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Seeing a Show? The Babysitter's At the Theatre

Date: May 05, 2011


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It’s a common conundrum: Parents in the tri-state area want to experience the city’s theatre scene, but they struggle with the compound cost of tickets, babysitting, and travel. When they can't solve this riddle, once-avid theatre supporters often throw up their hands in exasperation and stay home.

The staff at Playwrights Horizons thought this situation was unfortunate, intolerable—and fixable. Thanks to its new Playtime series , the company is making it possible for the entire family to spend an afternoon at the theatre.

Playtime offers child care for children aged four to 12 for the duration of select weekend matinee performances, for $15 dollars a child. To make the child’s experience as artistic as the parents’, Playwrights Horizons has employed the babysitting service Sitters Studio. Made up entirely of college-educated, working artists, the service engages kids in dance, art, theatre, and music.

Playwrights Horizons Managing Director Leslie Marcus explains, "Our concept was childcare but with an artistic experience."

In a recent Playtime session held during a matinee of Bathseba Doran's play <i>Kin</i>, three four-year-olds colored on guitars, singing while strumming alongside three enthusiastic caretakers. Afterward, they learned a dance taught by the dancer-slash-babysitter.

Jane Gundell, who brought her son to a matinee in March, says, "I think it’s an innovative win-win. Though it didn’t fully solve the problem for me because I also have an infant that my husband stayed home with, this definitely makes it more likely that I’ll go back to the theatre." Gundell adds that using artists as the sitters was an appealing and crucial aspect. "You know with an actor your child is going to get to do something creative and exciting, not passive."

Marcus says this is exactly the scenario she was hoping for when she envisioned the program. "When we moved into our current space 10 years ago, the thought occurred to us as we were thinking of ways to build our community and add value for our subscribers," she says. "But we were still adjusting. And at that point most of us didn’t have kids, whereas now a lot of us on staff do."

Insurance coverage also created a roadblock. Through hiring Sitters Studio, which brings its own insurance coverage and safety measures, Playwrights Horizons can offer a service they always saw as essential in fostering audience attendance.

Around eighteen months ago, the idea for Playtime became fully viable thanks to funding from the Theater Subdistrict Council, which also funds TDF's New Audiences for New York Program. In the future, Marcus hopes to partner with other theatres in the area. This way, she says, parents can attend a variety of shows and become accustomed to the idea that theatre is kid-friendly (and wallet-friendly.)

In coming months, there will be 18 Playtime sessions during Playwrights Horizons matinees. Marcus says this will eventually expand to include all matinees, and she notes that evening performances have been left out to avoid bedtime issues.

Safety precautions, all designed by Sitter Studio, include a check-in procedure complete with wrist band for the child and pick-up ticket for the parent. And while general audience members must turn off cellphones, Playtime parents are asked to keep phones on silent; in case of emergency, parents are texted.

Andy Loose took part in the pilot session of Playtime and found these measures reassuring. Advance emails about drop-off timing (45 to 15 minutes before showtime) and information about activities and snack options “made me feel sure the kids would be extraordinarily well-taken care of,” he says. “It’s enhanced babysitting.”

For a full schedule of Playtime events, visit Playwrights Horizons here


Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City

Photos of Playtime program provided by Playwrights Horizons