Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Perception of Children's Theatre

When I first started KidsPlay.  I remember feeling nervous that I was, well, a directorial micro-manager.  Through the weeks of rehearsal, I played every part for them:  constantly modeling voices, how to walk, how to talk, timing, gestures, and all the components of creating a character.  I often worried that I was 'overdirecting' them, that I didn't give the children enough freedom to create their own character, that I didn't let them develop their style.  I don't worry about that anymore.

I mean, I see what WE do; and I see what others do.  Our shows, our little kid-shows, are...may I say it--good. Better than most, really.  I push my actors as far as I think they can be pushed and then some.  And the outcome is good.  I've come to believe that an issue with most children's theatre is that the directors simply don't realize what the children are capable of achieving.  KidsPlayers ACHIEVE.  Oh, believe me, they DO.

In the early years, I would encourage people to come and see our shows, people that were not associated with the show, didn't know anyone in it, and basically, would have no reason to attend except for entertainment.  I would start talking about it, and I would see their eyes glaze over.  I understood why.  I mean, look at your average children's theatre production.  Most are attended out of obligation to a child, and most are near-death experiences (as in, 'just kill me now, please').  And I understood that to change that glazed look, that people would have to SEE us to believe what I was telling them.

I remember gathering the KidsPlayers and their parents to see a production of another group of young performers.  It was an uncomfortable experience, to say the least, and it infuriated my KidsPlay parents.  One of them stormed out, angrily saying, "It's stuff like THAT that gives children's theatre a bad name!"  

We, my family and another, saw another abysmally bad production just last night.  We went with high hopes to see a show that we were considering as a future KidsPlay production.  I'm eternally optimistic.  I always go into another children's theatre production expecting to be impressed, to be blown away even, by a high degree of talent, production values, performance and professionalism.  I expect to have a new bar set for what KidsPlay can become in the future.  More often than not, I'm dismayed and disappointed.  Repeatedly.  And disappointed, we were.  In fact, we left at intermission, having turned over $15 of KidsPlay's money for actor tickets, $15 of my own money, and $10 from the other family--money that will support more such theatrical endeavors in the future.   [Ack!]  I have seen an ocean of bad theatre in my lifetime, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually left before it was over.  Two minutes into the show, my adult son was glaring at me from his seat.  Fifteen minutes in, my younger son, a row in front of me turned around and whispered through clenched teeth, "Mom, I WANT to LEAVE NOW."  At intermission, I woke my husband up, looked around at the rest of the party--the daughter of my friend was staring at me, head slumped to one side, reduced to a near-non-verbal state--and as a group we shuffled to the lobby, and then left one and two at a time.  We immediately went to a local restaurant and talked of what we'd seen:  fast-talking actors raced through their lines in an effort to finish before they ran out of air, bizarre costuming choices that didn't in any way help us to discover their characters; actors who couldn't have possibly been told--EVER--to face the audience.  Bad accents, lighting by--who?  Someone pulled in off the street?  A sad little makeshift set...  And we laughed when we realized that the one time we were all riveted to the action on stage, was when one girl forgot her lines.  We hung on that moment with bated breath, waiting for her to recover, for someone to prompt her--which someone finally did--and the show went on.

Yes, we are an unfair audience, I agree.  We know way too much about the mechanics of performance to ever really get lost in show.  And we who are involved in KidsPlay are spoiled, yes, we are--by amazingly talented kids, a dedicated technical team, and a hard-working parent group who combine to create truly fabulous productions.  We are used to this level of quality and, sadly, we're often shocked when we venture into the rest of the theatre world.

So these are the battle lines for KidsPlay:  1) the perception of children's theatre as mind-numbingly bad theatre to be suffered through rather than enjoyed; 2) the idea that any English teacher, any parent volunteer, anyone who's ever seen "Cats" has the skills required to direct a play; 3) we promote the idea that theatre is more than just a free-time filler, that is a worthy extra-curricular activity, a fulfilling avocation deserving of dedication and commitment; 4) we believe that the magic is in the details; 5) and we fight to be REAL entertainment not just for parents and grandparents, but for the community at large.

This is what we stand for.  This is our mission.  We are KidsPlay.


  1. As one of those no longer involved, no reason to come to performances but for the sheer entertainment individuals. I just want you to know that...what you do everyday for and with those kids will have an everlasting positive influence on who they are and who they become as adults. Thank you for what you do!

  2. I agree with Julie^^

    What you do for the KidsPlayers today will effect what they do tomorrow. Soon they will be too old to be KidsPlayers and all of a sudden they are in GC theatre and they're being hooked up to flying equipment and saying lines while they're flying through the air over the audience.

    A perfect example of this is Lauren (although she wasn't in Peter Pan) She is the person my eyes always travel to because of how well you trained her. First it was KidsPlay for her, then ActTeens, and GC and someday we're going to see her on Saturday Night Live. You have prepared her for a life of theatre.

    Jacobs should be thanking you for preparing generations to come.