YOU’RE PROBABLY familiar with Broadway tours, but you may not know about college-level opportunities to tour with theatre for young audiences programs. TYA tours take the cast, crew, and production materials of university shows into schools, libraries, local theatres, and other community spaces for children.

Touring offers another chance to hone your craft that can foster a bond unlike other theatrical endeavors. Many TYA programs blur the line between teaching and learning, as students take on peer mentoring, leadership, and community outreach roles. Touring also trains transferable skills, including adaptability, problem-solving, and relationship-building with community members.

Members of Belmont University’s RepCo cast on their way to their first school performance.

Members of Belmont University’s RepCo cast on their way to their first school performance. Photo courtesy of Erin Grace Bailey.

Having recently completed a successful touring production of The Last Paving Stone with the University of Central Florida, our teaching cohort began discussing who among us five graduate students had toured as undergraduates. The answer was only two. We asked our undergraduate touring actors how they found out about touring opportunities and discovered almost none of them had heard about the program prior to seeing the show’s name at semester auditions. To help get the word out to future college students, this article looks at five schools across the U.S. with tour programs and explores the scope, goals, and opportunities presented by each.

UTAH VALLEY UNIVERSITY

Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, is home to the Theatre for Youth and Education Center and its TYE Players, an undergraduate touring program. Each year, the TYE Players perform two touring productions for 10 to 12 elementary schools, one for kindergarten through third grade, and the other for grades four through six. The TYE Center also arranges matinee and sensory-friendly performances of UVU main stage shows for local schools, along with bus grants and study guides.

UVU’s head of theatre for young audiences, assistant professor John Newman, says the TYE Players “take theatre to those who aren’t getting it.” The tour charges schools a low fee, which can be waived if needed. According to Newman, the TYE Players aim to expand the canon of TYA literature to adapt to a changing world. For example, Utah County has a growing population of Spanish speakers, so UVU plans to develop an annual bilingual production.

Student actors audition for the TYE Players, and those cast enroll in a tour class that meets three times a week. The class focuses on teaching artistry and aspects of theatre education and outreach. Students learn to engage with youth participants in pre- and post-show activities and discussions connected to the shows.

Spicer W. Carr, former TYE player who graduated in 2018, served as actor and composer for The Boy Who Loved Monsters and the Girl Who Loved Peas; as composer, co-lyricist, and music director for their original musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland; and as librettist, composer, and lyricist for their original operetta Jack and the Beanstalk. He credits his TYA touring experience with his success getting into an M.F.A. program in musical theatre collaboration and composition at Temple University. “This program gave me an entire portfolio of written work, as well as great insight and training in the field of TYA, an area I now specialize in and love writing for.”

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN

The University of Texas at Austin Department of Theatre and Dance hosts both graduate and undergraduate programs focused on theatre education through UTeach Theatre, which offers students earning a B.A. in the theatre, youth, and communities program the opportunity to work with M.F.A. candidates in drama and theatre for youth and communities to tour TYA productions to schools and community sites.

Associate professor Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, who teaches theatre education and directs the tour, explains that the university’s touring programs boost access to art among local youth who may not otherwise experience live theatre, while offering a focused apprenticeship for theatre students. “The program has introduced many undergraduate students to theatre for young audiences and theatre education as viable career paths,” she said.

Schroeder-Arce emphasized that designers and technicians also gain specialized practical experience through UT Austin theatre tours. The department brings in professional designers to teach the art of creating portable costumes specifically for touring productions. Both undergraduate and graduate students have opportunities to design for tours.

“Student and faculty designers create tourable sets and costumes, both durable and easily maintained,” said Shroeder-Arce. “Student actors, directors, and teaching artists also gain experience working on shows that run for many weeks and require flexibility and adaptability at each new site.”

Northwestern University's Purple Crayon Players toured Robin Hood by Anne Negri in 2017. Photo by Grady Jensen.

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

The Purple Crayon Players is an undergraduate-run TYA organization at Northwestern University that tours shows throughout the Evanston, Ill., area.

