This was actually inspired by a discussion that I had in one of my classes today. Since coming to college, I’ve met plenty of people who believe that children’s theater should only be cutsy, wootsy plays that are bright, cheery and happy. Some of these people want to work in children’s theater and, artistically, that scares me a bit.
That’s because some of the best plays that I’ve seen have not been warm and fuzzy children’s plays. (Okay, “The Princess Who Wouldn’t Wear Pink” does fit that category, but that managed to be a very effective piece of theater that had a point.)
I’ve seen a lot of children’s theater over the course of eleven years and, sadly, I’ve seen a lot of children’s plays that were simply just unfaithful stage adaptations of children’s books. Those plays I barely remember because they were meaningless and failed to make me think while I was those plays.
I also remember, when I was eleven, seeing “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. That particular show was a musical and while I thought that the effect of the hats popping on to the head of the actor playing Bartholomew Cubbins was cool, I felt as show the music strained the plot. (I then saw the three-hour long “King Hedley II” at the Penumbra Theatre later that day; we all know which play I liked more.) Children’s theater that really doesn’t go outside of the box, but has a neat gimmick—it’s a musical, there’s audience participation involved*—might not be really memorable. Will kids really be talking about a play they saw at the age of 6 when they’re sitting around with some friends drinking cocktails if it’s gimmicky?
And then there are directors like Tyler Hayes Stillwill, the former artistic director of the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre, who go outside of the box and give audiences truly incredible works of theatrical art. When directors push the envelope artistically for children’s theater, that can create plays that not only entertain children and possibly give them something memorable, but it can also be engaging to adults and potentially give them something to look forward to when they have to take their children to the theater.
So, I think that children’s theater can not only push the envelope, but it should push the envelope artistically. I see no reason why audiences shouldn’t expect the same quality of theater from children’s theater as they do from other theater companies.