Why Do Theaters Dumb Down TYA?

Theater for young audiences: beautiful shows with often beastly scripts. Photo: Tony Firriolo

“We want to do children’s theater that doesn’t suck.”

A young woman pretends to walk a tightrope on a stage while her grandfather steadies her.
Paige Lindsay White and Mark Bramhall star in 24th ST’s original production of “Walking the Tightrope” by Mike Kenny.

That was Debbie Devine and Jay McAdam’s answer when I asked how 24th ST Theatre’s shows were different from their local competition. I laughed and understood. I was just starting as their marketing director and not a parent myself, but I certainly knew the horror stories of wide-eyed “children’s theater” talking down to their audiences.

And so I set about convincing progressive Los Angeles parents that a show about death, or one with a scene about getting your period, or a one-woman King Lear, were exactly the shows they should bring their kids to see.

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Sometimes it was hard, but honestly no harder than getting butts into seats for any other show, and I’ve been on that rampage since the early 2000’s — first shilling for my own writing and directing projects in New York and Los Angeles, then while working at The Antaeus Company as Artistic Associate. I’ve been getting butts in seats since your only database was Avery mailing labels plus a little black phone book. 

And when I had my Lil’ Pirate Dude, I saw no reason why he couldn’t attend some daytime

One white male and one white female standing outside a theater, in front of a poster for a play. The white male holds a postcard for his show to the camera and the white female holds a one year-old white male in her arms.
One year-old Lil’ Pirate Dude didn’t get to join Josh Feinman onstage, but he was thoroughly entertained for the whole hour.

Hollywood Fringe Festival shows at three months old. I’d spent every summer experimenting with coverage and reviews since the Hollywood Fringe Festival began in 2010 and wasn’t about to stop. I cleared his attendance with producers beforehand and sat near an aisle, but he was always up for a good puppet show or musical. Some performers sought me out for their audience, like Josh Feinman, who has an incredible one-man interactive show The Voyage of Odysseus that tours with Enrichment Works programs. He seamlessly directed children from ages 4-14 into his story. My son left his seat at one point, but not because he was bored: he moved to get a better view. Feinman doesn’t skirt over the violence or remove it. He doesn’t paint flashy, distracting sets or need much at all. He depends on his powers as a storyteller, children’s innate curiosity and (gasp) attention spans for something that deserves their attention.

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We didn’t just attend shows marketed for kids, either. Jessica Hanna at the Bootleg Theatre even welcomed me and LPD to an open dress rehearsal of Track 3, the Theatre Movement Bazaar adaptation of Three Sisters, before they toured to Shanghai. I had seen it earlier and knew there was enough movement and music that my (then) one-year-old would enjoy. Some of the actors even said afterward that they liked hearing the few bursts of excitement coming from his seat and that it was neat to hear such uncensored joy at their show.

It always felt so normal to bring my child to the theatre, even before he could walk. Growing up in Boston, theaters (or auditoriums, or church basements) were my second home. My parents ran a community theater, and my mother took over my high school Drama Club at their request. I often joke that my childhood playmates were Gilbert & Sullivan; if there was a production within a two hour drive, we went. Sometimes twice. We selected some shows at the Huntington, who produced decent but somewhat standard productions, and were subscribers to A.R.T (American Repertory Theatre) since their second season. My folks were anyway, and they added my sister and me to their subscription once we turned five. Our humble vacations centered on theaters and tours of old houses. Needless to say, I had theories on when to use nudity onstage by the time I was eleven. Topics that may have been taboo at my grandparents’ tables were regular fodder for my family as we reviewed each production we saw. Yet I don’t recall learning about anything beyond my comprehension through a show; for instance, if a couple kissed and fell back onto a bed, I probably just thought they made out for a while until I learned about sex. I’m pretty sure that soap operas had a more negative impact on my dating life than anything I saw onstage.

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Los Angeles theatre was quite a welcoming space for my theatre-going adventures with a baby. Not to mention that 24th ST opened its arms (quite literally) to LPD while I worked there; he often attended meetings, sometimes held on the floor so he could roam on a blanket and I could focus better. The dressing room became a nursery/office during daytime hours.  

When we relocated to Orlando for my husband’s job in theme park design, my pirate was 15 months. I took him to see The Frog and the Princess at Orlando Shakes, and…it was fine. It was cute. The frog puppet was pretty cool. The actors were good but couldn’t overcome a weak script. It was about what I expected, honestly.

Then we saw the Symphony Storytime Peter and the Wolf at Orlando Symphony. The pre-show was very interactive, with the kids getting to try each instrument and color their programs, along with other activities related to the music they were about to hear. I had a little freak out, though, because we’d been listening to the version of the story that ends with them killing the wolf and the Symphony used the ending where everyone goes to the zoo instead. Even my toddler turned to me confused at such a random turn of events. I don’t think he got the pure ridiculous idea of a zoo close to a rural farm in Russia, but he did find such a parade…odd.

