Kids’ theater: Build the next audience

I love live theater. I go to many plays, sometimes two or three a week, but rarely fewer than one. Theater isn’t just entertainment. Real theater — straight plays as they’re sometimes called — gives you new insights on people, issues and life past and present and may even give you a new understanding of contemporary issues. (When I say real theater, I’m excluding fluffy musicals and silly comedies.)

Sometimes I look around at a theater audience and worry because we’re all too old. Theater audiences skew old, unfortunately.  So I consider it my responsibility to get kids used to going to the theater when they’re young.

IfYouGiveaMouseaCookieLast weekend, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, visiting my son and his family. One day we took the 5-year-old, who has gone to the theater since he was a toddler, to the Children’s Theatre of Winston-Salem. We saw If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, which is made up of six short playlets, each based on a children’s book.

That’s a clever form for children’s theater. Each playlet is short – no more than 10 or 12 minutes – so the young audience’s attention is maintained. And they build familiarity with new books, which the children may read later at the library or at home. My grandson Meyer was enthralled with all the plays; this usually squirmy kid was totally still. We both especially liked Imogene’s Antlers and Borreguita and the Coyote.

The Winston-Salem theater has an eight-play season; most of its productions are performed by visiting companies.  TheatreWorks USA performed this play. The acting, music and production values were smooth and well done without being silly or slick.

clickclackmooMy oldest grandson, James, lives in the Chicago area, so I get together with him more often. We’ve been going to the theater since James was 3 or 4. He’s now a teenager, so we’ve been through all the permutations of pre-K, grade school, tween and silly sci-fi theater. One of the first plays we saw portrayed one of our favorite books: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin. We saw that and many other plays at Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park, which does a great job with children’s plays.

houdiniMore recently we’ve seen Lion King, Animal Crackers at Goodman Theatre, Our Town at The Hypocrites, and Death and Harry Houdini at House Theatre. Oh and Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field.

I also go to the theater whenever possible with my grandnieces, who are now 7 and 11. Recently we enjoyed a fine production of The Wizard of Oz at the Arts Center of Oak Park.

James is 15 now and this year we’re going to see Book of Mormon. (We both love sophomoric humor and I figure he’s heard all those naughty words anyway.)

James loves theater and he participated in summer theater camps for many years until he aged out. He probably won’t major in theater in college and he may not join a community theater when he’s older. But I think he’ll go to the theater as often as he can and see that his own children go too. Unfortunately, parents don’t always have the time or money to take their children to the theater.

That’s why I say it’s Grandma’s responsibility. Grandparents can ensure that the next generation learns the joys of live theater and makes it part of their lives.