How To: Take Children to the Theatre (Or, What is Hype May Never Die)

As a child, I remember taking field trips with my elementary school to see plays -- bootleg versions of Little Red Ridinghood staged in front of an audience of squirming children with the house lights turned up and the material dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator. We would leave immediately afterwards and return to our classrooms, where we would spend hours drawing illustrations of our "favorite scenes" and practice our handwriting with summary sentences. It was a painful experience for all involved.

This fall, our school gave me the opportunity to take over forty of our students to see Bears in Space at 59E59. It was an absolute delight for everyone involved -- but it took a lot of work to pull off. Here's my "how to" guide for taking children to the theatre.

1. Choose the right play.
A lot of children's theatre is straight-up awful. In the United States especially, there are so many "educational" touring shows created by theatre companies looking to turn a quick buck. None of the performers or playwrights involved have any interest or previous experience in children's theatre; they just assume that anyone can be successful because children "don't know any better" and won't be a difficult audience. As someone who's taught for over a decade now, I can assure you that children are THE MOST difficult audience. Many of them are not yet at the developmental stage where they can "just sit still and pay attention" during a dull production. So if you're not entertaining them? They're going to fidget. They're going to whisper to their classmates. They're going to start flipping through their Playbills. They might even choose to spend the second act in the bathroom, playing with their cell phones.

Internationally, we're experiencing a Golden Age in children's theatre. I highly recommend taking children to theatres like the New Victory, which meticulously curates productions from across the globe. These shows are aesthetically innovative (just look at this season's Chotto Desh, which was nothing short of a visual triumph) and refuse to talk down to their audience -- even when that audience consists of toddlers.

If you're going to take your students out to the theatre, make sure that you've done your due diligence and have chosen a production of high artistic quality. Collapsing Horse, the creators of Bears in Space, are a children's theatre company where, more often than not, their audiences are packed with adults. They focus on found-object work -- with puppets made out of towels and hot glue guns, shadow puppet segments projected onto bedsheets using flashlights, and costume pieces constructed from cardboard (i.e. stuff that my students could probably make at home). Bears in Space had previously sold out the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Soho Theatre in London. Not only were the reviews fantastic ("a batshit-crazy comedy puppet show about a couple of bears in space" raves Time Out London!), but the content was easily sell-able to middle school students. Who wants to go see a show about bears THAT ARE IN SPACE?! It was just quirky enough to intrigue my target audience of ten-year-olds from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

From Collapsing Horse's outrageously beautiful Conor: at the end of the Universe. I had the privilege of seeing this work in its early rehearsal stages and actually cried.

2. Choose the right company.
I know that it can be tempting to order tickets for The Lion King on Broadway and take your students out for their annual shot of culture. (Guilty.) However, I'm going to make a plug for actually connecting with theatre companies and forging lasting partnerships. Our school has done this twice, and both times have been extraordinarily successful. We partnered with the Deconstructive Theatre Project for many years, an experimental off-Broadway company who brought their ground-breaking production of The Orpheus Variations to the Public's Under the Radar Festival. They not only came into our content-area classrooms throughout the school year to teach our students how to devise theatrical works (based on material that they were learning in history and literature), they also brought students into their productions and taught them the technology that had made the Deconstructive Theatre Project such a success.

But more importantly, when you take the time to develop these partnerships, theatre companies get to know you and your students. And that can make all the difference. Here's just one small example: While most of the humor in Bears in Space was accessible, there were some jokes that children (and especially American children) simply weren't going to get without an explanation. Knowing their audience, Collapsing Horse's ensemble members made quick on-the-ground adjustments that helped facilitate comprehension. Like:

ACTOR: I bought Prosecco!
STUDENTS: (Blank stares)
ACTOR: It's expensive!

They also dropped in more of the jokes that they thought my students might enjoy. Since I work with a large population of Hispanic immigrants, the Spanish bear puppet got a little bit more stage time than usual -- and my students absolutely LOVED him. These may seem like tiny details, but those tiny details add up to create a memorable theater-going experience for children.