Young boy sitting in front center and surrounded by actors costumed for Curious George.
Here is an older Lil’ Pirate Dude, in the center of Orlando Rep’s “Curious George and The Golden Meatball” cast.

I only recently saw a show at Orlando Repertory, which caters to children of different ages. The tickets aren’t too pricey ($14-$20) and those under three can lap sit for free, which I always appreciate. The show was based on PBS Kids’ updated Curious George series, with which I am intimately familiar (thanks to my now three year-old). Again, most of the production elements were fine, costumes were on I.P. and performers were mostly great. The television series, however, centers on George learning more about emotions, engineering or both. The plot for his character development may be silly, but there’s a good amount of learning within the silliness, and parents can engage in some strong reflection with their children after watching it. It didn’t win multiple Emmys for nothing.

The show we saw at Orlando Rep was all plot, no story, and no one on stage actually learned anything except for a tacked-on twist. The parts of the musical that follow education curriculum standards felt forced or raced by us thanks to mediocre writing.

Here’s where I have a major internal dilemma: despite all my and my husband’s problems with it, our son was transfixed and wouldn’t leave without taking his picture with the cast. Would he have loved it just as much if he didn’t idolize Curious George? Probably not, but that is why we (and presumably, Orlando Rep) chose that show in the first place.

Ever optimistic, we tried another show at Orlando Shakes, Beauty and the Beast. Now, I fully appreciate how hard your task is to present the story of a much beloved Disney movie in Orlando, where many families have annual passes to Disney World. And Orlando Shakes offers a welcoming experience from start to finish with their shows, but — again — I was pretty aghast with how bad the script was.

I understand that a new script to such a familiar story has to ring some comfortable bells for the children in the audience. An example of how playwright Brandon Roberts doesn’t exactly follow the Disney script:

They cart away her father.

Disney’s Belle: “You didn’t let me say goodbye.”

Roberts’ Belle: “You wouldn’t let me embrace him one last time.” (I’m paraphrasing, but I know “goodbye” was replaced with a version of “last embrace”.)

There are more examples, and again, I know that some story points need to exist when the audience would know the movie so well. The whole script just seemed in the first draft form. I saw the second preview, but aside from some botched quick changes (cleverly covered up by the actors, who always perform above the level of their script), everything went very smoothly. It simply felt like lazy writing, because obviously kids won’t know the difference.

That is where many children’s theaters get it wrong. Kids know when you talk down to them. They may not say so, but they feel it. More often than not, it is the parents who aren’t comfortable with complex emotions more than the younger set. During 24th ST’s production of Walking the Tightrope, in which a grandfather slowly admits to a three-year-old that her Nana has died, it was the adults who cried their way through it. Kids of all ages were happy that Nana’s soul was shown in the form of a clown and the grandfather could finally talk about his loss and rebuild his relationship with his granddaughter.

I don’t mean this as a Los Angeles versus Orlando thing, either. There was plenty of theatre in L.A. that insulted the intelligence of children, and I saw my share of productions where big eyes and bad music replaced good storytelling. In one Fringe show, it was also obvious that the only children who followed the audience interaction were related to the performers and had seen the show already. (There were so many flashing lights and bad jokes that I sure couldn’t follow it.) I managed to steer clear of most of it, but its plentiful in most cities, I imagine. Since the only “kids” show I remember seeing as a child was A.R.T.’s production of The King Stag, with puppets by Julie Taymor, it’s hard for me to stomach anything that dumbs down story for children. They are much more intelligent than most TYA gives them credit for being.

My assumption is that either theaters think that is what parents want, or they don’t give the same attention to TYA that they would an “adult” script. I’m curious if that’s true and how it manifests itself differently throughout the country, in professional theater as well as school productions. Over the next year, I will conduct interviews with leading children’s theaters in varying parts of the country to report on their funding, outreach and how the politics surrounding them do or don’t affect their programming. What can be done in New England but not the Midwest? Who can take risks and who is stuck with Stuart Little adaptations (no offense to the mouse)? Atlanta is one of the only U.S. cities engaged in baby theatre, for instance. How is that going?

I’ll also investigate programming choices and restrictions in schools, and whose choice it is. Where are there sophisticated training programs for youth and where is there lack of opportunity to see any live performance at all? And I’ll look at development process for new work. Are some scripts for children not workshopped better because that’s the level of maturity the parents and field trip organizers want, or do they want it because that’s what is offered? How do touring agents choose the shows they represent, and how selectively do they pitch to different areas of the country?

And most importantly, I will remove all assumptions from my interviews. I want to learn, not prove any idea I may have unless I can back it up. This country has enough division right now, and I don’t need to add to it.

If you have ideas for people and organizations to include, please comment below or tweet @cindymariej.