We Watch, Too: A Parents’ Roundtable on Theater for Kids

A moment from Curious George and the Golden Meatball. Photo: Orlando Repertory Theatre.

In my first entry of this Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) series, I said I didn’t want to make assumptions on what people think or want from children’s theater. I know most of my desires for pushing the conventions of TYA come from my own childhood and from my new experiences of introducing a small human to the theater. But I was left wondering: How do other parents feel? I interviewed four mothers to see how, and if, their experiences aligned with mine.

I spoke with a mother of three who chose to remain anonymous. I’ll refer to her as Jane in this article. Her children are two, five and eight. Aubrie Canfield has a three-year-old and 10-month-old. Shellie Gauthier has a three-year-old, 13-year-old twins and a 15-year-old. Enci Box has a two-year-old and five-year-old.

Cindy Marie Jenkins: What is your relationship to the theater? What was it like before children and now as parents?

Jane: My husband and I both enjoyed live shows and musicals before having kids. Now, we like to take our kids.

Aubrie Canfield: [I] participated in theater classes/clubs in middle school and high school. I pretty much only listened to show tunes from ages 12 to 18. My second major in college was theater arts. I love going to the theater, although that is rare now with children.

Enci Box: I’m a card-carrying union actress, currently on hiatus from acting because that requires a lot of time away from my family…. I’m also a photographer and I shoot productions for local theater companies, which I love to do because I love being in the theater and this still gives me the opportunity. Last but not least, I’m the publisher of the theater and arts website Better Lemons, where we aggregate reviews, share stories and support the artists.

Shellie Gauthier: I love theater mostly as an audience member. [I] did high school drama, and I think it’s great for kids. I ran the talent show at the elementary school because I think learning to get in front of an audience is a valuable experience.

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CMJ: How do you choose TYA or live performances for your children? What’s been your experience?

J: We usually take our kids to shows where they might have some familiarity with the characters or story. I’m usually a bit bored during the shows geared toward younger kids.

AC: We haven’t been to any live theater yet but we have been to several live performances, usually outdoors in a festival atmosphere. Once to [an] indoor concert at nighttime.

EB: I’ve been taking my boys to the theater since they were born (or before they were born, in my womb, if that counts). Since they are very young, I choose a theater that fits their developmental needs. From one to three years, I took them to theater that had lots of movement, physicality, dance, songs and music. I took them to a few puppet shows but they didn’t like those. They liked music and movement. Now Now that the older [child] is more conscious of expressions, conflict, good and bad (and he is very sensitive), I have to see shows before we go to ensure that there [isn’t any] violence, loud noises, mean or bad characters, so he won’t get nightmares… I’m very aware of the mental development of kids of all ages, so I want to make sure that wherever we go, we see stories that are inspiring and positive. Because kids repeat everything they see at home.

SG: We have seen many TYA shows, mostly at the Rep, but sometimes at Orlando Shakespeare Theater.

TYA, parents, roundtable
Beau and Aero. Photo: Hollywood Fringe.

CMJ: How does the TYA you see affect your experience with theater for adult audiences?

J: It makes me want to go to more shows for older audiences so that my mind is actually challenged a bit.

EB: Most of the theater we see is not necessarily for kids. We went to a few shows, puppets, Snow White, etc. That was specifically for kids, and I thought they were awful! The performers projected too much…. I didn’t like it at all. So I’m looking for shows that are not specifically targeted to kids, so I look at the content, the message and the method of delivery.

We went to see some interesting Shakespeare plays. We saw some plays that had light and shadow play on stage. And those were fascinating for me as well as for them.

SG: We really don’t look at whether they’re TYA or not. [We] just pick based on a show we want to see. I do enjoy the fact that the TYA shows are shorter….TYA shows give you the opportunity to bring younger kids, and I definitely enjoy bringing my kids when they’re as young as three, where I would not bring them to an older or longer show until they were at least six.

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CMJ: I would like to get your reactions to some ideas I discussed in previous writing on TYA. For example: “Kids know when you talk down to them. They may not say so, but they feel it.”

J: I find this to be true. I think they are capable of understanding more than what we might think.

AC: I agree wholeheartedly. I make a point of speaking to my kids the way I would speak to adults in terms of vocabulary and assuming their ability to understand. I think it has positively affected my older son’s ability to communicate himself.

EB: Absolutely true. Kids are not stupid…. And they know when someone doesn’t take them seriously or uses “kid” talk with them. My kids don’t like that at all.

CMJ: How about “It’s often the parents who are more uncomfortable with complex emotions and challenging subjects than the younger audiences”?

J: I am comfortable talking to my children about complex emotions, but I know that some parents try to shield their children from some information.

AC: I hadn’t thought about that before but it makes sense. Kids experience a rollercoaster of emotions every day. Sadness, anger, envy and elation are daily occurrences for my kid.

EB: I think this is true especially when the kids are starting to have their own thoughts and ideas, which starts at around age seven. If we take the time in the earlier years to understand emotions and help them cope with them, then it should be easier to expose them to complex emotions.

SG: Well, some people may say kids feel safer with stories made for them. I don’t really feel that’s an issue for us. The only thing we censor in our house is news. That reality today is much more hard-hitting than anything they will see in a theater. When they watch movies, read books and see shows, they’ve always understood that it’s fiction. Even my three-year-old commonly says, “That’s just pretend.”

