On Theatre for Children (reflections by a childish adult)

I am not a parent so my experience is limited, but even still, there’s one thing I know about kids. I know that kids are not idiots. I repeat: kids are not idiots. Sure, they’re inexperienced, sure, they’re still figuring things out, and occasionally they will do or say something that reveals a glorious, hilariously endearing ignorance about the workings of the world, but dude: kids are NOT idiots.

I have come to realize that this is the mantra that drives me as I work to develop pieces of theatre with the young viewer in mind. I truly believe in this world that has created and enables short attention spans and instant gratification in all sectors, that we as a society have conditioned ourselves into believing that kids (and people in general, for that matter) are capable of absorbing and appreciating much less than they actually are. Everything from food to entertainment to education is prepackaged into convenient bite-sized pieces and bedazzled with bright colors and perhaps peppered with a fart joke or two, supposedly in order to keep the consumer interested and the kids entertained. But is that really necessary, I mean really? What if we gave kids a little more credit? Do you think there is a separation of ideas that fall under the aesthetic of things like “fun,” “funny” and “entertaining” from ideas and aesthetics of “intelligent,” “informative” and “trusting that someone’s brain can connect the dots and extrapolate a learning experience from something that just made them laugh?” Does there need to be?

I perceive (and I may be wrong—I’d love to hear your thoughts on this) that there is a general cultural expectation that a piece of theatre created for children (be it specifically “educational” or not) is going to, by definition, squat down and translate everything into babytalk. That it will be for kids and only for kids, and works under the mistaken assumption that kids are idiots. That it’s necessary to aim low in order to reach a young audience. I have been delighted this year to talk to parents and caregivers who have accompanied their young charges to performances of our Education Series mainstay, “Brothers Grimm.” Many folks have said something along the lines of “Wow, my kids really loved that—but there was just as much in there for the adults too–wink wink!” I think it’s important to note here that the “adult” entertainment these parents have been so pleasantly surprised to encounter was NOT slipped in or snuck through the cracks, designed to go over kids’ heads as a sly reward to the parent who gave up their morning to drive downtown and watch a silly play about fairy tales. I have by no means mastered the art of the double-entendre. If the kids enjoyed it, and the adults enjoyed it, it was simply enjoyable. That’s all. I believe that in most cases if something is funny it’s just funny and that’s all there is to it. Other than instances of age-inappropriate content, if you’re a kid there’s no reason that you won’t find engaging entertainment engaging. “Kid-appropriate,” by my standards, should never equal “inaccessible to adults” or, far, far worse; “condescending.”

As with so many other things, the key is balance. Just as I find it morally reprehensible to sap the intelligence out of something in (a perhaps misguided) attempt to make it fun, you can’t (nor should there be a reason to) extricate the glee from the smart. As we’ve been developing our next Education show, “Slapstick Sound,” we have spent a lot of time taking some very basic elementary and middle-school level science and trying to make it funny. It is a silly, silly, over-the-top, ridiculous show. I mean, have you seen movies like “For Me and My Gal?” It’s ludicrous. And to me is almost the definition of pure enjoyment. I do not believe that framing science in this way—with old-timey tunes, groaning puns and my requisite tap-dancing extravaganza–constitutes a pre-digestion, softening, or dumbing-down of something that’s hard to learn or boring to hear about; I believe it is about having fun with the facts, and my hope is to equally celebrate the aspects of each. Along with the actors we’ve been workshopping the script for the past few months, and questions often come up about whether the cold, hard, scientific elements, the way we describe them, are going to be understandable to children. But at the same time the question comes up as to whether oversimplification would compromise the integrity of the educational aspect of the piece. Yes, everything moves really fast and we don’t go into a lot of details, yes, the scientific explanations of things like soundwaves, vibrations, and measuring their frequencies and how we hear them are taken lightly–literally danced around, are the drivers of hopeless jokes and puns, and sometimes seem to take second fiddle to the premise of the Vaudevillean world we’ve created, but simplification and silliness does not have to equal condescension. I trust that most of those eager little brains are going to extrapolate some kind of learning experience from something that just made them laugh. We also trust that kids are smart enough to enjoy humor even if there are no fart jokes (sorry guys–there are no fart jokes). No kid is going to walk out of the experience knowing everything about acoustics and amplitude, but neither is any adult. But everyone will have some facts presented in clear, concise language accompanied by laughable antics by people who are having a great time doing theatre for children…and kids are pretty smart.

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