Being extremely grumpy may not seem like something to be proud of, but for Sage Tokach the themes explored in The Grumpiest Boy in the World serve important lessons for children. The theatre for young audiences (TYA) master’s student is the director for the play, which follows an average 7-year-old named Zachary, who goes on a quest to find out what makes him unique — leading him to discover that while he may have the same height, birthday or watch as others, no one can beat his grumpiness.

“I think the play is really special because it shows that any child can find something unique about themselves even if it’s small, and the show deals with emotional regulation and the power of emotions,” says Tokach, who earned a bachelor’s degree in acting and directing before coming to UCF. “It gives kids a chance to see so many different emotions expressed on stage and know that it’s OK to express themselves.”

While young audiences and their parents will have a chance to see this for themselves at the April 10 showing of The Grumpiest Boy in the World at UCF Celebrates the Arts, these same concepts are constantly considered throughout the world of TYA.

“There is so much research about why the arts are important in childhood and I know just growing up in a small town it was just really rare to have a chance to express myself in that way or in any activities other than sports,” says Tokach, who is from Abilene, Kansas. “So I wanted to be able to provide that for other kids.”

For decades, studies have shown that the arts help boost academic performance, social skills, critical and creative thinking, emotional intelligence, self-esteem, and graduation rates. According to a 2016 survey by the Americans for the Arts organization, about 90% of adults consider the arts as a part of a well-rounded education from elementary through high school, and TYA plays a crucial role in sparking an interest that can benefit children for life.

A Key Partnership

In the United States there are 19 bachelor’s programs, eight master’s programs and just six MFA programs in TYA. UCF’s MFA program, which takes three years to complete and typically accepts cohorts of about six students every other year, is the only one that has a partnership with a local professional theatre.

UCF’s TYA MFA program is one of six the nation and the only one that has a partnership with a local professional theatre.

“Orlando Rep is Florida’s premiere professional theatre for young audiences and its history goes back to the 1920s as the Orlando Little Theatre,” says Elizabeth Brendel Horn ’10MFA, an assistant professor and graduate of UCF’s TYA program. “The organization has been through multiple iterations and names throughout the years and it was through the partnership [with UCF] that it became the Orlando Repertory Theatre — and specifically a professional theatre for young audiences. It’s very formation is a prime example of how the partnership has shaped both institutions and how it’s mutually beneficial.”

Since UCF’s TYA program launched in 2004, the nearly 35 graduates have all played multiple roles at the Orlando Rep, some — such as senior director of education Jennifer Adams ’11MFA and prop master Tara Kromer ’15MFA — even landed positions after graduation.

Knights have also left a mark on the Rep through experimental productions of their own creation. In 2020, the Rep premiered its first play for very young audiences, infants to 5-year-olds, with When Pigs Fly created by Maria Katsadouros ’18MFA. It is an interactive multisensory experience that follows a pig named Avery and his friends on the farm as they explore what it means to fly through the elements of play, discovery and whimsical movement. This innovative work is also part of the reason why Katsadouros is now the theatre and dance resource instructor for Orange County Public Schools.

“Maria started her play in her first semester in my puppetry course where she was terrified to design and build her own puppet, but she made a pig and I saw how every class after that the story grew and it eventually became her thesis,” says Vandy Wood, theatre associate professor and coordinator for the TYA program. “The curriculum is very effective in stimulating the students’ ideas and it’s designed to support their interest in what they’re developing.”

Training Teaching Artists

Many other TYA grads have gone on to work for school districts and theatre companies across the nation.

“One of the strengths that I’ve heard about our program is that the students are well-trained visually,” Woods says. “We really work hard to give them well-rounded professional theatre training in addition to the academic and teaching focus. I know one of our recent graduates is running a new program in Naples at a high school and he’s laughing because he’s having to design and build the sets, in addition to writing the music, and directing — all things we train our students to become professionals in.”

During Brendel Horn’s undergraduate studies, she says she didn’t realize that TYA was a field she could earn a master’s in, so her time at UCF really allowed her to see all that field could encompass.

“Many of our graduates do go on to teach full-time and all will have to teach at some point,” Brendel Horn says. “During their first semester they have to take Methods of Teaching Drama, so I’m really grateful they have that course. In some ways, it’s a very specific degree, but it’s also a degree we believe our students can apply in varying theatre careers, and in careers with the theme park industry, museums, schools, libraries, and more.”

Expanding TYA’s Reach

When Tokach came to UCF in 2019, she knew from touring experiences with a children’s theatre company that she wanted to become an educational director. But what she’s learned through the program is that role looks different at every organization.

“This program has opened my mind to so many possibilities within the field,” she says. “I think this program has taught me a different way of looking at the world. When grappling with different questions and it’s not really about finding the right answer to anything, it’s about working collaboratively with your peers and kids, listening to their perspectives, and finding a way that we can all look at the world in a way that can help everyone.”

For The Grumpiest Boy in the World, Tokach and her team worked with United Cerebral Palsy to take the production live to four local schools, as well as record the play so other local UCP schools could view it. Through this process, she completed a workshop centered around accessibility and considers those lessons crucial for expanding TYA’s reach.

Arts funding across the nation has been dwindling through the years, with total public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts decreasing by 16% the past 20 years when adjusted for inflation, according to Grantmakers in the Arts. Faculty at UCF are finding that the interest and respect for TYA are growing. This year, more people have applied to the program than usual. Typically, the program has an assistantship or fellowship lined up for each student, but they’re planning to deviate from this tradition and extend their offers of admission to applicants who are willing to join the program without one.

“It’s hard to say why we had such a strong pool of applicants, but I think part of it is people going back to school during the pandemic, as well as our reputation,” says Julia Listengarten, artistic director and professor of theatre. “Our program provides a very strong combination of theoretical and practical courses, such as design and directing, our partnership with the Rep, as well as opportunities to engage in arts-based community projects, so there are many benefits for students outside of UCF-based teaching opportunities that students receive through their assistantships.”

This year, Pegasus PlayLab — a summer festival that launched in 2018 and is dedicated to developing works by emerging playwrights — is featuring its first TYA production with Sombra Del Sol (Shade of the Sun), which TYA student Ralph Krumins has developed with Ximena Gonzalez, music master’s student Daniela Monzon Villegas and Bianca Alamo ’20MFA.

“This is one more example of how the culture of the School of Performing Arts is incorporating theatre for young audiences in more of its programming — and our MFA students are leading the way,” Brendel Horn says.