For a complete change of pace today, please welcome Machelle Allman to the Vandal Blog with her thoughts on kids’ theatre. Enjoy!

Kids On Stage

My freelance gig was to review children’s theater for a local print and internet parenting magazine.
There are those who would think that this comprises one of the circles of hell, and there are times that I agree with this assessment. However, I think it’s important to support the arts beyond buying the latest and greatest in whatever pixilated form, and I, like any good parent, want to infect my progeny with my own values. So my son and I go to many plays and puppet shows a year, and I get to write about them. People often ask me about bringing kids to the theater – at what age, what kinds of shows to go to, etc. If your kid can sit still for a half hour to an hour at a time, then the key is what the show is like.

Our first theater experience was an outdoor performance of The Sound of Music, when my son was three years old. We sat on benches cut into the side of a hill, and the lovely Maria entered the space from behind the audience, on top of the hill. She came down the aisle, singing that glorious opening song, carrying her guitar case. My son promptly stood up and shouted, “Oh! Mama, she’s got a piano!” After the laughter died down, I wondered if the poor actress playing Maria had heard him or if she just knew she made her big entrance and everyone broke up. The Sound of Music is not children’s theater, we discovered, but I have seen this mistake made many times in real children’s theater-that is, giving the lead diva a wonderful, lyrical number to show off her coloratura chops, when the kids generally could not care less. She goes on and on, and you have yelps of “What’s she yelling about?” and “I need to go pee!” in the audience.

That said, kids will forgive a lot, and will suspend their disbelief at the drop of a hat. I’ve seen wigs fall off, puppeteers appear at inopportune moments, and technical failures that would make The Wizard of Oz look like Peter Jackson, but the kids just let it go by and let themselves be enthralled with the show. What makes it worthwhile? There are a few things that I’ve identified:

1. There’s a story with a clear conflict and goal. In The Borrowers, they want to get outside without getting eaten. In The Elves and the Shoemaker, they need to pay the evil tax man. In Bunnicula, they want to figure out what’s happening without getting eaten. Hansel and Gretel…Hm. There’s a lot of getting eaten in children’s theater now that I think about it. The last thing you want is 50 kids in one room together with no idea what’s happening. That’s how unauthorized wiggling, shouted interruptions, and impromptu crying jags occur. Although usually sobbing parents can pull themselves together if given a minute.

2. Physical comedy. Falling down is always a winner. So is the old kick in the seat of the pants. Especially if the actor winds up, breaks the fourth wall, and asks the kids, “Should I?” If you ever doubt the power of the coliseum mob mentality, watch a bunch of five year olds screaming for one actor to YES! kick another actor in the pants. Cherubs, indeed.

3. Hope. Kids are sensitive little boogers, and they really need to leave on an up note. Not everybody gets the happy ending all the time, but somebody, preferably the lead, really should. My boy still has a hard time with Charlotte’s Web because sure, Charlotte’s babies make friends with Wilbur, but Charlotte herself dies. Children’s theater is not the time to get all literary and worldly with the script or the direction. Yes, they were just screaming for the kick in the pants, but they need to know that generally the world is an okay place to be.

So if you want to take your kid, your nieces and nephews, or your crazy grandpa to the theater, or if you are the type to try your hand at a script, keep these few things in mind. I’ve made the mistakes so that you don’t have to. Just ask the box office if anybody falls down or gets kicked in the pants during the play, and you’re golden.

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Kids On Stage
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