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Theatre, Tots, and Tikes: Expanding Theatre for the Very Young across the USA

The Alliance Theatre will create a cohort of USA theatres to expand Theatre for the Very Young across the country.

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Written by

Name or Organization

Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, Inc (dba Alliance Theatre)


The Alliance Theatre is located in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • Non-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Expanding Theatre for the Very Young to new communities throughout the USA will create a ripple that reaches more children than we could if the Alliance produced this work only in Atlanta. Theatre for the Very Young improves language acquisition, reinforces social skill development, and creates lifelong theatre patrons. As a high-demand program, it is also an additional revenue stream for a theatre. Teaching theatre professionals and others who work with children to develop this theatrical work for children with low/no-cost resources will make expansion to new communities possible.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

THEATRE, TOTS, AND TIKES aims to expand Theatre for the Very Young across the country using the Alliance Theatre’s techniques coupled with The PaperBoats platform to address the demand for this theatrical programming for children newborn to three; share this impactful programming with more children; foster a community that co-creates a new canon of high-quality work for the very young and shares development costs and ideas; and create a new revenue stream for theatres in the United States.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Study after study shows how crucial the early childhood years are for language acquisition to prepare for school readiness and future success. Children from low-income communities often start Kindergarten with half the vocabulary of their peers from more affluent communities meaning they begin school already behind with little chance of catching back up and closing the gap. Theatre for the Very Young is one strategy that has proven successful in creating a fun, engaging learning environment.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The Alliance Theatre proposes convening a cohort of U.S. theatres that have expressed in interest in learning how to develop theatrical productions for the very young (ages newborn to three years old). The convened theatres will learn how to develop this work using the international The PaperBoats platform and the Alliance’s own developed strategies created from working in the Theatre for the Very Young space for more than seven years. The Alliance is committed to creating the highest-quality theatre for children that is developmentally appropriate, interactive, and grounded in enhancing language acquisition. While Theatre for the Very Young is an established field internationally, it is a relatively new form of theatre making in the United States, and the Alliance is one of the nation’s leaders in this work for young people. Theatre for the Very Young is designed to engage our youngest audience members through play, storytelling, music, and dance. Play is how children learn, and it is crucial to early childhood development. Play not only enhances a child’s physical development (walking, balance, fine motor coordination), but it also enhances language acquisition, social skill development (turn taking, sharing), and emotional intelligence (recognizing emotional affect). Play is also a generative space for creativity and imagination among young children. All of these skills are necessary for the development of creative, competent, capable children ready to learn when they enter a formal school setting. The PaperBoats platform is a way of developing Theatre for the Very Young productions. This platform is highly iterative and fosters whimsy and collaboration among artists and theatres internationally. The Alliance is currently the only U.S. theatre participating in The PaperBoats platform and is working with colleague theatres from New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore in a closed cohort to create four new Theatre for the Very Young pieces during the next two years. The idea driving The PaperBoats model is collaboration leads to better productions and outcomes. To that end, the Alliance is participating in developmental workshops, generating ideas and contributing to a larger pool of ideas populated by ideas from workshops in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Dr. Megan Alrutz from the University of Texas Austin is leading the Alliance Theatre workshops. Dr. Alrutz is one of the USA partnership directors and is the head of the Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program with the UT Austin Department of Theatre and Dance. She came to Atlanta to lead local artists in a development workshop for GIMME PLEASE!, one of the four shows in development. The beauty of The PaperBoats platform is its seven guiding principles, including “slow brewing” and “limiting the palette,” meaning high-quality productions are created with only a few low-cost resources and ideas are shared among the participating groups cutting down on what can be exorbitant development costs. Development costs are often what prevent theatres from commissioning and developing new work. The Alliance will take some of the techniques from The PaperBoats platform and pair them with our own experience with developing and producing Theatre for the Very Young in our Black Box theatre and on tour. The Alliance education staff are frequently called upon to present at conferences, lead workshops, and give advice to theatres looking to start their own Theatre for the Very Young programs. The Alliance believes a rising tide lifts all boats, so we do not want to hold onto best practices. We want to share them with the larger field, so we can spread this incredibly impactful work to other communities’ young children and parents. The Alliance is hosting the One Theatre World Conference in 2019. One Theatre World is an annual convening of theatres and theatre practitioners from across the world interested in and/or producing work for children. We will use One Theatre World as the platform to launch our cohort. The cohort will learn The PaperBoats platform for developing theatrical work for the very young that is both high-quality and low-tech which makes it possible for theatres of all sizes to participate. The participants will return home with practical techniques they can immediately begin workshopping. Together, our USA theatre cohort will begin developing new work for the very young that will be produced in communities throughout the country and will add rings to our ripple effect.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

