Family Life, Parenting, Stage & Screen, Stages

The Dos, Don’ts, and Benefits of Taking Children to the Theater

The performing arts are an integral part of human history. For hundreds of years, this is the medium used by our ancestors to tell stories, share history, and express their interpretations of the world around them. As a storytelling tool and as a way to explore historical context (both ancient and modern), it’s important to take children to the theater for a variety of reasons. But how does it benefit your child? And how do you explain the basic etiquette of attending? Dennis Assaf, the Founder and Artistic Director at Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS), weighs in with his expertise.

Theater is an educational tool.
Much of the benefit of experiencing theatrical performances is what you and your child can learn from them. In terms of becoming “cultured,” plays explore a modicum of things: life experiences, morality, good and evil, reflections, and hope for (or fear of) the future.

Beyond the content of the actual performance, going to the theater is a chance for children to see human error. Assaf believes it’s important for kids to see live humans making mistakes like a dancer tripping or seeing stage lighting change as a sensory experience. Seeing a live performance is an ocean’s width of difference from seeing it in its perfected glory at a movie theater or on TV.

“I view the performing arts in various categories. Yes, it’s entertainment for sure, but it’s also education. It should also reflect life experiences–it’ll tell a story, and hopefully that story has an effect on the listener, the audience, in a positive way, hopefully or maybe in a constructive, uncomfortable way,” shares Assaf.

When Assaf first started JPAS, they’d put on children’s concerts and serve thousands of children; now, it’s much less. Worryingly, kids today have very little exposure to performing arts, and people like Assaf depend on those students to get on the stage and be performers, and more importantly, be audience members.

His own children are prime examples of the benefits of going to the theater and being involved in the arts.

“My three girls grew up in the theater. My eldest daughter is a special needs child–she’s got autism and a seizure disorder–but she loves music and she loves live theater, even opera. She watches all of these foreign language operas. She doesn’t know what’s being sung, but she enjoys it,” shares Assaf. “My three girls, the two youngest ones, as they grew up they got up on stage and participated in shows. In fact, in 2003 I took the entire family to the Lake Como region of Italy, and we did the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. I conducted it, my wife was the star of the opera, and the two younger girls were working backstage while the oldest one was in the audience with her grandfather.”

Of course, learning doesn’t end once the curtains close. Assaf encourages parents to bring the program home so that they can discuss the show.

“Spend some time with your kids and ask them, what did you see? What did you experience? What did you think about Beauty and the Beast? What did you think about the fact that Belle, the beauty, in spite of the Beast’s horrible appearance, loved him and cared for him to the point that it broke the spell? That’s a wonderful lesson to share with your child. I don’t know how many parents would do that or even think about doing that,” says Assaf.

So, how do you become a good audience member? There are both spoken and unspoken rules when it comes to attending a performance. Teaching your child proper theater etiquette requires discussing it with them and modeling from you.

Be quiet and observe it.
Not talking during the performance is about respecting the theater itself, the performers, and others around you. If you really must say something, say it quickly, and say it quietly. Using your “inside voice” (or better yet, library whisper) means you and your family aren’t going to disturb other audience members or, worse yet, the performers.

Keep your cell phone or child’s tablet tucked away in your pocket or purse. Most theaters have a strict no photography or videoing rule. It’s distracting to your seatmates and to the performers on stage who can absolutely see you.

Arrive on time and minimize exits.
Arriving late means scrambling to find your seats, disturbing others by shuffling in front of them when you do find your seats, and possibly missing important information provided prior to the show (where bathrooms are, where the emergency exits are, etc.) along with context for the performance.

Clean up after yourself.
A huge problem when people bring outside food and drinks to the theater is leaving a mess behind. This largely stems from movie theater etiquette where leaving behind food, drinks, and spills is accepted. At a performing arts theater, this is not the case. Before leaving, make sure your space is clean and nothing has been left behind.

All-in-all, going to the theater is an enriching experience that opens doors for your child to explore the arts, get involved, and give back to their community by finding something they really enjoy and may like to pursue themselves.

This article was originally published in August 2023.

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