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CMJ: How about “Kids ask real questions and if things aren’t neatly tied in a safe bow, that can become something parents may have to deal with — something they’re perhaps not ready for?”

J: I am the type of parent who always talks to my kids honestly in a way that they can understand. I think I’d rather have them feel safe asking me questions than finding the answers elsewhere.

AC: I welcome the opportunity to discuss difficult things with my children. Ideally, all complicated discussions will come from them asking questions. Hopefully, then a meaningful discussion can be had with lasting impact. If they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough for a real answer.

EB: My older one asks questions all the time. He is a very deep-thinking child, and he always asks about why people do what they do and what they think and why they look a certain way… I’m looking forward to the day when…we can have a discussion instead of a one-sided opinion of what I think. I don’t want to stifle his questions as most parents do because the questions are valid. And if my son is to become an artist, he will need to ask all those questions…. If he becomes a manager, a doctor, a farmer, he will need to understand those human emotions, so I have to answer the questions, regardless if I’m comfortable with them or not. But the answers have to be simple enough for his age and his attention span. And some answers need to stay magical for him because of his age and his development. Magic is very important to kids. Not lies but magic! And there is a big difference!

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CMJ: How about “Kids feel sometimes feel safe is when things are more absolute: black and white, good and evil and there is punishment when rules are broken. Despite the fact that death can be unsettling for children, when the villains are vanquished, kids are greatly comforted by the fact that the evil or the villain cannot return”?

J: I believe that kids do want to see “good” win in the end, and I love sharing those types of stories with them.

AC: I notice that my older son likes to put things into boxes, figuratively speaking. He has trouble understanding that sometimes there are gray areas, but I am OK with introducing that concept to him bit by bit. Exposure to complicated real life situations or complicated stories [is] the only way to do that. I would prefer the stories and limit the complication in our actual lives.

EB: I think this statement is complex and it can’t be answered simply. Some kids like extreme, some don’t. Rules are rules and natural consequence follows every action…. We don’t believe that because someone is mean or bad or evil, [they] should die. Not one individual should rule over the life of another. We think that is wrong. Very American thinking.

We don’t punish at home (nor reward) and we don’t judge others. We have natural consequences and that’s how we do our best to raise our kids…. We don’t talk about evil characters. We talk about people who make bad decisions and we have rules to walk away from people who give us a bad feeling or make us feel uncomfortable. What makes kids safe is if they have a family where they have rules, routine and trust. If they can express their feelings and if they are listened to, then they will feel safe, to tell the truth, to explore the world, to be themselves.

CMJ: What do you want to get out of live theater you see with your children?

J: At this point, mostly entertainment and memories.

AC: Exposure to ideas, situations and people that they don’t encounter in their lives.

EB: When I take my kids to see live theater, I want them to be inspired by the movement, music, lights, the story and the magic on how it’s all put together. About a year ago we walked into a rehearsal of a play where the director was coaching an actor to play a gorilla. It was intense. Physical. And my older one was inspired. He has been playing animals since then non-stop. One day, he is a monkey. The next day, he is a spider. Then, a gosling and later he howls like a wolf. When we go see theater, I want my kids to see how stories are told and that they can be told differently. I want them to be inspired by the set that they watched being built. They loved running through the single standing door of another production, where there were no walls. Just a door. I want them to appreciate the artists and be inspired by them.

SG: We go to the theater purely to be entertained, never looking for anything more. We look for stories. We look for stories they’ll recognize, from books or shows but if I’ve never heard of it. I’ll read something about it and often try that too.

family, parents, theater, tya
The Rep served almost 40,000 students in 2016. Photo: Orlando Repertory Theatre.

It’s interesting for kids to grow up in Orlando with so much entertainment geared to them. I always tell my kids they are very fortunate to grow up in the place many other people save for years to visit. Not only do we have the theme parks with their characters and incredible live shows, but we are not lacking in other art and entertainment. When we saw Curious George [and the Golden Meatball] at The Rep this past fall, my three-year-old happened to see the costumed George at Universal the next day. She was proud to tell him all about the show.

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CMJ: Have you ever had a difficult conversation with your children after seeing live theater? If so, how did it affect your feelings on attending theater in the future?

J: Other than saying they were fun, they don’t really discuss the shows. It makes me question whether or not it’s worth even going. But when we just look at it for the entertainment value of those couple of hours, it is more just for fun…. Although, I am typically bored during the kids’ shows. My kids have fun and want to keep going back each time we see a flyer or billboard for something new at The Rep. I guess I just keep looking forward to the day when we will enjoy the same types of shows.

AC: Not yet, but it would only encourage my attendance.

EB: Not yet as they are too young, but hopefully after this year’s Hollywood Fringe we will.

SG: The Rep does a dramatic show for teens every spring. Last year, we saw the one about eating disorders. This, of course, brought up difficult discussions for me, but I knew it would before we went. And since my kids were the right age to deal with that, it was a good way to address it. Those conversations are hard but necessary.

If you have more thoughts on these questions or would like to be interviewed in the future, let me know in the comments.