How to Get Young People to Theatre? Children’s Theatre Company's Peter Brosius Has Thoughts | Playbill

Regional News How to Get Young People to Theatre? Children’s Theatre Company's Peter Brosius Has Thoughts

The longtime artistic director of the Minneapolis theatre is stepping down after 27 years.

Peter Brosius with the cast of Buccaneers Dan Norman

Peter Brosius knows a lot about young people. After all, he’s spent his career around them. As artistic director of Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Brosius has made it his life’s mission to make sure young people, those from the ages of 2 to 18, go to the theatre. And he’s had a tried-and-true formula on how to do it.

“We just start with a profound respect for the complexity of young people, for the intelligence of young people, for the agency of young people,” he says when asked what the secret is to getting the under-18 set to go to the theatre. “As much as we may want to protect young people from the complexity and vulgarities and horrors of the world, you can't, not in an era of the cell phone and not in an era of digital media everywhere. So what you can do is provide a space for young people to experience, to wrestle with ideas and issues, to see consequences of action, to see what their choices mean. And that they can have power.”

It’s not just talk. After coming back from the pandemic, while theatres around the country have struggled to regain audiences, CTC came back with a roar. 

“The theatre is in terrific shape,” enthuses Brosius. “We've had one of the most successful seasons in our history, audiences just coming back in droves to see the work.”

Here's a sampling of the kind of work the 49-year-old CTC has produced: Bina’s Six Apples by Lloyd Suh, about a young Korean girl forced to flee her home due to war; an immersive version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where kids could run around the theatre; a slapstick performance for toddlers called Balloonacy, where a character's solo birthday party gets interrupted by a mob of red balloons. 

And right now, CTC is presenting the Robert Reale and Willie Reale musical, A Year With Frog and Toad, a show it premiered in 2002 and subsequently brought to Broadway in 2003. CTC then became the first (and only) youth theatre company to win a Regional Theatre Tony Award. For good reason. Listening to Brosius talk about Frog and Toad, you’d think he was talking about a serious piece of adult drama, not a musical about two amphibians.

“It's an extraordinarily tender and emotional piece about humanity’s capacity to deal with the other and being open to the other, in all their complications and impossibilities,” he explains. “And the need for that grace, that empathy, that compassion, that curiosity.”

Frog and Toad is poignant for Brosius on many levels. The musical brought a national spotlight to CTC. On the show's opening night, the Mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, presented Brosius with a proclamation declaring Saturday, April 27, 2024 "Peter C. Brosius Day" in the City of Minneapolis. Additionally, Mayor James Hovland presented Brosius with a proclamation declaring it "Peter C. Brosius Day" in the City of Edina, and Richard Carlbom, Deputy Chief of Staff in the Office of Minnesota Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan, presented Brosius with a proclamation declaring it "Peter C. Brosius Day" in the State of Minnesota!"

The show is also Brosius’ swan song for the company. He’s directing this new production, and after the run is over (on June 16), Brosius will retire after 27 years of leading the company.

When asked why he’s retiring when CTC is at its height, he remarks lightly, “I wanted to leave when I still loved it…I didn't want to leave when I was tired or when I was in some kind of negative space. So I'm in a hugely positive space about this place, the work and the partnerships we have, and the work that's in commission—we've got 10–12 projects in development.” He admits that leaving the company does feel like “leaving your kids,” but right now he’s interested in “other creative possibilities, what are other ways to be of service to this planet.”

Ryan London Levin, Becca Claire Hart and Janely Rodriguez in A Year With Frog and Toad Glen Stubbe

Brosius has been working in the theatre since he was eight. He grew up in Riverside, California, the child of a single mother (his father was an Air Force officer who died when Brosius was two). His mother was a secretary whose creative outlet was doing community theatre. Brosius can’t remember how old he was when he first took to the stage; he just knows he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t doing a show.

One of his fondest memories was playing Helen Keller’s dead brother in The Miracle Worker. “I was her dead brother calling,” he recalls, joy in his voice like it just happened yesterday. “I remember going to this recording studio”—he then starts to imitate a ghost—“calling to her. Like, oh my God! Then you hear your voice over the loudspeaker. That was addictive.”

Doing community theatre taught him a valuable lesson that’s remained with him throughout his career. “I just found community there [in the theatre]. I found dignity there. I found the challenge and accomplishment, too…And then as a kid, you also find power because you're playing a scene with an adult, and you both matter equally.” He then adds, with utter conviction, “It is a place of possibility and a place of power for young people.”

He eventually attended New York University, earning an MFA in 1980. He found himself drawn to experimental theatre: The Wooster Group, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater run by Richard Foremand, El Teatro Campesino. A stint traveling around Europe, seeing the continent’s avant-garde artists, sparked a realization that this work wasn’t just for the uber-artistically minded adults. Young people, with the infinite imagination, are naturally predisposed to non-linear, non-realistic storytelling. And in Europe, they were lining up to see theatre that in America would be considered challenging.

“In Berlin, that was so inspiring because it was so on the side of young people, with such bold and brave and brilliant and surprising theatre,” he explains. “The aesthetic range and possibilities are infinite—that work can be silent, it could be a one-person thing, it can be an immersive work, it can be an epic work, it could be a two-person classic. There's no formula for it, because your audience is open. Your audience isn’t jaded. And your audience's willing to go on that journey.”

At CTC, Brosius has proven that ethos. During his tenure, the theatre produced more than 187 productions, and commissioned more than 70 new works that have gone on to be produced there (and some at stages across America). In the past nearly three decades, the theatre has doubled its annual budget from $6 to $13 million, grown its endowment from $2 to $12 million, and expanded its physical space with a $30-million expansion in 2005. And even more remarkable, CTC’s audience isn’t just young people—18 percent of CTC’s audiences are childless adults while two-thirds of it are parents and their kids. Brosius does attribute the continuing success of CTC to parents wanting an experience for their children that is educational, emotionally nourishing, and (especially important these days) away from a screen and in person.

Jerry Drake and Peter Brosius Dan Norman

"If you're a 67-year-old regional theatregoer, and you decide not to renew your subscription, the only person that really affects is you or your partner,” muses Brosius. “But if you're a parent, you really want your kids to have every possible experience. You want them to be exposed to the arts, you want them to grow and learn from the power of the arts. And so I think that's a little bit of a gift that we have, which is that hunger to make sure your kids get every possible experience and get to be the fullest people they can be.”

And because of Brosius’ stewardship, CTC will continue to provide that “more important now than ever” in-person experience for families and their children for years to come. As for the director himself, he says he plans to move back to New York City with his wife, writer Rosanna Staffa. His kids now live there. He’s also going to do some independent writing and directing work. And yes, he will still continue to make work for kids and their parents.

“I am thinking of multi-generational work, and I am thinking of work that appeals to young people and adults,” he says. “There's something about that that still moves me and still intrigues me and still touches me.”


Reed Sigmund and John Michael Zuerlein in A Year With Frog and Toad Glen Stubbe
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