I'll never forgot the scowl on the grandmother's face in the row behind us when my daughter Katie, then 3 1/2, and I took our seats at the theater for the first time. We were seeing Annie at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia—a day out prompted by the fact that Katie had memorized most of the songs from the movie and requested a red dress and heart locket from Santa. Even though there were loads of kids in the audience, this grandmother felt that my preschooler was too young to be there.
So when I interviewed Tony winner Kelli O'Hara, the ambassador for Kids Night on Broadway, I was heartened to learn that her son, Owen, was about the same age as Katie for his first theater experience—Mary Poppins. Here's how she decided whether he was ready to go, and how she prepared him for the supercalifragilistic experience:
Determine whether he can be respectful theater-goer. "Charlotte, my 2-year-old, sings around the house all the time, but I know she's not ready to see a performance yet," says O'Hara. Ask yourself: Can my child make it through seeing a movie without disruption? If she starts getting wiggly or chatty after a half hour or so, it's best to wait. (Note: Some theaters also don't admit children under a certain age so it's best to check before you buy tickets.)
Familiarize your child with the show. Talk about the story line and listen to the music a few times before you come to the theater. It'll help him follow along and not be scared about what might happen. Or, of course, for the first experience, pick a show he already knows from watching the movie or reading the book with you. (Something to keep in mind: Disney's Frozen is coming to Broadway in 2018, and will be playing in Denver next summer.)
Discuss how to behave. "Let your child know to save questions for applause or, better still, intermission," suggests O'Hara, who says she'll never forget seeing Oklahoma as a child.
Talk about it as soon as the curtain closes. If your child doesn't start the conversation, prod him with questions like, "What was your favorite character?" "Do you know a person like that?" and "How do you think that character was feeling during the show?"
Owen is 6 now, and he's seen Finding Neverland, Disney's Aladdin, A Christmas Story, and a kids' version of Much Ado about Nothing. On weekends, you'll often find him backstage at Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King & I (where O'Hara is currently starring) playing with the kids who are part of the cast. "He puts on shows in my dressing room," says O'Hara, whose first performance was in high school. "But I still want him to have lots of interests."
I've been thinking a lot about what she said since our conversation. Not long after seeing Annie, I signed up Katie for a local theater program. In April, she'll receive her 10-year award. While she's dabbled in a few other hobbies over the years, I worry that I didn't expose her to enough. So in addition to doing a show, she's going to try something new this summer. Now if homework-free nights and warm weather could only get here faster!
Karen Cicero, a contributing editor at Parents, will be heading back to the Kimmel Center soon to see a touring version of Disney's Beauty & The Beast. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenCicero or on Instagram at Karen.Cicero.