I have this theory that if your kids get into theater, they’ll be too busy to cause much trouble. One of the best ways to get them into theater is to take them to see it.
People ask me sometimes how I managed to train my kids to be such good theater-goers. To be fair, they are not always good audience members. They fidget, they get bored, they sometimes “whisper” at very high volume. But mostly they are pretty good. Here’s my answer, more or less.
There is no such thing as too young for the theater. I took Silas to see a production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday when he was a month or so old. He was a fussy baby, we spent a lot of time in the upstairs lobby, but we were there.
Petra’s first play was No Roosters in the Desert, when she was only about 10 days old. She was fine, just slept and nursed.
As a baby, Silas rode on my back during rehearsals for Washed and, as a toddler, colored in a corner while we worked on Give Us Good. He and Petra have both looked at books and played with dolls during countless production meetings. So they’ve been around the theater process.
But you don’t have to be a working theater artist to take your kid to shows. You just have to take them to a performance. Start as early as you can. Didn’t start when they were babies? It’s okay! But start now, not next year.
Pick Your Play Well
You want to pick a play that your kid will find interesting, or else you will question all of your life choices. But that does not have to be a play for children. I cannot stress this enough. I love children’s theater, if it is well-done, but I also am a big believer in taking kids to see high-quality theater of all kinds. Just because a production isn’t branded as being particularly for children, doesn’t mean you can’t take your children. Many plays for general audiences can be great for kids. If you’re concerned about the content, call the theater box office. But please (pro tip), be clear about what your concerns are. Asking if a show is “family friendly” is unhelpful because it will depend on your family. Are you okay with your child seeing stage violence, but not blood? An occasional curse word but not, like, the really bad ones? Flexible gender roles but not reinforcement of the patriarchy? Kissing but not simulated sex? Ask specific questions.
Beyond content, also consider time. Most young kids do not have the attention span to last for more than about an hour, especially if they haven’t been to a play before. One fun way to get your kids to see short theater productions, often for free, is to check the calendars of summer camps in your areas. Most performing arts camps have some public or semi-public presentation at the end of their term. These are often free and also very frequently, the younger siblings of campers are in the audience, so your kids aren’t the only noisy fidgeters. My kids came to see a one-hour version of Much Ado About Nothing when I directed it at the American Shakespeare Center’s summer camp in 2016, and they both loved it, even though they were quite young (3 and 5). It was short, there was music, and it had some very broad physical comedy.
Seeing a low-cost or free show until you have a sense of how your kids will do can be very helpful. I’ve seen people stick it out because they paid $25 for their kid to be in the theater, even when it was clear that everyone was miserable half an hour in. If you haven’t made an investment, it’s easier to know when to bail.
Don’t be afraid to push their comfort zone a bit. A month or so ago, I took Silas and Petra (ages 5 and 7) to see two-man sketch show about social justice. Petra had a hard time sitting still, but found parts of it deeply engaging, particularly a moment when an actor asked a rhetorical question and she said, “No!” She told me later that she just couldn’t help herself–it felt like he was asking her. And the actor, to his credit, responded to her perfectly. Silas found the play much more compelling than I would have guessed. He asked me many deep questions about it afterward. They were, needless to say, the only children present. But they did fine. Silas even said that he thought his friend Noah would have enjoyed it.
Preparation is Key
Pick your seats well. If it is at all possible to be on the center aisle, do it. You might have to duck out.
Figure out where the bathrooms are and visit them at the last possible moment (obviously).
If your child is an early-to-bed hobbit, don’t bring them to an evening performance. Until very recently my kids’ bedtime routine started at 7 pm. They saw their first evening show only a month ago. This is what matinees are for.
Find out if it’s the kind of theater that will let you take snacks in. A packet of fruit snacks or a granola bar can buy you time in a slow point of the show.
Keep in mind that if your child has not seen a play before, the experience might be, frankly, disturbing. They might not understand that the actors are pretending. Before I let Silas see his first show that involved staged violence and blood, we watched several videos about wound makeup and stage combat. He understood that it was pretend, and that the actors were, in fact, not hurt or hurting each other. We talked about the fact that an actor might be a very nice person in real life but do something mean in a play. It helps that Silas knew many actors before he saw them in plays, but we talked about it anyway.
