Parents: give the gift of live theater to your children. There is no other experience like it. For kids who grow up with a life permeated by TV, watching real people speak their lines right in front of them is fascinating. My advice: buy tickets as close to the stage as you possibly can. It makes a big difference.
Broadway plays cost a lot. When you have a kid who might not last through the whole performance, it’s hard to risk $100 (or more) per ticket, not to mention train fare. But there are many inexpensive ways to experience theater, such as local community theaters, high school drama department performances, student rates at more legit theaters, and so on. If you look for them, you can find them. Subscribe to mailing lists for local theaters and you will be bombarded with emails on a daily basis about what shows are coming. Same with Broadway and Off-Broadway – there are often many bargains to be found if you are on these mailing lists.
I have previously mentioned that I think American Musical Theater is a subject that should be mandatory for all children to learn. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful stories told through music available in our culture. It is for this reason that the current trend in musicals disturbs me. Now people try to write plays around existing music, as opposed to having the story/songs developing as one organic concept. I suppose the thought is that people want to hear familiar tunes rather than risking musicals with all new tunes. That makes sense, as recent musicals I have seen with original songs are awful. Nothing compares with the classics like West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Music Man and so many others. The story and the songs are so inextricably connected that when you hum the song, the scene it’s from will play like a movie in your mind’s eye.
Another wonderful thing about live theater is how it stretches a child’s imagination. It helps them learn how to suspend disbelief and make the effort to weave their own thoughts into those of the playwright, because the limits of the stage mean that a whole village cannot be displayed, but must instead be suggested. Theater scenes can’t be set in the real outdoors, so the outdoors must be portrayed somehow. The children learn the art of synecdoche, where a part of something is used to represent the whole, and that teaches the skill of filling in the details of a scene with one’s own imagination – a skill I fear is being lost, as fewer and fewer children are interested in reading books. It wouldn’t be cheating if, after taking your kids to see a show, you borrowed/bought the book on which it was based, or even found the script online for them to read. These are the first baby steps towards allowing imagination to flourish in what has become a very literal and tangible world.
Theater is a way to teach kids that art results only from hard work and practice, if you talk to them about how performances are put together and rehearsed until they SEEM effortless. It’s a great opportunity to show them that the shyest person can be brave when in costume portraying someone else. Imagine taking your kids to see a neighbor or babysitter performing in a local play! What a thrill that would be.
As they get older, theater can show your kids that working as a team on a common goal creates bonds among the teammates that last forever. Plays, sports teams, volunteer work – they all instill values that transcend the actual task at hand or result obtained.
Kids will learn that preserving a performance solely in their memory, rather than rewinding it and watching it over and over, is a totally new way to experience the world around them.
I have made all of this sound way too serious and medicinal, when I meant to make it sound joyous. I want to urge parents to make this effort to expose their children to live theater especially because of the joy it brings, not only while you are in the theater but for years after, as you reminisce about what you saw. When you talk with your children about a play you’ve seen together, everyone in the family, no matter how young, can contribute to the communal recollection of that evanescent experience. And when it’s a musical, you will all get to sing those beloved songs together for years to come. This is a recipe for creating special childhood memories!