Can Children’s Theater Push the Envelope?

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.

5 thoughts on “Can Children’s Theater Push the Envelope?

  1. Although Mr. Stillill has pushed the artistic envelope, I have not only seen, but also been involved in far more shows that have been cutesy wootsy. I preferred the productions that challenge the mind, but I spent my fare-share of hours watching kids in puppy-dog costumes jump around onstage with their tongues lolling.

    Ultimately, people want to expose their children to fun and happy things. Haven’t you gotten the memo that the world is a scary place that we need to shield our children from?

  2. I want to give a shout out here to one of my favorite shows since I came to Austin – which was ostensibly a children’s show: Ashes Ashes by Eve Tulbert.

    Don’t lie to kids. They know.
    Don’t pander to kids. They hate it.

  3. Yes, Meghan-Annette, “Henry and Ramona” sucked. But most of the plays I saw that Stilwill directed don’t fit the description you’ve given. Granted, I didn’t see every show.

    I agree with you Travis, and thank you for pointing out that production to me.

    I think it should also be noted that depending on where a kid lives, the darkness of a play might be more realistic to them. For example, a child who lives in an urban area, like Austin or Chicago or even Waterloo, Iowa, might find a play like “Ashes Ashes” or “Jungalbook” at the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre to be a bit more suitable than those shows would be for a child that lives in a fancy McMansion in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

  4. I apologize, but I am not aware of these “numerous children’s theater productions” of which you speak of. I only remember “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” having audience participation.

  5. I saw a play a number of years ago in Boston called something like, “Our Black Boys are Dying and Nobody Seems to Care.” I was a student teacher at the time and our school took some of the students to the play. It was far from cutesy. At the end, the actors call out names of children who lost their lives in the city that year. It was very emotional. Some of the students actually knew children whose names were mentioned. Kids were crying, I was crying. I think that is was a good experience overall because the message was that we need to start caring more for each other and that we are all interconnected.

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