Doing It for the Children
Here's what I've noticed lately in Philadelphia theater, and you can tell me if you've seen the same thing in your town: children's theater rocks. I'm working on a feature on the subject, and can't really get too far into it without tipping my hand, but damn.
I remember the days when taking your kids to see a show meant some slapped together summary of a fairytale that usually ended in a bunch of people skipping through the aisles in plushie suits, singing something inane about love and friendship. I'm sure there are companies around Philly still milking that same cash cow, but in the past few years the bar for family theater has been raised so high that the shows are often worth seeing without going to the trouble of bearing/bringing a kid.
Today's review of Cinderella, this year's incarnation of People's Light and Theatre's annual holiday panto, takes notice of this new trend. Because not only wasn't the panto all that panto-like (it was structured more like a vaudeville show), it also engaged the talents of some of the area's most creative theater minds and brought in an unapologetic Fringe sensibility while simultaneously tipping a bowler to other successful and cutting-edge Philadelphia artists.
And what better audience for the avant-garde, for surrealism, for the marriage of drama and technology than children? Kids are completely non-linear thinkers (at least until their innate absurdism gets instructed out of them), and willing to swallow whatever they're given as long as it provides an interesting flavor--otherwise, they'll spit it right back out at you, and never taste what you're offering again. They're the roughest critics and the most loyal customers, and if you win them over, you're not only helping yourself, you're shaping the future of the arts.
The long-term result of companies throwing major resources behind family programming is a generation that grows up with a lifelong appreciation for challenging theater. The short term result is, of course, money in the bank during rough economic times, since--aside from the packed school, birthday and scout audiences--most parents will justify taking their kids to a play, if not themselves. But it's pretty sweet that in this genre at least, making money and making substantial, worthwhile art aren't at odds.