High School Musical
Katie Cabot, drama director at The King’s Academy in Sunnyvale, remembers the scene well. During a Broadway performance of Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Cabot sat behind a 4-year-old who talked throughout the entire show, extremely annoying the surrounding patrons.
“Broadway is not designed for little kids,” stresses Cabot. “Getting shushed the whole time ruins the experience for them and for fellow audience members. It’s best to take children to shows designed for their age group.”
Music and theater experiences are important for children, but at exactly what age should parents introduce their little ones to the glories of the stage? According to experts, much of that depends on the temperament of the child and his or her maturity.
The most important thing, they agree, is to make the experience a positive one. But things can always go awry and, in this hard-pressed economy, no one wants to take a painful hit to the pocketbook. The answer? Take advantage of all the free and inexpensive performances so widely available.
Where to Go
To instill proper audience behavior early in life, take your child to storytime at the local library, where having her sit through a read-aloud session is good practice. Encourage her to listen and answer questions at the appropriate time.
Places like the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CDM) offer performances designed for kids 7 and under.
“It is very cool to be able to offer theater and the gift of live performance to a child,” says CDM’s Linda Fischetti, programs and education manager. “Informal learning is taking place in a shared experience. Conversation afterwards is really critical to help a child understand what she saw.”
Finding relatively inexpensive shows that are age-appropriate is a good first step. Consider the theme. If your child loves animals, a story about an animal would be perfect. Be sure that you know enough about the content and storyline.
And be discerning. While a “Shakespeare in the Park” play may be free, the language and subject are way too complex for a small child to understand, and sitting quietly through full-length plays may make children feel as if they are being punished.
Theater Companies for Kids
Parents can look to theater companies that aim to entertain young children. The California Theater Center offers short plays that usually last 30 minutes or less. It is based in Sunnyvale, and often performs stories kids already know.
“Most of the plays I saw growing up were on school field trips to CTC performances,” says Cabot. “I loved going to see shows at an early age, and as I sat in the audience, I knew I just had to try it.”
The Peninsula Youth Theater also debuts shows for small children through its “Stories on Stage” program. Only 45 minutes long, they are performed by kids 12 years and up, and are designed so that children can meet afterwards and ask questions of the actors.
PYT executive director Karen Simpson notes that parents must know what their children will be seeing scene by scene. “Plays like Grease seem to be a lot of fun, but then you realize when you are there that there is a lot of bad language being used,” she says. “You have to make sure the themes fit into your family values,” she says.
A Web site run by Music Theater International (www.mtishows.com) is a great resource since it rates plays and gives details on show content, allowing families to judge for themselves. For example, the musical Bye Bye Birdie is pretty mild, especially by today’s standards, but it does include a father who is always yelling at his kids.
Summer is a great time to head to Mountain View for the PYT’s free “Theatre in the Park,” where children ages 5 to 13 perform in a show as part of their summer camp experience.
Other popular theater companies for children include the Children’s Musical Theater San Jose, where the “Rising Stars” drama troupe includes kids ages 6 to 14. In Santa Clara, the Roberta Jones Junior Theater will present The Wizard of Oz in late March, and tickets cost just $6 for adults and $3 for children.
High school musicals, usually offered in the spring, are another means of introduction where kids can see their older counterparts belt out a tune. These shows are full-length programs lasting up to three hours, and may most benefit older elementary and junior high students.
This spring, Valley Christian High will tackle Les Miserables, a story about the French Revolution that features themes of forgiveness, love and restoration. And Fremont High School will be presenting the old favorite Guys & Dolls in April. Says drama teacher Tim Shannon, “You’ll find lots of high schools doing kid-friendly shows.”
Teaching Proper Behavior
Treating a child to live performance can be a thrilling experience and a bonding one at that. Cabot has been taking her 11-year-old niece Emily to productions for three years and says, “I try to model appropriate show behavior by not talking during the show, and laughing and applauding at the appropriate times.”
In addition, she has found that one of the best ways to make sure her niece makes it through Act 2 is to splurge on a large cookie at intermission. “I always anticipate spending a little extra to buy her a snack!”