3. What is hype may never die.
I started promoting Bears in Space from the first day of school onward. Since we only had forty tickets, students had to fill out an application form to even be considered. With daily reminders in the PM announcements (and printed flyers distributed to advisory mailboxes, pushing students to turn in their application forms before the deadline), competition was stiff. The winners received a special packet with their acceptance letter and a study guide (created by me) that needed to be completed. The students with the best study guides were chosen to ask questions during the post-show Q&A session. Everyone also received a bear-themed pencil sharpener and space-themed pencil from the Oriental Trading Company. Students had to work hard for these tickets, and then they were showered with exclusive perks once they'd been selected. It wasn't long before the students who had opted-out of the application process were begging for a second chance and asking if there were going to be any other field trips during the school year.

It's important that students know what to expect before they enter the theatre. We had an information session for students who were attending Bears in Space. (And, keeping with the perks, students who came to the session received pizza for lunch!) The presentation explained what the subway trip would involve, what the theatre looked like (including where students would be waiting before the show), what front-of-house staff would be doing, and what qualified as appropriate dress. It also previewed some jokes that students might have a hard time understanding, and we role-played what appropriate reactions would be for some of the more "mature" jokes. Looking back on the information session, I wish that we'd spent a little bit more time going over expectations for the post-show Q&A and leaving the theatre -- but, overall, both Collapsing Horse's ensemble members and 59E59's front-of-house staff were impressed by our students' behavior.

And it's not just about building up hype for the students. I was in constant contact with the performers. I emailed them a "Best Of" PDF, picking out the most entertaining student applications; I stopped by the theatre a few days before our scheduled performance to ask them to sign projects that had gone above and beyond. By the time our field trip rolled around, the performers couldn't wait to meet these students that they'd heard so much about.

(Shout-out to the student who drew the illustration of two bears planting their flag on a distant planet. They knew that Collapsing Horse came from Ireland and tried to draw the Irish flag; however, they ended up repping the Côte d'Ivoire instead.)

I also made sure to buy a few dozen Baked by Melissa cupcakes for 59E59's front-of-house staff. Hosting an audience full of middle school students can be challenging. A few baked goods (and clearly communicated understanding) can go a long way. 59E59 did an extraordinary job with our students, and I would purchase tickets from them again in an instant.

4. Get some hands-on experience.
Collapsing Horse went above and beyond all of my expectations here. I was hoping that a few of our students might be able to try out their puppets; however, their ensemble members literally tossed all of their show materials out into the audience. Students were able to try on their favorite costume pieces, perform with their favorite puppets, and even get up onto the stage for a closer look at the set. And the actors were right down on the floor with the children, showing them how they bring the world of Metrotopia ("wealth will trickle down eventually!") to life every night.

Once again, taking the time to build partnerships with theatre companies makes experiences like these possible. I cannot encourage teachers enough to get out and connect with their local theatre community. (If you have older students, you can establish some life-changing mentoring relationships as well. We reached out to the New York City theatre community to provide guidance for NTSA's company members. We received an outpouring of support, and many of our students are still in-contact [and even doing professional work] with their mentors.)

Collapsing Horse ensemble member Jack Gleeson teaching fifth grader Ericka how to use her favorite puppet. This photograph will never stop giving me joy.

5. Keep the hype going after the play has closed.
There's nothing like a good Thank You to keep hype going after the play has closed. I pulled the students who I know had the most to say between classes and asked them some questions about their Bears in Space experience. I got everything from impressions of their favorite characters to endorsements of #teambourgash to a marriage proposal (!).

We edited together this Thank You video, which we uploaded to Vimeo and sent out to both the Collapsing Horse and 59E59 teams (not to mention our school leadership to thank them for buying the tickets!). Students continued to ask me for months after if Collapsing Horse would be coming back to NYC and, if so, would we be taking another field trip?

(Students aren't the only ones who will keep the hype going after closing night! One of Collapsing Horse's ensemble members, Aaron Heffernan, actually had the cast autograph some props during their strike and jotted down messages thanking my students for all of their work and reassuring them that "we'll all see each other again soon." We displayed them prominently in the theatre classroom, and students who had attended Bears in Space proudly showed them off to classmates who hadn't. I've heard from Collapsing Horse's management that they might be making a return visit to the United States next season, and you can bet that my students will be begging to attend!)

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