I began taking my children to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a few years ago. After a few mishaps in the theatres themselves, I discovered some ways to make it an enjoyable experience for all (and I mean other patrons around us, too).
Explain the play to the child. Shakespeare's language can be tough on children’s vocabulary so “dumb it down” beforehand. Pick out parts of the plot for them to look for themselves. A bored and uninterested child screams bad behaviour (literally). And don’t bring a child (or husband) to a musical if they have said, “no musicals.” Snoring is quite distracting.
Put clothes on them to fit the part. I was always told by my mom that the theatre is for dressing up. Wearing special clothes sometimes leads to special, better, behaviours. If they dress in play clothes, they think they can still play.
A good, filling meal, prior to the show, low on sugar and caffeine content. Sitting through an hour’s production (each half) could be difficult enough for little people. Giving them stimulants is not a great idea.
Research the actors or set designs. One of my boys is into “Lord of the Rings.” While researching the actors, I discovered that Dion Johnstone (who played Aaron in Titus Andronicus) played Boromir in the Toronto production of Lord of the RIngs. That helped my 13-year-old boy pay attention. This season, with The Pirates of Penzance is being performed and he NEEDS to see the swords, even if in a musical.
Make a day of it, if you can. Stratford has wonderful paths along the Avon. It has wonderful shops and an awesome toy store. Go for a tea party with a daughter. Look at the armour around town. Tire them out a bit before the play starts. “Ants in pants” is only good as reruns on Treehouse, not in Festival Theatre seats.
Don’t force them to attend. There is a time and place to enjoy plays. Going with a child against his/her will usually not end well. If the child backs out, give the ticket to a friend and make it a girls’ night/day out instead.
Show them what they can eat during intermission before the play even starts. A little bribery goes a long way. No candies or phones allowed in the theatres, though.
Discuss proper behaviour before the road trip. My favourite advice from my friend Lisa at Stratford is: “I have a rule for my now 4-year-old daughter, who has been seeing shows since before she was three. It comes with hand motions that I'm sure you can imagine: "look with your eyes, listen with your ears, zip your lips and no wiggle wiggle in your seat.”
Odds and ends: be an example of proper behaviour. You are your child’s best teacher. If going to the theatre is new for you, it will be even more exciting to do it with your child/children to learn together! Children will watch and mimic your behaviour. Be careful.
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Last season, I brought my husband and all my boys (15, 13, and 10) to see shows (Grapes of Wrath, Jesus Christ Superstar, Titus Andronicus, and Camelot) alone with me. I also brought my daughter to see Camelot as her special treat. Each child was well-behaved. I chose to bring them to plays that appealed to their personalities. My daughter still loves Lancelot (Jonathan Winsby who is now on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar).
Final words—talk about the play and expectations little by little before the day of the performance. Don’t build it up as something HUGE. I once saw a mom go on and on and on to her 3-year-old son about a haircut. She built it up so much saying it was ‘nothing’ that by the time he sat in the chair, he freaked out!!! If it was ‘nothing,’ what was with the verbal diarrhea?
Theatre is akin to circle time at school, but with no time for questions until later. Children can understand that. If you are unsure about a play’s content, the Stratford Festival puts content warning on the front page of each play on their website. Or, you can email the company directly. They will be more than happy to help you out. Read the reviews in papers, websites, on twitter. The internet age is limitless for information.
The Stratford Festival is a family-friendly experience. On their website, you can download their Family Experience House Program. It gives the lowdown on the shows plus fun games to play. Young children also get one at each performance—a wonderful way to keep them occupied before the curtain rises. My son, 10, loved the word search for Jesus Christ Superstar. How did I know? He yelled out, “I FOUND JESUS!” Everyone around us on the balcony got a big laugh out of that.
Stratford also has ticket deals for families. They have Costume Warehouse tours, Backstage Tours, and, as part of their “Stratford Experience,” they send out coupons for local restaurants, specialty stores, and accommodations.
I am looking forward to more plays with my children this season (included is Henry V, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and A Word or Two which stars Christopher Plummer). The arts, and libraries, are important to us as a society. They expand our imagination, expand our knowledge, and expand the world and language to unknown heights.