When asked how to create plays for children, Constantin Stanislavski, the great master of Russian drama reportedly replied: “The same as for adults, only better.”
Children’s theater is an underestimated medium. It’s often viewed as being second tier. Perhaps this harkens back to the 1970s when theater for young audiences was an unprofessional mishmash of bad acting, costumes, and a poor selection of plays. But we’ve come a long way, baby! Pixar and Dreamworks have shown that entertainment for children can also be wildly entertaining for adults. In the last 30 years, theaters for young audiences have proven that as well.
Why should it be different? There is no reason to dumb down theater simply because it is for kids. Just like adults, children have the right to smart, relevant cultural experiences. Stan Foote, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Artistic Director says, “I always appreciate the sophistication of a lot of kids. I just think kids want to be challenged. They’re intelligent human beings. If you talk up to them, they will meet you there.”
Today, live theater is more important than ever. While schools are focused on fundamentals and meeting common core curriculum goals, external children’s arts programs are filling the gaps. Studies show that consistent participation in the arts actually increases academic performance. Most recently, The Right Brain Initiative released a September 2014 report showing that by integrating arts education and student learning, students’ reading and math scores increase at least 2.5 times more than the average annual rate of increase.
Theater is live and dynamic. There is a strong sense of community, of sharing, and togetherness. If you’ve ever been to a school show at Oregon Children’s Theatre, you’ll know the power of hearing 800 children (and adults!) laughing at the same moment. As much as technology makes our world smaller, it also serves to isolate us. Theater does the opposite. And unlike TV or video games, which flash new images every few seconds, theater helps to lengthen attention spans. Children learn to wait (often with bated breath) for a scene to unfold.
But there’s more! Theater sparks the imagination. It cultivates curiosity, empathy, literacy, courage, and self-confidence. Kids who participate in theater learn to be great collaborators, problem solvers, and idea generators.
Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre in an interview with Danielle Wood of Education.com said, “I taught for 17 years and I’ve seen first hand that theater makes for smarter, braver, human beings. Theater helps connect the head to the heart.”
Over the years, the selection of plays for children has been limited, relying mostly on fairy tales or well-worn chestnuts. However, Oregon Children’s Theatre (and others like Dallas Children’s Theatre, First Stage, Adventure Theatre, and Seattle Children’s Theatre) have not been afraid to collaborate nationally, take creative risks, and create new work. In fact, Oregon Children’s Theatre has brought 12 world premieres to the stage since 2003, including Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which earned us a national reputation for new play development and has been produced at over 250 theaters since it premiered in Portland. The quality of the work led Marty Hughley at Oregon Artswatch to call The Giver, not children’s theater, but “humans’ theater.”
But back to Stanislavski: why does children’s theater need to better? For one thing, children make up the most demanding audience, requiring perfect honesty. If they don’t like what they are seeing, there won’t be any polite applause. Instead, there will be a lot of extra wiggling, loud whispering, and multiple trips to the bathroom.
English playwright, David Wood, told the Guardian that children’s theater was “the most important theatre,” due to its role in triggering the imagination, and its obligation to produce work of the highest quality. There’s little room to fail in children’s theater, he argues, “Some children and families will be coming for the very first time, and if you fail it could be the last time they ever come to the theatre.”