Sunday, November 20, 2011

Baby Dragon in the Theater

I should have known it was going to be Trouble with a Capital "T" when we walked into the theater. Because nothing makes me leery like pre-schoolers sitting behind me at a most decidedly un-preschool show. One of the local community theater groups was producing Aida. Not the Verdi opera, but the Elton John/Tim Rice Disney-produced Broadway musical which premiered on Broadway when I was in law school. Now, first of all, you need to know that I absolutely love this musical. I heard Elton John sing "Written in the Stars" (probably on Rosie O'Donnell) and absolutely fell in love. This was the first non-professional production I had ever seen, but I knew enough of the actors in the show to know that it was more than promising.

But then I ended up sitting in front of Baby Dragons. Baby Dragon is our code for a kid that acts like they were raised by wild dogs (or maybe feral cats). There is a whole (bizarre and hilarious) story behind the genesis of the name, which involves one of my mom's many stories from being a teacher for 40 years. Suffice it to say, it's when a kid's behavior is so far off the charts as to attract the attention of EVERYONE in his or her general vicinity and that's coupled with his or her parent's seeming obliviousness to the situation.

I went to see the show with my awesome voice teacher and his daughter. He had three students in the show and I know four people in the show. And let me say I enjoyed the show immensely. My friend, Meera, played Aida and quite frankly, "wonderful", "amazing", "spectacular", and any number of other superlatives don't do her performance justice. And my friends, Beverly, Mollie and Julia, were all fantastic in the ensemble.

But Baby Dragons? They didn't care. There were three of them. The oldest was probably seven. The other two were probably three and five. To be fair, there are probably any number of children that age who would happily sit through a 2+ hour theatrical production. My niece and nephew are among them. Hell, when I was that age I would have been among them. When I was younger than that, my great-aunt and uncle took me to see one of my cousins in an opera and I allegedly didn't move a muscle or make a peep the entire time. I also have the very vaguest of memories of, because of a baby-sitter snafu, ending up, at the age of 2, at a production of Camelot with my parents. And having just run follow-spot for that exact show, I will tell you that it's long as all get-out. And my mom says that I absolutely adored it and never made a peep. But, and this is a huge "but", when the show was in it's Broadway run, there was an age-requirement to be allowed into the house. And that's with good reason. First of all, it deals with rather adult themes. And it's based on the Verdi opera, so there's gonna be carnage. Like, bodies on the stage and everything. Also, it's very, VERY quiet in a few places. You know that moment in the theater where you can feel the entire audience hold their breath? Yeah, that moment. That moment which doesn't need a preschooler yelling, "IS THE PRINCESS GONNA DIE?"

The first act was a veritable circus behind us. Talking. Sometimes about the show. Sometimes not. Seat-kicking. Hair-pulling. Moving from one seat to another. And the worst part? The parents did little, if anything to stop any of it. Each time a question was posed, rather than whisper, "I'll explain later, now be quiet." the parents launched into a full-scale, although relatively low-volume explanation. And when one of them snagged a handful of my hair, I heard, "Oh, sorry!" and not "If you touch anyone else, we're leaving." I guess maybe my expectations are super-high. I mean, like I said, I come from a family of theater-lovers. We've all been to shows from the time we could toddle. However, we knew (and as for my nephew and niece, currently KNOW) that if we talked, wiggled or otherwise disturbed people, we were being hauled almost immediately to the lobby. I'm talking one warning and we were out. The only known exception to this was last Christmas when my sister-in-law and I took the kids to see The Nutcracker and Gracie (2 1/2 at the time) got antsy in the second half because ALL OF THE BATHROOMS were flooded and unusable. Kelly ended up sitting with Gracie in her lap with her hand over the kid's mouth.

