One of the highlights of our Education programs has been the profound positive impact of the Oskar series of touring assemblies. Since 2006, the Oskar series has tackled subjects such as bullying, stress, perseverance, and diversity using comedic characters to open a dialogue on the topic for elementary aged children in the Bay Area. This year’s touring production of a brand new Oskar play, Oskar and the Countless Costume Changes, will open a conversation about gender roles and identity to a young audience. During the final stages of editing the new script, we sat down with writers Prince Gomovilas and Matt Ackels for their thoughts on the impact of Oskar and presenting a conversation on gender identity to children:
TWSV: This is a play about gender expression. Can you talk about that?
Prince: It’s about the different ways that children express gender across a wide spectrum. They don’t always fall into the categories that you would traditionally expect them to.
Matt: It’s also about the way they receive the gender expression of others and conceive of gender expression, both for the individual and their relationship with their classmates.
TWSV: Would you say that the main purpose of the OSKAR series in general is building empathy skills?
Prince: Absolutely! Every Oskar deals with a different issue, but at its core the Oskar plays are also teaching empathy in many different respects.
Matt: The Oskar series is very much for this new generation of children who are going to be exposed to all sorts of things. I think the form and the absurd, scatterbrained nature of the plays of the Oskar series are preparing kids to think about the world in a little more open way.
TWSV: Is the comedy behind the OSKAR series important?
Prince: All of them have been, at their core, comedies. We feel like we’re dealing with some heavy issues and humor is a great way to deal with those big issues. There is a sense of play in all of them.
Matt: I think it’s sort of the spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Part of the main goal of these plays at TheatreWorks is to bring theatre to kids. If we show up and we’re performing Antigone, these kids are never going to want to see a play again. (For the record – Antigone is amazing, but not when you’re five.) We have to entertain them. Even if they pick up nothing about the message, if they leave saying “Hey that looks pretty fun, I’d like to see another play,” that’s half of our job.
TWSV: What is some of the feedback you’ve received about the shows?
Prince: The Oskar shows have been touring continuously around the Bay Area since 2006, which is an amazing run. They’ve expanded out to Houston and Philadelphia and hopefully soon to other cities around the country. So far, we’ve reached hundreds of schools nationally and hundreds of thousands of children have seen these Oskar shows. The feedback from the kids themselves is pretty amazing: they are able to walk away from an Oskar play having taken in the message and are able to implement it into their own lives as well as the playground. For me, that’s what’s most gratifying.
TWSV: Why will this show appeal to K-5?
Matt: When we write an Oskar play, we try to consider the performance itself. The younger children are going to understand it on a very physical level, there’s a lot of physical comedy with big, bold costumes, and almost vaudevillian schtick. When you get to the 5th grade, they start to understand more of the nuances, that these characters have hopes and a certain way that they view themselves. They’re trying to communicate that to the world. We try to have elements that kids can connect with on different levels.
Prince: I think we’ve been pretty successful in writing different layers and different levels so that it connects with different age groups.
TWSV: What is the significance of the title?
Matt: Originally when tasked with the idea of discussing gender stereotypes, performance and expression, we knew we had to boil that down to the way children understand gender. Specifically at schools, a lot of how children express gender is in clothing. In the play, we deal with gender in terms of costume so we liked the idea of countless costume changes as a way to say you can perform gender many different ways.
Prince: Also, in terms of types of different plays that exist and different theatre that exists, farce seemed to be the genre in which there are the most costume changes. So the play is a farce and it fits.
TWSV: What made this writing process unique?
Prince: What we have now is a good start. We’ve done a lot of research on the transgender community, but it’s not a play about transgender issues. This is a play about general gender expression, gender performance, and gender stereotypes.
Matt: This one was really hard! I think the issue is pretty new to the public consciousness, especially when you veer towards to the far spectrum of gender performance and identity. It is certainly new to children’s entertainment and academia. We did a lot of research before we even started, we read a couple books, a lot of articles and studies. This is a new topic, therefore there are a lot of disagreements. We’re excited about writing something that’s new territory and it’s been a challenge.