Everyone remembers their first play, and theatre-loving parents want to give their children that memorable experience. Luckily, New York parents have easy-access to the extravaganzas of Broadway, while families in other cities can quickly score tickets to touring shows every bit as excellent. But if you really want to get your little ones in the habit of seeing shows, you should also visit a children’s theatre.
Companies like the New York City Children’s Theatre (NYCCT) always keep the adult viewers in mind, but they tailor their work for children. By making the kids feel that the show is for them, as co-artistic director Emma Halpern says, these companies teach kids how to attend theatre. “I think just making people feel welcome in the space, as far as preparation goes, that’s 80 percent of the job.” In that spirit, Playbill and the NYCCT team offers these five tips for how to take your child to the theatre.
Tip #1: Pick a show you can enjoy too.
There’s nothing worse than being bored at the theatre, and if you’re the one counting the minutes until the curtain call, your kid will pick up on that. As Barbara Zinn Krieger, NYCCT’s founder and co-artistic director, notes, “If the parent is not engaged, the kid … is going to think to themselves, ‘My mom isn’t interested in this. Why should I be?’”
Selecting a show you’ll both enjoy makes chaperoning feel more like a shared experience than a parental obligation. Krieger compares it to a romantic date. “You want to make sure that the work is something that will appeal to the parents too, so that a conversation can happen between parent and child after they’ve seen the show.”
Tip #2: Tell your child what to expect.
NYCCT education director Brooke Boertzel points out that kids “are used to watching television; they’re used to going to the movies.” Theatre etiquette starts by learning that the show’s happening live in front of you. Boertzel often stresses to visiting audiences that “the actors can hear you as much as you can hear them.” Krieger likes to show kids where the stage manager is and how the lights work. All this helps to transform the theatre into a sacred space.
But it’s also important to tell your daughter or son, as Krieger does, that “when you go to the theatre, it’s a place to use your creative imagination.” She feels that neither TV nor film uses a child’s creativity to the same extent as theatre. “You’ve got to do some work in order to enjoy it,” she says. As she tells her audiences, “We need you. The actors are alive, they know you’re there. They’ll feel if you’re excited and interested in what they’re doing, and that’s going to make them do better.”
Tip #3: Read the book first.
Many children’s theatres adapt their shows from books you can find at a library or bookstore. This programming gives children the opportunity get familiar with the plot ahead of time—and with kids, familiarity is always a plus. Plus, Boertzel says, “working with books is a great way to ground a creative experience between parent and child. Instead of having a typical reading experience, where a parent reads a book to a kid while the kids listen, you can … pause at a moment in the story when something important is happening, or a character is feeling a particular emotion or has to make an important decision.”
Tip #4: Be flexible at the show.
You can (and should) coach your son or daughter on proper etiquette ahead of time. But once the show has started, let them watch and react in the moment. “Nobody has to sit in their seat the whole time. They can move around, sit in a parent’s lap and enjoy it at their level,” says Halpern. Actors in a children’s play tend to be more patient with fidgeting and low talking. “Especially for school shows, in an opening speech we will say, ‘It’s okay to applaud, it’s okay to laugh.’ … We try to make people try to feel like, whatever your response is, however you’re reacting in the moment, that’s okay.” Caveat: If your child is melting down, get them out quickly but quietly.
Tip #5: Talk about the play afterwards.
“The child’s opinion is as important as anybody else in the audience,” says Boertzel. Parents should encourage children to recount their experience. “Open up the conversation with, ‘Why do you think [that character] did that? What kind of advice would have given her?’ For younger kids, it could be an activity that’s similar to something in the play, like ‘Wanda had to make a silly cake. What are three ingredients you might put into your cake?’” Children can be sharp observers with strong opinions, but they also watch adults to pick up ‘correct’ behavior. So try and ask for their views on a show before describing your own.
Whether you’re taking your child to a professional children’s company like NYCCT or a Broadway spectacle like The Lion King, remember that it’s called a ‘play’ for a reason. As Boertzel says, “[Theatre] appeals to kids’ natural sense of play and make-believe. Stories are huge for children, not only as a way of exercising their creative minds. It’s a way of … exploring situations that they might experience in life.”
“The other key component is that it’s a communal event,” Halpern adds. “Having that common experience, with a group of people at the same time, can be special to kids.”