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?