You can’t expect your kids to behave themselves in a theater if you don’t give them some idea of what that kind of behavior includes. Talk to them about needing to not talk or whisper. Explain when it is customary to applaud. Remind them that the theater is supposed to be a good experience for everyone and if they bounce around in their seat, it will be hard for the people behind them to see.
One thing that can be hard for children to understand, especially in a proscenium theater space, is that the actors are sharing the same room as they are–and can hear them. Silas and I went over and over this, because that boy has no “inside voice.” When he was four, he begged to see Jordan’s Stormy Banks, a Civil War drama I was directing. The play was Not For Children. There were guns, violence, the burning of the Shenandoah Valley. But he said he wanted to see it, so I decided to take him. We did a lot of prep for the play. One of the older women who was in the cast had invited her Bible study group to the same matinee that I brought Silas to. They sat in the front row and every time she came on, they all said things like “Ooooh, look at her! Isn’t that costume so funny?” Silas finally said (in his not-whisper), “Mama, don’t they know it is not a movie and the actors can hear them?” They quieted down after that…
It’s also important to remember that no one has perfect theater etiquette. I recently saw a production at a theater in the DC area and seriously, FOUR cell phones went off during the performance. It was annoying, and I think (hope) the audience members were embarrassed, but it happens. During my 2017 Much Ado (a 100-minute cut), Petra started giggling loudly when Hero nearly died at her wedding. I was mortified. The actors weren’t bothered by it. It is funny, they pointed out, to see someone crumple like that, especially if you know (that is, if your mother has told you over and over) that it is pretend.
Brush Up Your Shakespeare
Generally, if you can give your child an idea of what the story is before you see a play, you’ll have an easier time. Taking them to a musical? Play the sound track around the house for a few days leading up to it. Going to a show based on a book? Read the book first.
And if you’re taking them to see some Shakespeare, make sure they know the story, at least in the broad outlines. You might be concerned about the language, but don’t worry about that. Unlike adults, kids are very accustomed to hearing words they don’t know and figuring it out from context. If they know the beats of the story, they’ll be fine.
We love using graphic novels of Shakespeare plays as preparation. My very favorite are the Manga Shakespeare series because they use the actual text of the plays (or, rather, a cut of it). They are fun and engaging, while also helping familiarize the child’s ear and mind with the shape of the play. We have a tradition of bringing our Shakespeare graphic novels with us when we go see a play and asking the cast to sign them. The kids are always excited to talk to the actors afterward and asking for an autograph is an easy pretext.
One other thing to note is that … How can I say this nicely… Not all Shakespeare companies are created equal. Go to one of them that is known for lively, engaging performances. I recently saw a four-hour Macbeth at a very prominent theater. There is no excuse for that. If my kids had been with me, I would have left at intermission. Or before. It also helps to find one that is generally not too stuffy. Original practices companies tend to be great at audience engagement. Outdoor Shakespeare also can be super great with kids. If you aren’t familiar with your local Shakespeare options, check out some quality criticism, like that of Eric Minton’s Shakespeareances blog.
Start with the comedies. Just trust me. If you’re going to hit a tragedy, do one that has a lot of funny bits, like Romeo and Juliet. Or good fights and magic, like Macbeth.
Just do it
Trust me, it will be fun.
And if it isn’t, you’ll have a good story.
*funny story: The American Shakespeare Center has on their website that audience members should be at least 7. We took Silas for his fifth birthday because I knew he could handle it. I told him, “If anyone asks you how old you are, just tell them you are old enough to sit quietly and enjoy the show.”
One of my grad school colleagues was playing Puck, and I had asked him to meet us for a minute after the show. Silas loved the show, especially Puck, and while Rick was signing his book, he said, “So this was your birthday present? How old are you, buddy?”
Silas proudly answered, “I am old enough to sit quietly and enjoy a play.” Rick’s face was priceless.