Third-year theatre major Emma Flanders explains that, in a community theatre tour, “You can tangibly and immediately see how your work affects your audience and sparks change in your community.” Flanders was production manager of PCP last year and now serves as outreach director for the touring program.

“I’ve learned how to be the voice for my company, balancing my group’s needs with a school’s needs,” said Flanders of her outreach role. “Learning to coordinate schedules and lesson plans with teachers has been a great exercise in managing expectations and communicating clearly. I’ve also learned a lot about problem-solving and thinking on my feet when a school visit might not go as planned.”

Undergraduate participants don’t have to be theatre majors to get involved with the program. The tour is typically run by student directors selected from the student-led PCP executive board. Other students involved in PCP serve as actors, tour managers, or production designers.

When it comes to design, tours teach “what is actually necessary to tell an engaging story,” said Flanders. “When we transfer from main stage to tour, we have to fit everything into a van, so lights, big set pieces, and sometimes even sound effects have to be cut,” she said.

When they toured The Phantom Tollbooth, adapted by Laura Schellhardt from the book by Norton Juster, Flanders decided what to cut. “Through stripping down the show, I learned that, most of the time, words and bodies can be enough. If you’re relying on a certain set or costume piece, you’re probably doing it wrong.”

UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

Open to any student within the Department of Theatre and Dance, the University of New Hampshire’s summer touring company, Little Red Wagon, is the longest running nonprofit children’s theatre tour in the U.S. Since 1971, LRW has performed for students in kindergarten through 12th grade at more than 70 locations around Durham, N.H.

The program tours original shows developed by either UNH theatre faculty or by students in the department’s theatre for young audiences classes. “Topics range from adapting pieces of literature and exploring STEM to tackling issues that young people face, such as bullying or obesity,” said Jamie Clavet, UNH theatre and dance marketing and promotions specialist.

The program provides opportunities for student playwrights, as well as undergraduate actors, designers, and technicians who enroll in the tour class during the spring semester (called ArtsReach) or the summer circuit. Little Red Wagon’s summer participants receive housing and a stipend for their work.

“Touring as a student helped me learn how to successfully manage my time and how to be flexible,” said UNH alum Olivia Fiore. “You’re dealing with weather, spaces that don’t fit your sets, outlets that are too far away, van issues. Regular theatre has a ‘The show must go on’ mantra, but touring takes that to another level of ‘Make it work!’”

Through LRW, undergraduates work with children across New England at schools, camps, libraries, recreation centers, hospitals, churches, parks, festivals, and more. Fiore, a Thespian alum of Troupe 2963 at Bay Shore (N.Y.) Senior High School, now serves as the resident education intern at Lexington Children’s Theatre.

Members of Little Red Wagon, the University of New Hampshire’s touring company, perform Luna. Photo by Jamie Clavet.

BELMONT UNIVERSITY

Belmont University is a private Christian liberal arts university in Nashville, Tenn., offering the Belmont Repertory Company, a touring group also known to students as RepCo.

At any given time, RepCo consists of up to six student actors in addition to design and directing students, depending on production needs. The company performs two TYA shows in area elementary schools every year. According to Erin Grace Bailey, a recent member of RepCo and Thespian alum of Northpoint Christian School’s Troupe 5229 (Southhaven, Miss.), “The focus of RepCo is to expose young audiences to different kinds of performing arts while teaching them important life lessons.” Original scripts (usually folk tales or myths adapted by Belmont faculty) are crafted to contain a lesson about empathy.

Program Faculty Director Shawn Knight said, “RepCo makes the student performers feel responsible for giving a theatre education. There’s never a day that they don’t go perform somewhere and come back with some crazy-cute story about something a kid did. That is a kind of immediate response we don’t get in other types of theatre.”

Bailey valued the professional training in arts education and community outreach and bonding experiences with castmates, like listening to Cher on repeat to and from every performance and stopping for breakfast after early morning shows. But above all, she cited the benefit of seeing “the kids’ reactions to the show. One little girl came up to us after a show and said, ‘I want to be an actor, too, when I grow up, just like you!’ I’m pretty sure we all teared up.”

This story appeared in the October 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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