In the past 15 years of my professional international career as an opera singer, I have sung for a fair share of audiences. From children’s school performances, to date-night audiences, to Sunday afternoon “silver and golden haired’ 2pm matinee audiences, I’ve seen it all from under the spotlights onstage. The cell phones buzzing or ringing, the cameras flashing, the loud-bag-fidgeting, the cough drop unwrapping (while coughing). But one thing I’ve never been distracted by? The smiling excited face of a child at their first musical or theatrical performance. Still…a little etiquette goes a long way.
Live music and theater performances, when they are child-friendly (read the fine print or call the box office to ask what age-appropriate shows are), can leave children with experiences that are once-in-a-lifetime. We’ve all read the links between creativity, brain development, and music and art, so without ado…here are my tips and tricks for bringing toddlers and young children to the theater!
- GET THERE EARLY! If you haven’t been to the theater before, and especially if you have tickets to pick up at will-call, make sure you arrive at least 20 minutes before the show (that means, you’ve already parked the car and are IN the building). Pick up your tickets, and GO POTTY with the kiddos! Usually kid-centered shows are no longer than one hour, and even in theater there are intermissions, but lines are always long (especially in the women’s bathrooms), so use the last 10 minutes before seating to use the bathroom and find your seats.
- SEATING ETIQUETTE: Many children’s theaters have ‘general’ seating. The younger the child, the closer to the aisle your should sit! In case you have to get up with them because of distraction, talking, crying, etc- it’s kind to your neighbors to have a clearly marked exit plan. Once you sit down, explain to your kids that everyone around here is waiting for the lights to go down on the audience so that the lights can come UP on the stage and the show can begin. Make sure they aren’t kicking the seats in front of them, and if they can’t see, make sure it’s ok to put them onto your lap by checking if there is another child behind you. Obstructed views are never fun, but usually in children’s theaters, parents are pretty flexible about switching one or two seats around them to accommodate height and sight lines.
- QUIET as a mouse. Explain to your child that the performers onstage need to concentrate to remember the words to their songs, and remember where they have to dance, kick, walk, or run onstage- so it’s our JOB in the audience to be as quiet as we can to watch what they do. You can also tell your child that if they have questions they should try to remember them for the end of the show, and if they need to tell you something VERY important, to whisper it very quietly in your ear. If you remind them in an ‘already-whisper voice’ of the rules of being a good audience member they’ll most likely start whispering along with you before the lights dim! And remember: NO food, NO flash, NO phones.
- BEHIND THE SCENES: to pass the time until the lights dim, don’t forget to point out the stage, the scenery, and mention that there is a crew of people backstage that have to pull all the levers and hoist all the pieces onto the set- that they aren’t performers but that many people help a show come to life. There are costumers, and make-up artists, and even hair (wig) artists! All of this pre-show talk will help them understand and absorb the magic they are about to see and hear.
- CLAP, LAUGH, and CHEER (when appropriate!) If you are attending a classical music concert, save clapping for the end of each piece. If you’re attending a musical or theater and something is funny, laugh! And show your child that it’s ok to react to the emotions and feelings that are coming from the actors! In many cases for children’s theater, the visual cues are given to the audience members to laugh and clap- so you’ll be in good hands with those performing professionals.
- PLAY DRESS UP! It’s nice to mark each theater outing as a ‘special’ day as a special gift from parents or grandparents or special friends. Build up the excitement at home by picking out a special outfit with your child that is appropriate for the theater and that will make them feel like today is not just any normal day- today they are being given the chance to see how professionals make art, music, and drama come to life!
A few weeks ago I took my 6-year-old and 3.5-year-old boys to see the Dallas Children’s Theater production of The Hungry Caterpillar. They’ve also been to children’s performances of The Three Little Pigs at The Dallas Opera, as well as a number of other musical events, both geared toward children and open to the general public. My son attended his first opera (with me performing in it) from backstage at just 8 weeks-old, and continued to grow up around live theater shows. Although some may think he’s a pro- he still excitedly whispers to me when he’s at the Nutcracker and his favorite music begins, or when he saw The Music Man for the first time at a Summer Theater Stock performance and it was ‘different’ than the movie version he already knew. I allow him to marvel in the wonder that is live theater- as long as he dutifully tries to remain quiet as a mouse!
I hope that you all take advantage of the many opportunities to hear and see live music and theater in the Dallas area- our favorites are the DSO, Opera, and Dallas Children’s Theater — and any live music we come across casually at restaurants, bars, outdoor playgrounds, Klyde Warren park- etc. what are yours?!