it to be about homosexuality. “The underlying theme of this production is that you can’t help whom you fall in love with,” Devine said. “If you can summon the courage to share that secret, your ‘song’ can change the world around you.”
The producers of “Man Covets Bird” do not think little of their position and power. They know they can be a force of good, much like a parent. They know that children’s theatre does not have to be what we expect.
Kruckemeyer believes plays, like parents, shouldn’t force their children to think a certain way. He maintains that the formula is much simpler, and “Man Covets Bird” is one demonstration of that. “It is a story told about notions of being human, and an audience can take from it whatever they wish.”
I left the theatre that day thinking about the twinkling eyes of the children I saw in the audience—wondering where their imaginations may have taken them, wondering how their parent’s decision to take them to this show might inform the adults they later become.
Because of my sheltered childhood, I was forced to learn many things the hard way—mostly on my own in New York City, and mostly through first-hand experience. I can’t help but wonder: what kind of person would I be today if I had been exposed to TYA shows like “Man Covets Bird” as a child? What mistakes could I have avoided? I might have learned how to be a more accepting, more compassionate human at a much earlier age. I might not have been so disappointed to finally understand that “happily-ever-afters” only exist in fairy tales. But with TYA’s popularity on the rise, future generations of youth may finally gain some answers and understanding to curious and complex questions, like the ones I had as a child.