I went to the theater recently. The show was charming and engaging, an original commedia dell’arte piece that included some very clever use of puppets of all shapes and sizes. I was taken in by the silliness and the artistry behind the silliness; and quite literally taken into the production when some audience participation was employed. The child in me (and the adult) was enthralled with the entire production.
There were, alas, plenty of empty seats in the theater. It was Sunday. There were football playoffs going on. It was a frigid January day in Scranton, Pennsylvania. None of these elements help attract people to see commedia dell’arte, even if they know what commedia is. At another time, or in other times perhaps, the intrepid performers might have ventured to the nearby town square or some similar venue to perform. Taken the theater to the people. Returned commedia to its street origins. But for now, in January, in Scranton, best to perform in the relative warmth of the theater.
There were two little girls seated several rows behind me in the audience. From time to time I could hear them giggling and laughing in response to the show. They happened to be the only children at this particular performance. The show is most aptly billed as “A Show For The Whole Family”. Nonetheless, these girls were the only bona fide children in the audience. I found no way to count the “inner children” who accepted the performers’ invitation to play. Mine was there. My wife’s was there. I was too preoccupied with what was in front of me to conduct an accurate “inner child” census of the entire house.
I saw those two little girls in the lobby after the show. I asked if they enjoyed the show, knowing full well what their reply would be. I was most happy to volunteer (some late, but nonetheless full, disclosure) that my grown-up “little” girl was one of the three performers they’d just seen.
But there in the quickly emptying lobby, not for the first time, I was saddened that performers were giving the gift of their art to empty seats. Sunday it happened to be Scranton. I’ve had the same feeling at Lincoln Center. It immediately occurred to me that there ought to be plenty of children in those seats. Schoolchildren. Theater management, I fear, has lost some of the necessary drive to engage schools and children. One can appreciate a producer’s frustration. In Scranton I was told a story about a teacher who had gotten the required permission slips signed, made transportation arrangements with a bus company, ordered the tickets, only to be told by a principal that it was School Spirit Day, and that the kids had to stay in school to cheer for athletic teams or attend a pep rally. Sure kids need schools with spirit. Kids also need to experience live theater.
I refuse to believe that there isn’t a way through the thicket of frustration, bureaucracy, ambivalence, ignorance, and even prejudice that keeps kids from experiencing something so vital and inspirational. This particular show was based on the Wizard of Oz. The familiar lessons of the Oz story are there again for all to see and be reminded of. Equally evident are the heart, the brains, and the courage of the performers. The immediacy of the commedia style, the improvisation involved in the performance, is a most valuable lesson for children. Plus, an important stimulus to exercise their own capacity to play. Play, something not understood, valued, and encouraged enough in schools and diminished outside school, in part due to time spent in front of screens of all sizes.
Maybe the theater should take a risk and offer a free performance for administrators, teachers, bus drivers, librarians, parents, newspaper editors, politicians, just about anybody. Maybe the adults would be reminded of the power of improvisation, of the ability to say YES. Reminded of the capacity to take a given circumstance and make something positive out of it. Filling an empty theater with children would be a good place to start.