A few years ago, when my oldest daughter was in fifth grade, she asked us one day if we wanted to see her school play. She didn’t seem very excited about it; kept saying things like “you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” and “honestly, it isn’t very good,” but we wanted to support her and so we went. This ‘play’ was called, if memory serves, Tommy the Traffic Sign. My daughter played a yield sign. None of the kids had any lines or anything–they lip synced to a pre-recorded sound track, and from time to time would hold up a traffic sign. We parents didn’t even have to provide the signs–apparently, the school bought some kind of do-it-yourself kit from some company that did this. The theatre version of paint-by-numbers. No harm, no fuss, no sacrifice. And absolutely no fun at all, for anyone.
I was so horrified by the whole thing, I went to the principal and offered to direct a play of her choosing the next year. She chose Macbeth, and so I cut the script down to a manageable length, and cast it and got parents involved in making costumes and got a friend of mine who is a professional fight choreographer to teach the kids how to fight on-stage so that it would be safe and awesome-looking, and we did Macbeth. My daughter got to play one of the witches, prompting complaints from some parents of nepotism. Damn straight–I was doing all that work, I was going to cast my daughter. The kids all had a great time, the production came off well, parents were impressed, Shakespeare got memorized, learning took place. It was great. And the fight scenes were truly something to behold. Imagine the fall of Saigon, with wooden swords.
Couple years later we moved to a new neighborhood, and a new school. At the new school, they had this annual thing they called the Patriotic Program. It was as grim as it sounds. Each grade stood up there and bellowed some patriotic song of the Lee Greenwood ‘I’m proud to be an American’ variety. The kids all looked lobotomized–my kids told me how terrified they were of the music teacher–but I’ll say this–there weren’t nothin’ wrong with the volume. The kids shrieked away to a pre-recorded soundtrack, every song in unison, every song memorized. Meanwhile, a slide show played of patriotic images–statue of liberty, an eagle, F-16s, President Bush. (Strangely enough, they stopped doing it when President Obama got elected.) My wife and I would have these bargaining sessions every year–’I went last year,’ ‘Nuh uh, I went last year AND the year before.’ Like that. My favorite part was the PTA, who sold DVDs of past years’ programs, and did a brisk business, from what I could tell. Sometimes I really don’t get Utah.
Couple weeks ago, I went to see a very different kind of theatre for kids. There’s this organization called Center Stage Youth Performers, which teaches kids skills in musical theatre, and they did a show called Once Upon an Island, a kind of calypso thing based sort of loosely on H. C. Anderson’s Little Mermaid. As we say here in Utah, oh my heck. It was marvelous, maybe a hundred kids on stage, ranging from 6-17, singing and dancing, superbly choreographed, with difficult, four part harmonies perfectly executed. The kids played flowers and breezes and waves and, on one memorable occasion, a car. Every kid had a costume, lines of dialogue, and choreography. And best of all, every kid looked like s/he was having fun. And the show was smart and sad and magical. One kid played death–he also had four naughty looking boys playing death minions. One kid played the Goddess of love. The show dealt with some interesting issues–class, and race, and death, and how true love doesn’t always win. I have no idea how many hundreds of hours the grown-ups had to put in to put this thing on, but it was worth it–the show was genuinely wonderful. And I didn’t even have a kid in the cast! So, you know, good things can happen. Just takes an insane amount of work is all.
Right now, I’m directing a play for kids. This is what we call a TYA piece–Theatre for Young Audiences, with grown-up actors performing for audiences of children. We took some short mysteries of Rick Walton’s, and Rick and I worked with the cast, doing improv and getting ideas and writing and re-writing. The result is a play called Mysteries of Monster Grove, and it’s just a ball. We’re having so much fun. The premise is that monsters, who are notoriously bad with money–everyone knows that–have hired an accountant. First day on the job, though, he goes missing. One of the monsters has kidnapped him, and it falls to his daughter, the 11 year old detective Amelia, to solve the mystery and bring him back. In fact, Amelia is played by a 27 year old returned missionary, but she’s a wonderful actress and does a great job. The show is funny in that dry Rick Walton way, and we’ve written some music for it, and we’re generally having a ton of fun.
This is what we’re trying to do at BYU, good theatre for kids. Ideally, we’d drive the company that does Tommy the Traffic Sign out of business. Short of that, we want to show kids how much fun theatre can be. And maybe grown-ups will like it some too.