Ernie Nolan Encounters The Devils We Face in TYA

"What is Stopping Us Now in the Present?"

The Artistic Encounters, daily events which took place during the week of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2019, were hosted by members of ASSITEJ’s Executive Committee. Dialogue had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Ernie Nolan about the session which took place on the devils we face in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).

EN: My name is Ernie Nolan. I represent the United States on the ASSITEJ Executive Committee and I am a member of the project group who is coordinating and facilitating the Artistic Encounters. 

Could you talk to me a little bit about why you chose the topic of “What Devils we Face” in the TYA work that we do today? 

Yeah, I think we were all very excited about really digging deep into this topic. The theme of this particular Artistic Gathering is ‘Confronting the Present’ and so I think, because we did so much dreaming and imagining the future in Beijing [at the ASSITEJ Artistic Encounter 2018], we wanted to take a step back and go, “What is stopping us now in the present?” So, that’s where the idea of devils comes from. We wanted to identify what those challenges are that really stop us from creating our best work. This also covers the socio-political contexts [that stop us from creating great work] – because something that we were trying to do was have people talk about was more than just, “there’s not enough money, there’s not enough money, there’s not enough money.” I think part of planning this session was a hope that people would also think about their personal connection – as in, “What personally stops me from doing my best work?” We thought the term ‘devil’ was a clear way to communicate that, especially since we talked a lot about how in China last year we built a ‘wall of dreams’. So that sort of hindrance or blockage metaphor for the devil is good to talk about because, in tomorrow’s session when we talk about best practices, we’re going to use the term ‘angels’.

What are you hoping to get out of the Artistic Encounter in the next hour with all these different participants? 

I think it’s about giving people an opportunity for reflection and discussion. So often, people who come to events like this are used to being […] deeply engaged in their own environment. […] You kind of hope and wish, “there was someone else out in the world who’s experienced what I have.” I’m hoping this time during the encounter people notice that there are certain issues that are universal. Personal burnout is a universal issue. The challenges of managing staff is a universal issue. The challenges of generating audiences is a universal issue. So I think it’s about reflection and I hope it will provide a sense of identification. I think that gaining perspective is really something that all of these kinds of events can help you with. You end up kind of stepping back and going, “Wel, having spoken to some of the Japanese artists, they feel like there’s actually a shortage of children in Japan and there aren’t as many children as before.” So you need to really reflect on that as a challenge and think about how it relates to your own work – how do we reach these kids and how do you compete with soccer and piano lessons and gymnastics and all that stuff in my own context? So yes, it really gives perspective. 

I loved the polls that you had everyone participate in this morning. What came out that surprised you? 

It was interesting people have interpreted them [the questions on the poll]. We’ve been discussing a lot about translation lately on the Executive Committee and so I loved that people used emojis. I talk a lot about ‘universal language’ and so I loved actually seeing those coming up. Some of the words [that came up in response to the polls] were really surprising. It is so interesting to me, when people use what might be considered ‘negative language’, whether or not they knew they were using it. In translation, sometimes you’re having a conversation and someone is using a word in a literal sense that has a connotation that they don’t necessarily know it has. So, for example, I have found it fascinating working on the ASSITEJ Beijing manifesto. Stephen said that in German there is no word for “exploration.” There’s just no German equivalent! Also, we’re working on dramaturgy in Spanish. And there is no verb, no word for “pioneering”. Well, if you talk about pioneering the future right there is the term for “a pioneer” but the idea that you are pioneering ideology or pioneering something is not a word in Spanish. So it’s been fascinating seeing what words come up […] I think every word really is a surprise to me because I also wonder about the context that people may or may not know they are using the word in.

You divided everyone into small groups based on the issues they identified with. What are the benefits of having small group discussions over a standard seminar setup? 

I think the idea is that it becomes more personal and that hopefully it becomes something less scary and formal – even just when it comes to the setup of the room. Inevitably, there is a lot of discussion that happens behind closed doors and I want people to feel like they are on an equal footing at this session – that everyone’s opinion is of the same value regardless of where we’re from. And so hopefully the small groups do that. Sometimes it can be difficult but hopefully the small groups are allowing for opportunities to share on an intimate level. With this mix of people, our working language is Englih but hopefully [with the small group setup] people don’t feel as put on the spot [especially if English is not their first language]. Hopefully, they feel like they’re talking to a friend in the small groups.

And the final question. What’s something that’s really excited you about this year’s Artistic Gathering?

Well, the location for one – I mean, it’s just stunning! I’ve just been really excited about the work that we’ve able to see. People [from lots of places] feel like Norway is easy enough to get to so people feel like they can travel to Norway and be here. I was really excited about what this location gave us as so many people felt like they could come and share their work. I think it’s really eye-opening. As an American, there really is such freedom for us to travel or, at least, the hoops that we need to jump through are generally quite minimal […] but I think Norway luckily allowed for a lot of people to get to join in which is very exciting and rewarding for us all at this year’s Artistic Gathering.

Ernie Nolan is a Director, Choreographer, and Playwright dedicated to reimagining stories for young audiences. As the Producing Artistic Director of Emerald City Theatre in Chicago, where he has directed more than 20 productions, he created the Emerald City PlayGround, a process to develop new TYA plays. Nolan’s work as a TYA playwright has been featured both nationally and internationally at such theatres as Emerald City Theatre; First Stage, Milwaukee; Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia; Orlando Repertory Theatre, Orlando, Fla.; and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Charlotte, N.C. He has written commissions for Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Md.; La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif.; and The Milwaukee Zoological Society. Nolan currently serves as the Vice President of Communications for TYA USA/ASSITEJ. A graduate of both the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (BFA, Musical Theatre) and The Theatre School at DePaul University (MFA, directing), Nolan has been awarded an Ann Shaw Fellowship and was selected as one of DePaul University’s “14 Alumni Under 40” in 2011.

Biography adapted from:

Hana Holloway is an experienced young American educator and theatre artist. Her passion for writing, puppetry, and devising theatre has led her to diverse opportunities in the Performing Arts. She was invited to be a Porter Fellow for the 2019 Theatre for Young Audiences USA conference and was accepted into the apprentice company for the 2017 Williamstown Theatre Festival. She is now a Programme Director for ​‘Lights, Camera, Learn!​‘, a nonprofit that educates and empowers children through the art of filmmaking which has recently brought her to Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, and Dubai. Hana sees theatre as a transformative art form that has the power to impact change in the world.