I remember my first trip to the theatre. I was about eight, and I got hit in the face by a finger of fudge thrown from the stage by a particularly overzealous am-dram Widow Twankey. It was an inauspicious start to what would become a lifelong passion.
Despite the confectionary-based assault, I’m now a theatre writer; and, fortunately, my wife is a theatre lover, too. When we had our son, we agreed that it was important he should experience the theatre from early on, and I began mentally planning his first visit, determined for it to be more enjoyable than mine.
But when would be the right time to take him? And what sort of production should we take him to? He’d enjoy a show based on a book or TV programme he likes, but there is also a plethora of smaller, more intimate, more affordable productions.
While we were fortunate enough to be able to get him used to theatre early on — at the age of three and a half — it’s worrying how few children experience live performance before they are forced to by their school. Of course, by then it’s ‘boring’ and ‘stupid’ and it’s not cool to like it.
However, there are some easy do’s and don’ts that should help any parent get their child used to the theatre before they are lost to their friends and artificial apathy.
DO leave your bourgeois ideas at home. It might please you to be able to say, ‘Of course, her first theatre experience was Simon Russell Beale’s Lear.’ But if Peppa Pig is what it takes to pique her interest, then park the prejudices. But…
DON’T assume your child can’t handle something more cerebral. I took my boy to see Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (made by the same people as Peppa Pig, it tells the stories of various fairies, elves and their pet insects. It’s as gritty and realistic as it sounds), which he enjoyed, but he was far more engaged by a low-budget children’s poetry show the following week.
DO buy a toy if your child wants one. If you do end up going to a pantomime, or show based on a book or TV show, there will be merchandise on sale. It’s tacky and it’s tiresome, but all the other children will have luminescent battery-powered spinning windmills bearing cheap plastic effigies of the onscreen characters. Don’t give your offspring something negative to focus on by refusing. It’s a bitter pill, but for the greater good. However…
DON’T get annoyed by the noise. And, believe me, there will be noise. This will range from chatter to full-on tantrums. Unless it’s disturbing your child (or unless it is your child), let it wash over you. This trip is for them, not you. You’ll be surprised at what they can tune out.
DO prepare for toilet trips. Even if your little one sits nicely with their hands folded, they will almost certainly need the loo. Watching Aliens Love Underpants involved five toilet excursions for my wife and me. Again, this trip is for your child, so don’t worry about missing bits. Besides, the plots aren’t exactly tricky to pick up again. And don’t be concerned about disturbing other parents whose kids have better bladder control — they’ll have been in the same position at some point.
DON’T forget to feed them. Hungry child equals grumpy child. Snacks and the attendant rustling might irritate, but if it helps keep your child happy and their attention on the stage, hand over those mini Cheddars.
What matters most is your child’s enjoyment, and helping him/her to realise that the theatre is a fun place to visit. The annual pantomime and its cast of kids’ TV stars might not be your idea of a good time, but if it can sell a child the idea that watching live performance is fun, then productions that appeal to the whole family will not be far behind.
Despite this age of rapidly decreasing attention spans, I’ve yet to encounter a youngster who isn’t utterly bewitched by the theatre. From birth, children are surrounded by noise, screens and a million other diversions, but theatre still manages to defy the fripperies of modern life, and proves that simple storytelling, mystery and magic are enough to enchant and entertain.
Inspire their curiosity and imagination first time round, and you’ve got them for life. Just keep an eye out for aerial attacks from rogue chocolate bars.
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