THEATRE, TOTS, AND TIKES has two tiers of beneficiaries. The first includes theatre practitioners and community members participating in the cohort who will learn new skills for engaging with very young children and become more nimble artists. The second tier is children and their caregivers who will attend future performances created by the cohort theatres. Theatre for the Very Young necessitates audience participation, meaning children can wiggle, dance, interact with the actors, and cry out. The productions also encourage and celebrate discovery, creative problem solving, and making mistakes. For example, in the Alliance’s Theatre for the Very Young show DINOSAUR!, one of the dinos asks the audience to help him find his teeth. The audience discovers how to stick his teeth onto his jaw. Some of the children discover the solution quickly while others take more time or learn from watching their peers. All can participate in a way that is appropriate for their developmental level, however. The Alliance is the largest performing arts educator in Georgia. We have produced Theatre for the Very Young series for seven years. We also produce a Theatre for Youth and Families Series. The Alliance Theatre Institute is our in-school arm and pairs a teaching artist with a classroom teacher in more than 170 schools per year to deliver our proven multi-session, arts integration residencies. Many of these classrooms focus on 3-6 year old students and their teachers.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Creating a USA Theatre for the Very Young cohort will lead to long-lasting outcomes in communities throughout the country. The impact on children and families who participate in a Theatre for the Very Young performance is palpable. We hear from caregivers regularly about typically shy children who open up and participate in the production in ways that surprise and delight them in new ways. Parents and caregivers express their appreciation for having a developmentally appropriate activity to share with their little one that is also artistically beautiful and meaningful for them as an adult. Theatre for the Very Young also creates challenging and meaningful work for local artists as they push themselves to learn new performance techniques and stretch themselves as artists. The demand is high for Theatre for the Very Young, and providing this service is also a new revenue stream for theatres and has the potential to be a business model game-changer for a theatre company.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Theatre for the Very Young productions, like the Alliance Theatre Institute programming, can have the greatest impact on children from low income communities who statistically have fewer words in their vocabularies than their more affluent peers when they begin school meaning they start behind. Theatre for the Very Young productions encourage active participation and engage children through play. While playing, children are learning language, turn taking, space awareness, cause and effect, and more. For most, this is also their first experience with theatre, and because most Theatre for the Very Young shows also incorporate music and dance, the children are experiencing multiple art forms which makes the forms less foreign as they participate in art making in school and beyond. We are also cultivating life-long arts lovers because once a child experiences an art form it feels more accessible—like it is “for them.”

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

While Theatre for the Very Young as a type of theatre has been around for a long time internationally, it is still an emerging field in the United States. The Alliance Theatre is one of the few theatres in the USA developing this high-quality work for our youngest audience, and we have pioneered this work using lessons learned from our international peers. Other theaters and communities across the country are hungry for Theatre for the Very Young, and we want to teach others how to produce work for newborns to 5 years olds without using a ton of resources. The PaperBoats method paired with the lessons we have learned from developing this work for seven years will allow us to create a new teaching curriculum to share with those looking to start their own programs and will allow Theatre for the Very Young to expand across the country. Our idea is innovative because no one else is doing this work in the USA, and the work has been proven to benefit early childhood education gains like language acquisition, social-emotional intelligence, school readiness, and more. By creating a learning cohort with other theatres from across the country, Theatre for the Very Young can be deployed as a tool to help children succeed. It can come alongside other interventions and support goals of both. The PaperBoats method of development is innovative because of its emphasis on collaboration and use of low/no cost resources to develop new work. Once a theatre professional or community member learns the process, he or she can implement immediately because there are no startup costs associated. A theatre or community organization does not need to a huge fund for new projects or theatre development to develop a new Theatre for the Very Young production using The PaperBoats method. Also, the focus on collaboration is essential in how we work in our 21st century workplace. Products are better and more useful when they are developed by a diverse group who bring different points of view and skills to the table. Also, development costs are lowered when they are shared. Everyone benefits, and the end result (new Theatre for the Very Young production) is better.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

We want to create a ripple effect with our cohort. We have firsthand experience with creating Theatre for the Very Young productions and The PaperBoats platform. We want to share this experience with other theatres across the country to spread this work beyond Atlanta. By doing so, more children and families will benefit from this programming. The PaperBoats platform does not require fancy or expensive equipment. This method is all about finding the joy and whimsy in the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Time is always a barrier to this kind of open-ended creative playmaking. It takes time to start something new and patience to let it grow. The PaperBoats platform requires “slow brewing.” While the materials are inexpensive, there is a time commitment. This commitment could be a barrier to scale.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The Alliance participated in our first PaperBoats workshop led by Dr. Megan Alrutz in December 2017. Artists and education staff worked on developing GIMME PLEASE! and were joined by many of our youngest patrons who helped us play and discover new ideas for the production. We are hooked and will be continuing this work as part of The PaperBoats cohort, the results of which we will share during the 2019 One Theatre World. We also have several theatres in mind that have expressed interest in starting Theatre for the Very young programming, and we would invite them to be a part of the new USA cohort.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

