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Why it's important to start kids' theatregoing adventures early
For a family as stage-centric as ours (I'm the only non-Equity adult), one question arises the minute new members are born into it: How soon can we take them to the theatre?
Three decades ago, I waited two and a half years to initiate my daughter, Laurel. When her father was cast in The Philadelphia Story, I prepped her for weeks: "What do we do when the lights go out?" Small finger to lips: "We're quiet."
I was confident she had it down. On opening night, as the stage lights rose on a sedate drawing room, one small voice ran rang out—and of course her projection was exemplary: "The lights came back on!"
Anecdotes like this (and others that I'm sure are far more disruptive) demonstrate why most Broadway shows, even Disney ones, set a minimum age, typically four and up. It makes sense: Who in their right mind would blow a week's food budget on a little kid who'll most likely wriggle, whine or snooze through such an expensive outing? Especially when there are now so many wonderful theatre choices for very young audiences—even babies.
For Laurel's twin daughters, my grandchildren, I again waited two and a half years. But this time, I took them to a more propitious gateway play: New York City Children's Theater's Pillowland, for which the dress code—promising!—was PJs. Writer Barbara Zinn Krieger (formerly the executive director of the decidedly adult Vineyard Theatre) and director Khalia Davis turned a song by preschool pop star Laurie Berkner into a gentle, participatory floor show (literally) about coming to the rescue of an insomniac king. We made a sea journey, feasted on pretend food and broke out into a low-key pillow fight. For one not-quite-toddler in the audience, the entire dramatic arc consisted of trying to stroke the twins' hair.
That summer Laurel was in a musical revue, and we were witness to another slight faux pas reminiscent of her own introduction to theatre. Having heard their mother practice her songs at home during the rehearsal period, the twins had the lyrics down. Let's just say they jumped the cue a bit when, toward the end of the show, the cast invited the audience to sing along. Evading their chaperones (not me, in this instance), they also demonstrated some interesting dance moves in the aisle.
Last year, New York City Children's Theater's This Is Sadie was the twin's first formal proscenium production. They were riveted by the imaginative flights of a little girl waiting impatiently for her parents to wake up from their Saturday morning sleep in. Dancers choreographed by original Hamilton cast member Stephanie Klemons enacted Sadie's adventures under and atop the sea, accompanied by her favorite stuffed toy, a fox. Afterward, we were thrilled to meet the author of the eponymous picture book, Sara O'Leary, and take home a signed copy of what would soon become a bedtime favorite. Theatre may be magic, but they were also fascinated by the behind-the-scenes elements that went into casting that spell.
After that show, creating theatre became the girls' favorite form of play. The plays alone are not the thing; it's also about scribbling the tickets and passing them out, and rigging a curtain out of a bedsheet and a lighting system from a flashlight. Oh, and they never fail to make a stern preshow announcement: "Turn off your cellphones!"
In a way, that's what we're doing by choosing live performance over the endless options pouring out of ubiquitous screens. "Somebody made this" is the implicit message as they marvel at a relatively simple narrative or the mind-boggling feats of a show such as Cirque Mechanics' charmingly retro 42FT – A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels, currently at the New Victory Theater. "And you can, too" is the moral—even if those acrobats set a rather high bar.
We had one debacle recently, at a very promising, well-pedigreed play perfectly geared to their age group—or so we presumed. Unfortunately, a concatenation of slapstick high jinks, ordinarily a guaranteed laugh riot for grade-school kids, proved an anxiety trigger for these tenderhearted preschoolers. Ten minutes in, one dove for her seat cushion as the other initiated an insistent, whispered chant: "I want to go."
We'll have other misses in the future, I'm sure, though hopefully more hits. Even a show that doesn't enchant has its value, helping to develop critical thinking skills as well as personal taste, however rudimentary. The best way to guarantee future theatre audiences is to indoctrinate them while they're young. If there are little kids in your life, I encourage you to play your part.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for a number of shows perfect for very young theatregoers, including the Big Apple Circus, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Gazillion Bubble Show and Tales From the Shed. Go here to browse our current offers.
Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic who contributes to TheaterNewsOnline.com. Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: The author's daughter and grandchildren at the Big Apple Circus. Photo courtesy of the author.