A movie chain in southern California recently announced the opening of a new theater with an indoor jungle gym situated alongside stadium seating. The goal is to “exhaust” children ahead of the movie so parents can sit back and enjoy the flick. The kids, meanwhile, will “then sprawl out on beanbags and lounge seats and be angels,” according to the marketing materials. Honestly, is there any parent who hasn’t gone the extra mile to turn a rowdy child into a languid soul so the parent can have some down time?
Whatever your feelings about slides and monkey bars before the previews, the article raises the question of what theater can be for families, and especially young children today. I recently took my four-year-old to see her first play at a New York theater house that dates back to 1885. The Tarrytown Music Theater is a large and cavernous Baroque-style theater that can feel shadowy and foreboding to a young child. However, the intimidation factor is offset by the rows and rows of lush, cushioned seating, inviting the young and old alike to snuggle up as my daughter did with her legs beneath her, and a broad stage that gives off a promise that something grand will soon commence.
We sat transfixed for the next hour and a half as a handful of adults took to the stage to converse, sing and dance, as they became the characters of a frog, a toad, birds, and a slug in the story of Frog and Toad. We watched and experienced their friendship across the seasons and witnessed their adventures and misadventure. There were points in the play when my daughter sat leaning forward, eyeing every movement and following the pacing so as not to miss a beat, and other parts when she was all curled up under her jacket, and finally other moments when she was in my lap tapping her feet to the music on the seat ahead of us. But through all her inching this way and that way, her eyes were transfixed on the stage.
It’s easy to understand why. Theater feels truer to life because there is no screen between the seats and the stage. Like life, you don’t get to play a scene over again, or pause. Film and television can be high art, but they are also manufactured experiences, cut and pasted together from retakes. Theater is unexpected life in the moment, and in this sense it is a much-needed corrective for the simulated worlds our young spend their days exploring on screens. It invites us to watch the passage of time in others’ lives and draw the conclusions we are unable to make in the warped speed of our own acted-out days.
Mo Willems, author of the delightful children’s books Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny, who is working on turning his books into theater productions, said in a recent interview that theater is “temporary” and “vaporizes at the end of each performance.” The fascinating thing about that theatrical flash Willems describes is that each performance “is a great dialogue with a particular group of kids.” Willems explains the magic of it all—something that can’t be captured or held, just experienced together:
“The audience is just a bunch of strangers, but they’re communicating as well. It’s magic. And what’s so great about it is that it’s impermanent; you don’t have to document it, you just experience it. You can’t ever relive it. You can only relive the feeling you had.”
Willems says he prefers theater over film or television. Is it any wonder? Theater still feels unique and other-worldly in a culture that encourages people to think they’ve seen everything and know (or can Google) everything. The architecture, the size, and the richness of so many theaters still have the ability to awe us and to force us to stop and pay attention for a few hours before releasing us back out into the real world to resume our routines.
In 1907, Mark Twain attended a theater performance of his own work, The Prince and the Pauper. The New York Times, reporting on the event, noted that Twain sat alongside 800 other theatergoers largely comprised of neighborhood children. In a speech at the conclusion of the play, Twain maintained that theater can “elevate and educate” and “make better citizens, honest citizens” out of attendees:
One of the best gifts a millionaire could make would be a theater here and a theater there. It would make of you a real Republic, and bring about an educational level.
Theater is a full circle life experience – it awakens the youngest, it reminds and renews the middle aged among us, and it ceremoniously summarizes the ageless themes for the elders in the hall who have lived and seen so much more. Instead of climbing on a jungle gym before a Hollywood blockbuster movie this summer, take your children to a theater and exhaust their minds.