We believe our business model of offering trainings to other theatre professionals and community groups will be successful because we already have people asking for these trainings, workshops, and resources to learn how to produce Theatre for the Very Young. Foreseen barriers include time and travel. Theatre professionals are incredibly busy producing the work their theatres are already doing. Live theatre is a demanding art form in terms of time and resources. Getting our cohort together to learn will be difficult, but we have found from doing other trainings and workshops that the people who are truly committed find a way to be present in the room. To help remove barriers, we plan to advertise the cohort opportunity early to get it on interested party's calendars. We will also use Skype for further meetings to create a shared space to work together virtually.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

Live theatre by its very nature is human-centered design. The work in the rehearsal hall is rapid prototyping. We constantly try something new, evaluate it, adjust, and keep moving. We are experts in this space, and we will use our rapid prototyping acumen in the cohort trainings for Theatre for the Very Young. We also constantly gather user feedback from our artists and audience to inform our business and programmatic decisions. We will continue gathering, analyzing, and using this information to guide us through developing and running our USA The PaperBoats cohort.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

The Alliance originally started our Theatre for the Very Young productions after decades of working with children and families. We saw the field-leading work our international theatre peers were doing, and we wanted to bring this innovative programming to our early childhood audience in Atlanta. We started developing programming and quickly discovered Theatre for the Very Young productions are perfect for touring. We can take a show to communities that cannot get to the Arts Center, removing barriers to participation. Atlanta is one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the USA, and one thing that makes it stand out is its affordability—families can afford to live in the city or inner suburbs and raise their children in a way they cannot in New York City or San Francisco. The Alliance quickly saw a need in our community for more high-quality artistic opportunities for children newborn to five. Atlanta has a myriad of outstanding arts and non-profit organizations providing children’s programming, but few offer programming specifically designed for the newborn to three-year-old age bracket. The Alliance’s Theatre for the Very Young programming fills this niche need. We know other communities across the country that are eager to start this work, and we want to share what we know. We are excited about expanding Theatre for the Very Young across the country. The moment of discovery is what excites us about working in the early childhood space. Children do not sensor themselves, so when they have a moment of discovery during a Theatre for the Very Young production, they honestly express it right then. For some, they experience a new form of play, sound, dance move, or object during a production, and they are sometimes scared but more often delighted. We love introducing them to their world and to a form of art they can explore for the rest of their lives, one that will introduce them to new ideas, opinions, and more. Children and education are fundamental to the Alliance’s identity. We are turning 50 during our 2018/19 season, and our education department is an integral part of our DNA. Originally the Atlanta Children’s Theatre, the Alliance has a robust schedule of programming for children and families including the Theatre for the Very Young Series, Theatre for Youth and Families Series, Alliance Theatre Institute, Acting Program (classes and camps for youth and adults), and teen programming such as the Collision Project and Teen Ensemble. Our education programming occurs in partnership with school districts and community partners. The Alliance is seen as an innovator and collaborator in the arts education space in Atlanta, and we are often partnering with non-arts sector businesses to help find solutions to problems through an arts lens. For instance, the Alliance is the only arts organization partnering on the city-wide Learn for Life Initiative focused on improving reading proficiency by the end of third grade in our city’s students.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

We will continue our work with Dr. Megan Alrutz and her team at UT Austin. We will also continue our work in our The PaperBoats international cohort. Since we plan to launch the new cohort at the One Theatre World conference we are hosting in Atlanta, we consider OTW an additional partner.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

This idea pitch is our first foray into an open idea forum. We believe we would benefit from expertise regarding fine-tuning our pitch and making a competitive case in this space.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We would appreciate mentoring support around how to scale our idea and how to make a competitive case for support in this space.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Link to the Alliance Theatre's Theatre for the Very Young webpage: Link to The PaperBoats platform:

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

Our mentor was great! She helped us think through our idea and gave suggestions on how we could tweak our language to make it more accessible to someone working outside the theatre arena. No major overhauls to the proposal were done.

Attachments (1)

Theatre for the Very Young Article_Alliance Theatre.pdf

The Alliance was featured in AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE, a national theatre publication, for our field-leading Theatre for the Very Young work.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Iliriana Kacaniku

Hey Collins,
Welcome to the Early Childhood Innovation Prize. We're thrilled to host your idea and help it grow through our human-centered design approach and toolkits. I found your idea very interesting, and as I read through your description, I thought of another idea in this platform that seeks to utilize theatrical performance to advance early childhood education and literacy. Feel free to check Play Full Space and reach out to Park Cofield to learn more about their idea. The team behind the idea is made of social entrepreneurship students with whom you can explore the scaling up of the Theater for the Very Young.

In the meantime, I loved the video you have shared with us and how you include and engage very diverse children participants in your program. Since this Prize seeks to support solution that will maximize child's potential during it first three years of life, I'd love to learn more on your vision about the program/curriculum dedicated to this cohort.

Any thoughts?

Best regards,