The story goes that when the great Russian director Stanislavski was asked by a member of his troupe how to act for children, he replied, "We act for children the same way we act for adults—only better."
Whether true or apocryphal, the quote can serve as both a guide and a challenge to the practitioner of children's theatre—be he or she director, producer, designer or writer.
These incentives range from the philosophical—"I want these children to love theatre when they see my play"—to the pragmatic—"If these kids get bored, the spit-ball war in the audience will be more dramatic than the play on stage."
I have been writing children's plays for over 20 years, averaging more than one work per annum. During those two decades, I've learned a great deal about theatre and about children (having five of my own has given me a unique laboratory experience).
One of the most exciting theatrical evolutions I've observed is that children's theatre is growing up—both quantitatively and qualitatively. Recent studies indicate that attendance at children's theatre is increasing faster than attendance by all ages at all other forms of entertainment (including sporting events). These encouraging figures indicate that more theatres are taking children's audiences more seriously than ever before.
No longer is the children's play a "throwaway"—a second-class citizen to be performed in the basement while the "real actors" are doing Hamlet upstairs on the main stage. To be sure, there are still groups that view the "kiddie show" as something to be thrown together with rag-tag costumes, black-drape sets and faded mimeograph programs (which make dandy spit-balls, by the way). But for the most part, more quality theatres are doing more quality children's plays with an increasing number of quality practitioners.
The reasons for this phenomenon are as varied as the theatres involved, but three truisms tend to stand out: The future of theatre depends on the young audiences of today who will be the playgoers of tomorrow. The gap between adult and children's fare need not be as great as was once imagined. And a better educated society (and we are better educated than we were 30 years ago) is producing parents who are more acutely aware of the need for art and culture in the lives of their children.
A possible fourth reason is that children's theatre makes good business sense. Full houses of bussed-in school groups and packed Saturday matinees have saved more than one "high-minded" theatre from extinction—especially when they emphasize care and quality.
This is not to infer that there haven't always been some groups out there that were dedicated to high standards and strong commitment to children's theatre. And I'm not referring just to solid professional troupes, accomplished college groups and advanced community theatres. I'm also talking about those high-school theatres, elementary school groups and recreational programs that have teachers, leaders and directors who are totally dedicated to doing the best job possible with the limited facilities and funds (if any) at hand.
I've seen high-school shows that thrilled me as much as some Broadway productions I've attended. I've been as enchanted with a class of fifth-graders doing one of my plays as I have been with a professional group doing the same script. One of my proudest possessions is a note from E.B. White written shortly after he had seen my adaptation of Charlotte's Web at a high school in Maine. In it he praises the show and the work of the director, "a Miss Susan Stump who worked without a stage and almost without scenery, props or costumes." He concludes by writing:
"I was surprised and pleased at the show. Never saw anything quite like it. The pace was fast, it never dragged, and it was all over in an hour and twenty minutes. I think you can rest easy that your show will go over—especially if there is a Susan Stump in the building."
It was not a show with highly paid actors performing in a sophisticated theatrical environment—just a group of hard-working kids in the capable hands of a diligent, dedicated director. That, to me, is the highest-minded form of "show biz."
Other things I've learned about theatre? A good story and intriguing characters are worth a thousand gaudy sets and theatrical accouterments. A rising curtain always quickens the pulse (that's why, as a director, I always insist on a curtain). Everyone loves to laugh—especially in the theatre, and even when high drama is the fare. The four greatest words in the theatre are, "Sorry, we're sold out." An ice cream cone never tastes better than after a show. If the actors aren't having a good time, I probably won't be either. The best rehearsal period is 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning. A good technical director is a treasure—a good stage manager, a gem. Few accomplishments can match the completion of a well-written musical scene between composer and lyricist. The show that can't possibly open Friday night will open Friday night and will be terrific. Heaven must be one eternal opening-night cast party. A Susan Stump is as important to the theatre as is a Harold Prince.
Now, what have I learned about children? Not nearly enough. But I'll keep working on it.