So, you want to spend “quality time” with your kids? Why not take them to the theater?
Theater offers a unique opportunity for connection and conversation, especially with tweens and teens. Theater can be both fabulous entertainment and meaningful art. Enjoying theater with kids is easy, especially if you approach the experience with appropriate expectations and a few goal-oriented strategies. Here are a few ways to set the stage for connecting with your kids through a theater experience.
Before you go
1. Treat it like an adventure, not a Culturally Enriching Experience! It's not meant to be good for you like some sort of art medicine. Theater-going can be fun, can be meaningful, can be life-changing. But sometimes it's weird, or uncomfortable, or disappointing. Theater is like camping. Approach it with a healthy spirit of adventure and a recognition that despite your best efforts, you may get rained out.
2. Set some fun goals. Goals like “To have a life-changing artistic experience” puts a lot of pressure on everyone. Try this: “to experience art with my child.” See how that turns the “this is art-medicine to be endured” into more of a “let's do something together” goal? Why do you want to go on this adventure? Maybe you want to explore the city, meet new people, support a friend or fellow artist, engage with diverse people. Set yourselves up for success with some concrete, actionable goals within your control.
3. Expect the unexpected. Create the opportunity for a “you had to have been there” moment. Only through storytelling do we have stories to tell. That's why live theater – as opposed to movies or even visual art – is a wonderful activity to do with kids. There's always an element of surprise, danger, improv. You never know exactly what to expect. This can be nerve-wracking for the parental control brain, but it's really great for providing opportunities for authentic parent/kid connection.
Art is the impulse to have moments of extreme personal connection, and to share those private moments with others. Negotiating that tension is the parent's responsibility and joy.
4. Communicate your anticipation without expectation. This is good for the recalcitrant, unwilling, dubious, or simply quiet child. Too much “I can't wait!” or “You're gonna love this!” puts pressure on you to Have A Great Time. Try phrases like “I'll be curious to see....”
5. Encourage your child to play the role of grown-up theater-goer. If your kids are excited to the point of inappropriateness. go ahead and enjoy that excitement while encouraging them to temper it. You are heroes on a quest to discover the play; the role comes with a degree of responsibility. Being a theater-goer means putting on a special hat, and being bigger than your own desire to scream with excitement.
6. Allow space for discovery. Discovery involves a degree of risk. If your kid can see you're taking a chance on this whole play thing, s/he can, too. Take a risk on sharing a companionable silence while letting the play settle. Giving yourself time to enjoy/reflect/sit with the experience gives your kid a chance to open up the conversation.
7. Get beyond “Did you like it?” The direct “so what did you think?” is risky – and too easy to brush off. Search for alternative paths like: "What did you most like? Who was your favorite? Did you see that moment when _?" Be specific. Engage with a discussion or reflection to which you personally, authentically connect. What made YOU laugh? When did you cry? What did you discover? Think back to the goal – a shared experience.
8. Don't be afraid to let a question hang. Sometimes the question is more interesting than the answer. “I wonder what I would have done in that situation” for instance. “I wonder how it will end.” “I wonder if it was hard to act that uncomfortable scene." Maybe your kid will fill the silence with their own response, maybe not – but you're both sharing the contemplative moment.
9. Try “What do you think the play is about?” This can be a great doorway to conversation, but you might need to help your child think beyond plot and towards theme. “If you had to pick one word to describe the play, what would it be”? “Which character did you care about most? What do you think they wanted in the play? Did they get it?”
10. Ask them about the space. Would it have been the same in the a different theater? Compare the theater to others you've seen. Would you go back there again? If you could change one thing about the production, what would it be?
After the show
11. When the cell phone comes out – and it will – use that opportunity. Was it hard to turn off your phone for the play? Did not being able to check your messages distract you from the story, or was it helpful to have that enforced focus? If you had to tweet this show, what would you say? Would you tell your friends you were here? Why or why not? Would you recommend it to friends? What sort of person might like this show?
12. Use the program as a springboard. Here's a sneaky parent move. Take the program with you. When your hands are occupied – driving, cooking, cleaning, etc. – ask your kid to read you something from the program. “I was thinking about those director notes” or “I want to know more about that actor.”
Any way to engage without direct questioning opens a door to a neutral space for sharing without pressure.
Were your goals met? Start planning your next theater adventure!
Shana Bestock is the Artistic and Education Director of Seattle Public Theater. She has been a theater professional for over 30 years, and a theater-goer for just a bit longer than that. You can come see one of her plays for free this summer at the Greenlake Bathhouse – details at seattlepublictheater.org
Photos: Top photo istockphoto; second photo courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival