Friday, February 02, 2007

An Afternoon at the Theater

February 2 -- On Wednesday afternoon, I took my 10-year-old niece Sara to see Les Miserables on Broadway. It was her first Broadway show, and we were in the fourth row on the aisle--almost right in the center of the action.

For months, Sara has been intrigued by this show--not necessarily fodder for 10-year-olds, but they always surprise us, don't they? She had listened to the score over and over and had asked her father, my brother, to tell her the story. She was ready to see the show.

For me, it was incredibly exciting to introduce her to the world of Broadway. I remember going to the theater a lot as a kid, and I remember how excited I was and how the theater has always excited me more than movies. (There's a whole discussion of learning/experiential styles that could go in here, but we'll save that for another time.)

As I watched Sara taking in the show from the corner of my eye, I was reminded why live theater is so important to kids--and I'm not talking about the big arena shows that feature oversized costumed characters, often on ice skates. (Heaven preserve us!)

There is something about the visceral emotion and the fact that live theater takes away the distance of movies and TV that affects and communicates with us in ways no other entertainment can. Sara became completely absorbed in the story, and connected to the characters in a very real, very feeling way. I'm not sure, happily enough, that she really understood the life Fantine was reduced to to survive on the streets of 19th Century Paris, but Sara certainly felt for the (admittedly nearly unending) trials of Eponine and Cosette, and she fully got the big, emotional moments of the story. There are plenty of those in Les Miz.

What was remarkable in talking to her afterwards was how her imagination had been engaged--and how it had kept her attention for three hours. Of course, the theater can never replicate the literal accuracy we see in movies, and so the imaginative mind needs to supply the missing elements that bring the story fully to life. Watching a live show, then, becomes an active process, one that demands the leap of imagination that allows the audience to interpret the abstractions and symbols and to understand and become immersed in the world of the show.

In the prologue to "Henry V," Shakespeare writes: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Into a thousand parts divide one man, and create imaginary puissance." ... "Think, when we talk of horses that you see them, 'printing their proud hooves i' the receiving earth." He knew the limitations of the physical stage even as he trusted in the limitless power of the imagination.

We highly recommend adding live theater into your child's experiences. It doesn't have to be Broadway. There are community theaters, touring companies, even high school productions can be compelling for younger children. Today's professional (and even some high school) productions are certainly more sophisticated than in Shakespeare's time, and there are more machines and marvels on the Broadway stage--and stages around the country for that matter--than ever before. But it still can't come completely to life without the individual's imagination. That's one reason it's called a play, right?

-C. Byrne


Anonymous said...

You are a brilliant man and I concur with your recommendation whole heartedly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if some day our kids could quote "Willam" as well as you.

Bob Byrne/Sara's Dad said...

Sara's afternoon at Les Miz also generated some interesting discussions on the train ride home and some fun in the days that have followed. Singing paradoies to get her up was an exercise in mental gymnastics. (Jean Valjean praying: "Must get up, it's time for school, being late just isn't cool" instead of "God on high"....)

She couldn't wait to share the experience with her classmates, already envious of her (first-ever) "non-sick day off" from school.

The plot is complex, but certainly not over the head of your average fifth grader. Sara explained it to friends who listened with rapt interest. She did say that discussing the story line in advance (as we had many, many times) was helpful and that seeing the performance on stage helped her more fully understand the plot.

It reminded me of my own experiences learning Shakespeare. Until I SAW a performance, the olde English was often excrutiating to read and understand. Once I saw Shakespeare on stage it unlocked the world of the Bard and made it far less foreboding and far more relatable and fun.

Depending on whose research you subscribe to, as much as 90% of all human communication is non-verbal. Seeing the production connected Sara to the emotions and the characters in a way that seeing the Les Miz 10th Anniversary concert on tape had not.

While we have lots of the video games and gadgets in our home, there's nothing like watching children act out a play.

As a parent, one of the greatest joys is to watch Sara and her sisters and counsins create plays. You don't need any special toys to do this. We have an IKEA puppet stage, but the most fertile play stage is the mind. All you need to do is suggest a break from the electronic toys and point your kids in the direction of the family auditorium (aka your couch or chair).

At first, it may feel awkward to engage your kids in this kind of play in a high-tech world. You may not think other families do this. They should. You and your children will have more fun stretching minds and smiles than you can ever have chasing images around a video screen.

Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Great blog chris - a pleasure to read!

Once more into the breach!

SSS Drama Club said...

Very interesting! A+++ for bringing the theatre into a young person's life!