BroadwayGirlNYC: Taking Kids to the Theatre
This week I got an email from a theatre-loving mama named Liz who asked me for tips on taking her little ones to the theatre. I immediately referred her to my twittering colleagues at @BroadwayWorldJr and @MamaDramaNY, who dedicate their feeds to reviews and advice for theatre-going families. Then I started thinking about my own experiences going to the theatre with kids, and my own childhood being taken to the theatre. I realized that, even though I don't have kids myself, I actually have a lot of thoughts on the subject! So I decided this week's column would be dedicated to my tips – not only on how to best take a child to the theatre, but also how to nurture a child from a young age to grow up loving it as much as you do.
I'm a big believer that starting kids out early will ingrain in them a love for the performing arts. My parents began taking me to community theatre productions when I was as young as two, and they tell me I was rapt. I recently talked to a mom who took her two-year-old to a local performance of The Wizard of Oz, and the little girl was simply entranced by it (not to mention tickled at the fact that she had her very own sparkly red shoes on; nice one, Mom!). A pair of dads told me about taking their 4-year-old to a community theatre performance of The Pirates of Penzance, only to report that "she sat through the whole thing, delighted – which is more than we can say for ourselves!" And in the most creative move I've heard of, I once met a couple who would bring their toddler to the theatre and pack in a blanket, putting him to sleep under their feet, since buying him a ticket was cheaper than getting a babysitter!!
Of course, knowing your child is of the utmost importance; if you've got a squirmer or a crier, it's a good idea to wait on investing the time & money to go to a fancy show. But there are plenty of local & community productions that invite young audiences; these serve the dual purposes of introducing them to theatre etiquette, and also testing out their patience in anticipation of bringing them along to something more upscale or lengthier. I also highly recommend amphitheatres, as the open air is a great diffuser of noise.
Certainly, there are many shows (especially on Broadway) that are not appropriate for kids – either in content, because of their length, or due to other PG-13 (and up) special effects or themes. ALWAYS check a theatre's website or call the box office to ask about age restrictions. Many theatres won't allow children under a certain age to attend. But even if your kid is technically "old enough," use your judgment to determine if they're really ready.
Once you're convinced the kid in your life – daughter, son, niece, nephew, family friend or otherwise – is ready for a ticketed show, here are some tips I recommend after talking to lots of parents, aunts & uncles, big sisters & brothers, and older cousins and friends.
BEFORE THE SHOW
- Pick the right show. Coming to Broadway? Certain shows (Mary Poppins, Shrek, Annie) are designed and meant for family audiences. I had a wonderful experience attending Shrek with a 4-year-old family friend, and she was not only perfectly behaved, but also wide awake and rapt for the duration of the show. (She even managed to avoid kicking the chair in front of her; I was so proud!)
- When you buy tickets, do everything you can do get center aisle seats, even if they are further away from the stage. Big hats and grown-up heads can be a real deterrent to a little person straining to see the show.
- A couple of weeks before the performance the child is going to attend, find a synopsis of the story and read it to him or her. While adults like to be surprised, and can benefit from anticipation & uncertainty, kids do better when they know what to expect. If the show is based on a movie, or if a previous production has been filmed, rent the DVD or show them some clips on youtube so they get a sense of the characters. If you can't find a movie version, or even Broadway clips, you still might find some good (enough) videos of local high school productions. And If you're going to a musical, find a cast album and play it for them a lot. My friend Ali's kids like to make up dances to the songs they hear and then compare their dances to the ones they later see onstage. (They always like their own the best.)
- Explain to the little ones that they won't be seeing a movie. The people are really up there! It seems so obvious to us, but some kids aren't really cognizant of the difference between live theatre and something on a screen. In a particularly cute move, A three-year-old I was with when she met a Rockette after the Radio City Christmas Spectacular squealed in delight, "You're real!" when she saw the woman in costume up close.
DAY OF THE SHOW
- On the way to the theatre, talk about the plot again. If you're driving, play the songs again. Ask them if they remember certain elements about the show ("Annie lives in an orphanage, right? Do you remember what an orphanage is?")
- Find the house manager when you arrive at the theatre. Ask about an accessible bathroom (most have one off the lobby that is reserved for people in wheelchairs, which is also generally available to parents with a couple of kids in their tow). Have your kids use the bathroom before the show, and you'll have the benefit of knowing where you're headed at intermission. (Another benefit of the aisle seats suggested above is that you can bolt as soon as the lights go down, so you & your little ones are less likely to have to wait in a long line.)
- The house manager can also let you know if booster seats are available. These are a great solution if the afore-mentioned hats or hairdos get in the way of children's eyes. If boosters aren't available or your kid prefers a more personal lift, I highly recommend the use of a grownup's lap. It's not just a way for a kid to see the stage more clearly, but also a perfect way to whisper to them without disturbing the patrons around you – not to mention an excuse for an extra cuddle!
- Bring snacks that won't make noise or messes. String cheese, fruit snacks, and grapes are great choices. Tuck a few wet wipes into your bag in case of sticky fingers.
- If bringing multiple kids, make sure that a grownup sits next to each one (rather than sitting three kids in a line). This allows the adult to quietly explain any plot points that might otherwise go over a child's head. They're also available for questions, nose-wipes, etc.
AFTER THE SHOW
- The stage door is a magical place!! Kids get to see their favorite characters walk out among them, and maybe even get an autograph. Even shy kids can be delighted to be up close to someone they've just seen performing onstage. (Here again is the opportunity for them to be reminded that theatre is different from TV – "they're real!" – which will make their future theatrical experiences all the more exciting.) I can speak from experience that a stage door experience can be inspiring for an entire lifetime; a photo & autograph when I was twelve ultimately inspired me to move to New York and pursue a life near Broadway!
- If you're in New York City, a post-show tradition like cheesecake is a great way to emphasize the special occasion that is a theatrical outing, and also the perfect reward for being such a big kid, sitting still through a grownup show. It's a motivating force during the show, and something for everyone to look forward to.
I have one friend who grew up going to several Broadway shows a year (that lucky thing). He told me that his parents started taking him to "adult shows" – non-musicals that had more sophisticated themes – when he was about eleven. He didn't always understand what was going on, but he listened intently to what was happening onstage as well as to the way his parents and their friends conversed about the productions after they were over. This, he tells me, was the best theatrical education he could have had… and he later went on to study acting at Yale.
Learning about theatre from the time I was conscious has had a profound effect on my life, and every child I know who is exposed to theatre seems the better for it.
For more tips, suggestions, and deals, check out the following resources:
Will you tell me about your favorite experience taking a child to the theatre, or attending a show yourself when you were a kid?
Tweet it to me at @BroadwayGirlNYC.