A four-month stint as a theater technician at the Annenberg Center turned into a 20-year career here for Brian Joyce, who steps down this spring as director of the Philadelphia International Children’s Festival.
The festival—which brings performers from around the world to the Annenberg’s stages for a week each spring—is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Joyce worked backstage at the first festival (where, incidentally, he met his wife) and spent the next eight years assisting the annual production in various roles.
In 1992, Joyce took over the reins, building the festival into a major player, with 20,000 children and their families visiting annually. We caught up with the dynamo director to chat about his years with the festival and his decision to leave to become a Methodist minister.
Q. What was it like taking over the directorship after being in the wings so long?
A. Actually, I didn’t want to take it over. I come from a generation of theater artists who thought that children’s theater was about the lowest rung on the totem pole.
Q. Was that shift gradual?
A. No, it happened overnight. I was in France at a festival. I’d just seen 27 shows and they all were horrible, wretched theater and then this troupe came out on stage. It was a piece about the rise of capitalism in third world countries, one child’s struggle to adapt to the overpowering American-style cultural imperialism. The whole set was made of candy wrappers and at the end of it this huge hawk rose up and devoured the set. I thought, this is what art for children’s supposed to be. I became overnight the provocateur of American children’s theater.
Q. And you’ve been speaking out ever since.
A. Yes, I’ve spoken out against the intrusion of education into art. I’ve spoken out against the simplification of art for young people. I am semi-famous in a very small field for having said that Americans hate children and the experience of childhood. What we want from our children is not for them to participate in their own lives but for them to somehow accommodate to our lives. I think the festival is a revolutionary act and I applaud the university and the Annenberg Center. That they’ve supported it for 20 years blows me away.
Q. What was your learning curve like?
A. I’m a stone-headed Irish-American boy and I just thought I knew the answer to everything. During the first five years my audience educated me. For instance, I never understood that I had a tremendously male bias until a mother called me on the phone and said, “What do you have in the festival for my daughter?” and I realized there was nothing.
I was very affected by “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire. He talked about avoiding artistic paternalism and being in dialogue with the audience. The Annenberg Center allowed that dialogue to go on and sometimes it wasn’t successful and I’d bring a show that I thought was going to appeal to a lot of people and there would be 21 people in the audience. That doesn’t happen anymore, partly because I learned to listen better.
Q. Now that you have it figured out, why are you leaving?
A. I just think that nobody has more than 13 years of anything interesting to say. I think you should learn what you have to learn, say what you have to say and then let someone else do it.
Q. Any thoughts on your successor?
A. I have a tremendous bias toward the gender of the next director. Not that I’m going to tell my current employer how to do his job, but I would love to see a woman direct the festival. It’s had the big, happy male for too long.
Q. Your decision to go into ministry, was that a long time coming?
A. The truth is when I was in 8th grade I considered going into a Carmelite pre-seminary to be a Catholic priest, and early in my marriage we took a look at whether I was going to go in this direction then, but the festival took me on a ride that I had to go on, so I put the ministry on hold.
About six years ago I went to seminary. There are so many of us at seminary right now who are second-career pastors. It’s a different kind of ministry. I call it the ministry of chagrin.
Q. Let’s talk about this year’s festival. Any standouts?
A. Jack-Five-Oh. When I saw the show [in St. John’s, Newfoundland] I couldn’t get to their dressing room fast enough to talk to them about coming. This piece is just magic. It’s homegrown theater from Newfoundland, but it takes all the history, the Irish past, the sense of being an economy based on codfish in a freezing cold land where icebergs come into the harbor and turns it into this whimsical piece of theater.
Q. Any performers who really surprised you?
A. Mark Jaster. I hate mime. There’s nothing I hate more than I hate mime. But Mark is a jester, he plays the musical saw, he does all of these amazing things. Mark takes playing and turns it into art, and that’s not done very often.
The Philadelphia International Children’s Festival runs April 25-May 1. For tickets and information, call 215-898-3900 or visit www.pennpresents.org.
Originally published on April 15, 2004