If I could have gotten up and out and was willing to miss part of the show (And I wasn't. The tickets for this were about half-again as much as they usually are, due to the tres expensive royalties) I would have done something about it during the first act. As it was, I knew the House Manager for the performance, so I found him at intermission. He provided the Baby Dragons with

So on behalf of the rest of the audience, the actors on the stage, the production staff, the ushers, here are some rules for Non-Theater-Type Parents when taking Junior to a show:

1. Research. Please, please, please research the show you are seeing. Call the box office and ask how long it is. Get on wikipedia and find out if it's something a kid would be interested in or even understand. Read about the show and determine if it's appropriate for a child.

2. Just because Aunt Susie or Cousin Bob is in the show, doesn't mean Junior should see it.

3. KNOW YOUR KID!! Like I said, I am pretty sure that either Jackson or Gracie would have happily watched Aida without a sound. And I know there are other kids who would be the same. But, frankly, I think they are the exception rather than the rule. But the great thing about theater is that there are hundreds, THOUSANDS of different shows. So there's always something coming up that a kid would like! At this theater, the show before last was Camelot--very family friendly (albeit long). Last show was Urinetown, which was GREAT but probably over the head of most kids under 12 (although nothing that I wouldn't let a younger kid see). Coming up in the spring? The Wizard of Oz! And many theaters have, in addition to the regular season of shows, a "kids' season" as well. These are often shorter versions of fairytales or something similar. These are perfect to test the waters with your kid. A good next step is the Golden Age musicals like Oklahoma, Annie, or The Sound of Music. If those float your kid's boat, then you can move on to more adventurous fare.

4. Talk BEFORE you get there. First, about theater etiquette. Things like whispering if you have an emergency, but waiting to really talk until intermission. Using the restroom before the proceedings get underway so you don't disturb the other audience members. Sitting still. Second, talk about the show you're going to see. If there's a movie version, by all means watch it! Last year, when I bought the tickets for The Nutcracker I also sent Jackson and Gracie DVDs of both the Care Bear's Nutcracker and The Nutcracker featuring the New York City Ballet. Even at two and four, the kids were able to absorb enough of the plot to be excited about the show!

5. Have lunch/dinner before you go! Most theaters are not fans of food in the house. However, in an emergency melt-down situation, a non-noisy food (I like gummi bears) is permissible IF it's done discreetly and quietly. No rattly paper or plastic, please, please, please! I have some little cloth bags that I got when I bought jewelry at Anthropologie that would be PERFECT. A small plastic bowl with a top would be great, too (as long as the snack didn't rattle around in it).

6. Even if no one needs the bathroom at intermission, get up and walk around! Talk about the theater itself. Maybe you can go look at the orchestra pit. Or look up at the lights and talk about how they are part of the whole production. Answer and ask questions about the show so far.

7. If there is talking, wiggling or other mayhem, institute a one warning policy. The theater is exciting so it's easy to forget, especially for little guys! Go over the rules before the show starts, but after a quiet reminder of no talking/sitting still/no touching doesn't work, it's time to head to the lobby. Believe me, I understand that it really sucks for Mom/Dad/Aunt/Grandparent to miss the show, but sometimes that's the deal.

8. This isn't so much just for the people with kids, but it's a personal pet peeve. I know that when the last number ends and the curtain call starts, that there is a temptation to duck out while the actors are making their bows. Please don't. This is one of the rudest things an audience can do to a performer. It may mean you have to stand in the aisles for a few minutes as the audience disperses, but you liked the show, right? Well, this is your chance to show the actors how you appreciate them sharing their talents with you!

9. Lots of companies either have a stage door where you can meet the cast afterwards or the cast comes to the lobby or house after they change. Kids LOVE this. And many actors love meeting their young fans! Especially in an amateur production, the actors get a real charge out of signing programs and shaking hands with little folks and it's a great way to get kids comfortable with the theater in general, when they see that up close the characters from the stage are just people!

So, in short, plan it out! The performing arts-theater, dance, music--have had a huge impact on my life since I was a very small girl. My parents cultivated a love and appreciation while they maintained a certain expectation of my behavior. I think that the theater is for EVERYONE from the littlest kid to the oldest great-grandmother. Preparing your young audience member is an excellent step in making it enjoyable for everyone involved!

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