Challenging Theater to Treat Children as Intelligent Beings

Her son raised his arms in triumph: “We did it!” What did "we" do? He didn't know. It didn't matter.

"Finding Nemo," now running at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando.

Before I had children, I rolled my eyes at the live shows in Disneyland. They’re not cut well, feel under-rehearsed and always lacked the kind of magic you get from the surrounding rides. “Fantasmic” is the one exception.

Then I moved to Orlando and found myself with more choices for live shows in the parks than actual theaters.

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I remember taking our first child to Disneyland and watching him go absolutely crazy when he saw Winnie the Pooh. Peeling our son’s chunky little hands away from Pooh’s nose, my theme-park-designer husband said: “I never understood meet-and-greets until now.”

I get it: there was a new spark in our son’s eyes after seeing Pooh from his storybooks in the flesh. Just last month, I spent a precious date night at a high school auditorium to see John and Hank Green, my favorite vloggers and YouTube educators, on a tour for John’s new book Turtles All the Way Down. I got to be in the same room as these creators whose work and philanthropy I so admire. It gave me a high for days.

My son connected his favorite characters on TV, books and the story that played out in front of us.

So when faced with precious little live theater or theme park shows for our son, I decided to find the entertainment that I could enjoy as well. At first, I wasn’t impressed at all with the short musical version of The Lorax at Universal’s Seuss Landing. The more familiar I got with this particular show, however, the more my son danced and I could appreciate his enjoyment. He was also watching more of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That on PBS Kids — very different from the original storybook, which I don’t like, so he was more familiar with the characters. He started to love reading the books even more because he got to dance and sing with them onstage, too.

That got me thinking about how these theme park shows may be a child’s first experience with live theater. How does it affect their expectations when — if — they finally do get into a theater?

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Once we got annual passes to Disney World, we had more options. Animal Kingdom is far and away my favorite of the Orlando parks, and they present two very different live shows: Festival of The Lion King and Finding Nemo. Even if I didn’t have kids, I would visit Animal Kingdom just to see Festival of The Lion King. I was curious how they would modify the hit musical and assumed it was just a shortened version of Julie Taymor’s extraordinary Broadway achievement.

Simba is a large animatronic at Animal Kingdom, and need not leave Pride Rock to be cool.

Oh, how wrong I was. Festival unfolds in an incredible arena setting, with bouncing monkeys, flame-throwers, aerial ballet and four performers who represent Rafiki, Scar, Nala, and, of course, Simba. They have just enough personality that it makes sense when they burst into the hit songs, modified for a circus-like adventure. There are also jokes for adults and interaction for all ages. It is a truly inspired, theatrical experience.

There are other shows that deserve a shout-out for going beyond the “skip and wave” tradition, including the Disney Junior show at Hollywood Studios — but sit towards the back because no one thought floor puppets should be sized for non-adults. Beauty and the Beast does a decent job theatricalizing the show’s best moments; even at a brisk 40 minutes, it’s much better than the recent movie advertised as live action but actually is 80% CG. Even the Star Wars “stomp and wave” presentation of characters interspersed with bits of plot and lots of fog at Hollywood Studios gets juices flowing. The last time we saw it, my oldest was three. He’s only seen the first Star Wars movie but was completely caught up in the thrill of it all. At the end, he raised his arms in triumph: “We did it!” What did “we” do? He didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Whatever those characters accomplished, he got their emotional journey. He knew they prevailed. Plot took a backseat to story. As playwright Madhuri Shekar outlined in my Theatre for the Very Young article, it took him on a journey of feelings. That was enough.

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Do you know which theme park shows have long lines, fast-passes snatched up, and keep families in line or on curbs for hours before showtime? It’s the very theatrical parades and the innovative re-tellings of classics. Which shows have no line and you can walk right into them and get a great seat? The primarily 3-D, the boring, the mundane — I’m looking at you, Little Mermaid-medley-in-Hollywood-Studios-who-hardly-moves-from-her-rock.

A common theme ran through many interviews I conducted with Theatre for Young Audience folks, and it’s exactly the same as in non-TYA theaters: sometimes you do the blockbuster, the known title, so you can do the artsy play. The artistic success or failure often depends on whether the production could only happen on a stage or if it would be just as good on a screen.

Jess Pillmore, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of theater education company Creatively Independent, believes it starts with your artistic motivation:

Why are you picking these Disney Junior plays? If it’s because the kids will know them and there’s familiarity with them, then you’re also going to get audiences that are so familiar with this that they don’t connect. They don’t need to lean forward. They know how it ends. But if you’re doing the Disney Jr. because you believe in the hope and the way that the melody actually soars and expands an idea beyond the everyday gravity that we all have, then that’s going to resonate too and you’re going to get those kinds of audience….it’s their dreamscapes.

I can tell when someone who created a live show at Disney or Universal resonated with their material and the best way to re-interpret it, and when they didn’t. It’s also easy to tell when a TYA production chose a title because they had something to say with the story, not simply because they spotted potential name recognition. By challenging theaters to treat children as intelligent beings, I never meant to say that theaters shouldn’t do the known quantities. They just need to take extra care to make it theatrical.

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We need to acknowledge that an adult’s version of artistry is sometimes not the same as for children. According to Neil Gaiman in Views From the Cheap Seats, Terry Gilliam once said of his movie Time Bandits that he had to make it intelligent enough for children with enough action for adults. Often, I see that formula reversed. When you work with a known title, expectations are even higher.

Fairytale expert Gypsy Thornton, who I interviewed last April for the CFR, believes in emphasizing those peculiar aspects of storytelling that live theater offers. The stage adaptation of The Lion King, she says, “took the story across to the realm of ‘folktale’ — something that has helped it resonate even more. It’s not just the design aspect of puppets and people merging, but the way the story is told that puts it firmly in ‘live folktale’ territory. That’s a huge advantage in storytelling and long-term impact that the film doesn’t have.”

The Orlando Symphony’s Storytime combines seeing live musicians with interactive pre- and post-show elements — like touching and playing an instrument.

Compare my experience seeing an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in a legitimate theater with the Festival of The Lion King in a theme park. Both are well-known and beloved stories, thanks to their Disney adaptations. Beauty and the Beast tried to recreate key scenes from the film in lieu of building the relationship between the title characters. Festival of The Lion King arose from a pair of wildly popular adaptations of the same storyline but chose to get more creative, making a piece that holds its value through many viewings. Wouldn’t that be nice in the theater?

Again and again, I return to trusting the experience of live theater and the intelligence of children. Just because they watch TV and movies, just because they have YouTube at their disposal, that doesn’t mean children won’t enjoy the singular qualities of theater. We should lean into these theatricalities rather than assume that children want to see a frame by frame version of a film on stage. If Festival of The Lion King wasn’t an entirely different show than the film or Broadway version, would I fast-pass it at every visit? No. Would kids of all ages lean forward and leave with smiles on their faces? Not likely.

There’s true magic in seeing these characters living and breathing in front of us, whether in full costume or in pieces of puppetry that require an imagination to fill in the blanks. I found a new appreciation of the “title TYA” production through writing this column, and urge those who utilize them to not just recreate what you think your audience wants. Simply taking the known quantity and throwing it onto a stage with no interpretation may be enjoyable enough, but it won’t infuse them with the magic and wonder of live theater to compel children to return of their own free will.