Of course, to make the event truly enjoyable, you have to make sure kids can see what’s happening. “They need to be comfortable and see as much as possible in their field of vision,” cautions CDM’s Fischetti.
This especially holds true for preschoolers, who often get squirmy. Bringing a booster seat or pillow helps give them a couple of inches of height to better view the stage.
Children should also be doing more than sitting still and paying attention. “Whatever they are seeing should be capturing their interest,” she continues. For that reason, the CDM’s theater is an intimate setting where kids are only three rows away from the performers. “When they can really see what is going on and realize it is real people up there, it is very engaging for them.”
Small children usually get excited when adults get excited, she adds, and children are delighted when they look at new things. She is adamant that preschoolers and toddlers do not belong in a traditional theater setting. However, taking children to community or ethnic festivals is ideal to observe music, drama and song. It’s also important to prepare children by reading and talking about the related story before attending a performance. A familiar story is a great way to go.
“If it is your first time, you want them to have a good experience, and it’s good to go to a play based on a familiar book like Cinderella or Little Mermaid,” says Karen Simpson, executive director at PYT.
She recommends leaving the baby at home, because it’s just “not fair” to the older child to have to leave midway through a performance when an infant starts crying. “Make an event of it,’ she adds. “Wear your favorite clothes, make it a fun day. Have something fun to eat at the intermission. It can be a family ritual.”
At the Show
Arrive early. Take children to the bathroom. Be sure they are well fed and content. Remind them to whisper if they need to talk to you or, better yet, tell them to save their questions until after the show.
Simpson of PYT says she likes to seat her 5-year-old in the back of the house. “No one is sitting behind you, and if you have to leave early, it doesn’t affect other people,” she explains, adding a seat in the front may be too scary or overwhelming to kids. An actor getting angry on stage may frighten young ones who think he is angry at them.
“I’m not a big fan of the first row,” she says. “A play can seem just too real for kids. We’ve even had complaints from parents that Cinderella was too scary.”
And if the evening is not working out, be willing to leave. “You want them to be happy and not feel stuck in the chair,” says Fischetti, who stresses that parents have to remember that they are there for the kids, not for themselves.
Sunnyvale mom Michelle Burke has brought her four sons to lots of plays and ballets ever since they were 5. At home, they watched movies of musicals and plays. “As they aged, we stretched them by taking them to the symphony and the opera,” she says.
The most impact has come from seeing other kids on stage. Last year, the sons had the exciting opportunity to audition and participate in the play Emma. Parents can take Burke’s cue and expose their children to many different types of stage experiences. The rewards are enormous for both parents and children.
Once, a 4-year-old made his mother bring him back three times to see a Peruvian ballet demonstration at the CDM, recalls Fischetti. Another time, a 5-year-old insisted on staying through the chamber concert. “We have surprising things happen here,” she says. “You never know.”
Kathy Chin Leong is a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent and is executive editor of BayAreaFamilyTravel.com, an online publication for families.
Dos and Don’ts of Going to the Theater Do:
- Make sure your child can see well from his seat, or he will get antsy.
- Go over behavior expectations ahead of time.
- Discuss the storyline of the play before and after. Keep the conversation open-ended.
- Make it a special event by dressing up or going for a treat afterwards.
- Make sure your child is nourished and content.
- Take your child to the restroom before curtain time.
- Take a child to a production he has no interest in or if he resists.
- Force a child to sit through the entire play.
- Make him sit in front or interact with the actors if he does not want to.
The Onstage section of this magazine (see page 112) and the online calendar at BayAreaParent.com are great places to find local theater appropriate for a young audience. Also, check out these Web sites.
- Artsopolis.com – This Web site offers a comprehensive calendar of arts events throughout the Bay Area. Look for events geared towards families.
- Mtishows.com – The Music Theater International organization offers ratings of plays, telling readers details of show content so families can judge for themselves.
- pytnet.org – Peninsula Youth Theater Web site lists shows for the season.
- ctcinc.org – California Theatre Center Web site offers a comprehensive list of its shows.
- cmtsj.org – Children’s Musical Theater San Jose features its current lineup of plays and explains how kids can get involved.
- santaclaraca.gov – Roberta Jones Junior Theater Web site offers show times prices, and posts auditions for upcoming shows.