Take Your Child to the Theater
by Katie Beltramo
Going to the theater is one of life’s great pleasures, but it can be intimidating when your kids are young. Seize opportunities for relaxed, fun entertainment that will also teach your child how to be a good audience member.
The right venue is key. Children’s theaters plan shows with wiggly toddlers and preschoolers in mind. With appealing topics, short show times, and audience participation, these are your easiest entrance into the world of theater. Just work on getting your child to stay at your assigned seats while keeping his voice low.
Plays performed in parks or open spaces are another great option, says Michael Bobbitt, Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Theater in Maryland. “They allow very young children to engage with the performance or to run and play,” reducing stress for everyone.
Check mainstream theaters’ websites to find their most child-friendly options. Many larger theaters offer productions designed for school field trips, but they will sell tickets to moms’ groups or the general public if you call them.
Save money. Recruit friends to attend as a group or share a subscription, or call your theaters to ask about special offers. Put tickets on your gift wish lists. Studies show that experiences are more appreciated than objects, so encourage an annual theater outing with grandparents in lieu of more wrapped stuff.
“Obstructed view” tickets can be a surprising bargain, especially since views are frequently obstructed because you are too close. When we saw the Lion King, the play opened with a performer sharing our balcony, and we’d paid less than the folks seated in the back of the theater!
Build up some pre-show hype.
Tell your child stories of the show’s plot before you go. You won’t “spoil” it for your child because young children need repetition to fully understand stories. It can minimize the scare factor, too: the wicked, flesh-and-blood witch cackling a few feet away will be less frightening if your child already knows that the brave princess will triumph in the end. If it’s a musical, introduce your child to some of the songs. Reminisce about your own first theater experiences, and look for theater previews online. There’s a special thrill in arriving to experience in person something that you’ve been hearing about.
Weeks ahead, point out that performers are already rehearsing
Emphasizing the work involved early will make your reminders about attentiveness and respect more effective on the day of the show. Give your child the inside scoop about theater etiquette by explaining basic codes, like house lights going down or flashing at intermission and the bows at the end. Instead of a behavior lecture, couch the tutorial in terms of getting insider tips on the sophisticated grown-up world.
Take care of basics before the show starts.
Let your child run and jump off some steam as close to start-time as possible. Sit on an aisle and don’t forget a last trip to the restroom. I like to “forget” my program and ask my daughter to fetch me one. This safe-but-distracting venture feels like an important errand to her. Set snack expectations before the show starts, keeping in mind what’s permitted and what the children surrounding you are doing, so that there won’t be whispered negotiations mid-show. If there’s food in a package, unwrap it before the lights go down.
Check that your child can sit and see comfortably.
Little ones can get folded right into the seat and may be happier on your lap. Remind them that being quiet and staying in their own place will help everyone to be more comfortable. It’s easier to empathize with a new friend than a stranger, so if you anticipate that your child will find good behavior challenging, introduce yourselves to those around you. Your child will be more considerate, and your neighbors might be more patient if there is a brief lapse.
Chat your kids up while you’re at the theater.
Point out the architectural details as well as the special lighting, sound equipment, and sets that will be used during the show. If there’s an orchestra or band, stroll over to take a closer look. Many theaters post cast photographs and biographies on the walls or even have a meet-and-greet session directly after the performance. Discuss how the story is different from other versions, whether characters surprised your child, and which actors were favorites. Understanding how stories work is key to literacy, plus these discussions allow you to learn about your child’s unique perspective and sets a precedent in your family. Later, you can have more in-depth discussions about challenging topics when you bring your adolescents to the theater.
What if your adolescents think that they’re too cool to go see a show with parents? “Make it less about a family outing, which puts them in the role of child in their mind, and treat it like an invitation into adult society,” advises Jim Jewell of Seattle Children’s Theatre. Instead of finding “teen” shows, he argues, find something appropriate that is marketed for adults. “You’ll have better luck helping pull them up to adulthood than in reminding them that they are still kids.”
Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how many inexpensive, child-appropriate theater opportunities are available. You’ll discover, too, that your favorite part won’t be watching the show, but watching your child. That mesmerized face, the unbridled laughter: these are gems of childhood that you don’t want to miss.
Katie Beltramo, a mother of two, writes at www.capitaldistrictfun.com. When her daughters aren’t attending musicals, they’re organizing their own extravagant, costume-laden productions.