Children's theater helps kids learn to read, think creatively By Alena Murguia :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::photo courtesy of Chicago Playworks Miss Treats (Nichole Green) welcomes Pinocchio (Nate Maher, left) to Playworld in this 2003 production of "Pinocchio 3.5" by Chicago Playworks.
The Chicago area is overflowing with cultural institutions-museums, conservatories, symphonies, zoos. It is also home to a great selection of children's theaters, from small-scale amateur productions to big-budget national tours, all looking for a family audience.
Whether you live in the city or suburbs, you can teach your children from a very young age to appreciate live theater, all the while reaping the benefits of this creative medium-chief among them its ability to foster a love of reading in your child.
Children's theater, because of its dependence on children's literature for subject matter, makes books come alive. That's one reason famed children's author Maurice Sendak has agreed to allow his beloved Where the Wild Things Are to be adapted for the stage. Chicago's Emerald City Theatre will host the world premiere of "Where the Wild Things Are and Other Bedtime Adventures" this fall.
Likewise, any time Lifeline Theatre in Chicago presents a show adapted from a book, copies of that book are available for sale in the lobby. Children aren't finished exploring a story once they've seen a play. It's only the beginning.
Fostering a love of the written word is an important benefit of live theater, but it is hardly the only benefit. Watching a live performance requires children to be sedentary, but not passive. Following the show helps develop listening and communication skills.
In the case of interactive theater, audience members are literally a part of the show. During Lifeline's "Deep in the Jungle," characters onstage ask the audience for directions and help throughout the show.
"When a child believes he has affected the outcome of a play, you can almost see his self-confidence blossoming," says Dorothy Milne, artistic director of Lifeline Theatre.
Karen Cardarelli, executive director of Emerald City, also believes interactive children's theater boosts problem-solving skills. In "Captain Virtue," the story of a boy who falls into the world of his favorite comic book, the audience must help the boy come up with an ending for the story. It's a great way for children to practice those skills in a nonthreatening environment, she says.
Theater also broadens a child's world. Jesus Perez, co-founder and artistic director of Chicago Kids Company, says the No. 1 reward of producing children's theater is "watching it open the door for creativity, exploration and curiosity for kids across ethnic, geographic or financial borders."
Start ‘em young Some companies, such as Emerald City, gear their productions toward children as young as age 3. Cardarelli says she is proud that her shows often draw audiences filled with first-time theater-goers, both children and adults.
"Because so many of today's parents were not exposed to theater as youngsters, the opportunity to bring their own children means a first-time visit for them," she says. "It has become a family building tool since the entire family unit sees a show together and then talks about it afterwards, making it more than just entertainment."
But just because a theater group markets its shows toward preschoolers doesn't mean your child is ready. Perez, of Chicago Kids Company, stresses: "Parents know their children best. If you have a 2-year-old who can't sit still and is terrified of loud noises, live theater may not be the best way to spend a morning."
Given the right preparation, however, you and your toddler can enjoy the show.
First, call the theater and ask a few questions: How big is the theater? Is there anything in the show that might be scary? How evil are the bad guys? Armed with the information that, for example, the lights will be turned off at some point during the play, "sit down with the child and explain that the lights will go out for a minute, but he can hold your hand or sit on your lap," Perez says. "He won't be alone and when the lights come back on, he'll be watching a wonderful story."
Next, make sure your child knows the story. "Check the book out of the library," Cardarelli encourages. "Read it together and then talk about each of the characters and how they might act in the play. The more a child feels connected to the characters, the more she will enjoy the show."
Third, choose your seats carefully. Perez, who has 13-plus years of experience, warns: "If this is your child's first time, don't sit in the front row. It's just too much for a young child who doesn't know what to expect and it can be scary."
Then, help your child separate fact from fantasy. The irony of children's classics is that almost all of them contain an evil villain who can be scary, even to adults. This is all the more reason to choose family friendly theaters over Disney videos, says Perez.
"We're very conscious, down to directing the actor's motivations, to keep our audience in mind. We choose to make ‘bad guys' silly or misunderstood, rather than evil," he says.
Even so, discussing characters' good and bad behaviors both before and after a performance can help diffuse the fears and allow children to express their feelings.
Allowing children to meet the characters after the performance is another way to allay fears. And it can add another dimension to the theater experience. At Steel Beam Theatre in downtown St. Charles, audience members are invited onto the stage immediately after the curtain call.
"It allows children, in a physical and emotional way, to connect with what is happening onstage. Plus, it makes them feel cool," says Daina Giesler, a director with the company.
Finally, don't let the theater experience end with the curtain call. Go home and talk about what you experienced. Ask your child to name her favorite characters or act out her favorite scenes.
Choosing the show Given the number of theater companies, families have a variety of performances from which to choose: musical or nonmusical, interactive or not, professional adult performers or theater for children by children. Choosing the right show for your child depends on age, temperament, interests and convenience.
Start by looking for stage versions of your children's favorite stories. That way, they'll already be excited going into the experience.
"It is amazing to watch a child's face light up as what has only been in her imagination comes to life," says Cardarelli, whose company will produce the world premiere of the Sendak stories this fall.
Shows geared for very young kids tend to be short musicals. Giesler points out that "the frequent breaks into song and dance seem to hold the attention of the preschoolers even when they are not necessarily following the plot line."
And audience participation is important when it comes to keeping kids focused on the stage. Clapping, laughing and even shouting out clues are often key ingredients to making the show work for kids.
Ultimately, directors agree, the character's the key. A production with unconvincing actors and no momentum will not win over a child. At Chicago Kids Company, Perez reminds the adult actors to "remember who you are doing this for."
Giesler, who has the "rewarding challenge" of directing children to perform for their peers, stresses the same thing. "It seems simple, but I start the rehearsal process with reminders to the [actors] that if the audience can't hear or doesn't understand their characters, they won't pay any attention to the plot."
So finding a good quality show and a company whose mission is to entertain the family is important. You can start your search on the Internet. Most companies have Web sites, which state their mission and give you a history and overview of their productions.
It's also a good bet that a company that has been around for a few years is doing something right. Ask friends or look for reviews of past productions if you really want to find the best.
Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of Patrick and Connor and works part time for Chicago Parent.