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Why I often push the envelope when taking my tween to shows
When my then nine-year-old daughter and I went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, the ticket taker eyed her warily before warning, "You know this show has mature content, right?" "Absolutely!" I answered confidently as we slipped through the door. Sure, the title character curses up a storm, flirts aggressively with the audience, and talks candidly about her botched sex-change operation. But what better way for my daughter to start grasping the nuances of gender identity and fluidity than to see Hedwig in glorious, glitter-encrusted action?
Ever since my child became old enough to sit quietly and attentively for a few hours, I've been taking her to shows that some might deem too "grown-up" for her. But, much as we love The Lion King, the New Victory Theater, and other theatre for young audiences, I think it's important to expose kids to art that might be a bit beyond their grasp. As I've seen firsthand with my daughter, these experiences have helped her evolve intellectually and emotionally, and also sparked organic conversations about difficult subjects.
Although the official recommended age minimum for Dear Evan Hansen is 12, I took my daughter right after she turned 11. The show -- which just snagged six 2017 Tony Awards, including a statuette for Best Musical -- explores depression, alienation, the perils of social media, and suicide with honesty and a surprising amount of humor. My daughter didn't personally relate to all of it (she's not quite at the angsty stage), but she certainly had empathy for all the characters -- and not just the adolescent ones. After the show, we talked at length about how the title misfit's loving but distracted mom wants to help her son but also pursue her own happiness. My daughter gained a better understanding of how hard it is for me to maintain a healthy work-life balance, while also opening up about how lonely and out of step with her peers she sometimes feels.
There are lots of other shows that have helped my daughter grow. At seven she saw Kinky Boots and got a tough lesson in homophobia (up until that point, she thought everyone worshiped drag queens like she did!), but also realized that intolerance can be overcome. At eight, she saw Pippin, and although the title character's act of patricide caused her to cry out, "Why did he kill his daddy?!," come intermission she experienced the communal magic theatre conjures as audience members dropped by to comfort her. One even said, "You were just expressing how we all felt."
Since theatre is live, it's inherently visceral. It cannot be ignored or shut off with the click of a button. It's almost impossible to stay numb. Sure, there's an invisible fourth wall, but you still connect with characters on stage in a much more intimate way than you do with TV or movies. Complex ideas and feelings that might get glossed over on screen make much more of an impression on kids -- and adults -- in the theatre.
Of course I have, at times, pushed my daughter too far too quickly. When she was ten, we went to Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening, completely ignoring the recommended age minimum of 14. I had seen the original production and was only worried about the not-exactly-consensual sex scene between Melchior and Wendla. A few friends -- none of whom were parents -- assured me that my kid could totally handle it, that the revival was much less graphic. Maybe in that scene…but I had forgotten about the instances of incest, child abuse, and masturbation! ("Mom, why does he keep rubbing his crotch like that?!") At first I thought I had made a terrible mistake, and even considered fleeing at intermission. But we stuck it out and, in the end, not only did she see an inventively staged show featuring actors of all abilities, she also got a crash course in sex ed. I spent weeks answering the many questions Spring Awakening sparked. And even though they were perhaps a year or two ahead of schedule, they were all inevitable queries. This spring, when my now sixth grader finally got a "health class" in school, she turned out to be better informed than most of the other students!
As parents, we're forced to have lots of uncomfortable yet necessary discussions with our kids about everything from sex to prejudice to violence. I'm glad that, for many of these talks, theatre has helped get them started.
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Top image: Laura Dreyfuss and Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen, photo by Matthew Murphy