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Create Holiday Memories With Your Child at the Theater



It doesn't take the Ghost of Christmases Past to resurrect memories of holiday seasons gone by. When the nights grow long and the days turn crisp, visions of holidays past begin dancing in my head. Interestingly, when I think back on what makes my holidays special, it's not the gifts, decorations or food that spring to mind. To this day, what brings the holidays to life for my family is the music, dance, drama and storytelling.

While a visit to the theater is always exciting, it takes on magical overtones during the holidays. Theater is a communal experience. It brings us together and allows us to connect with performers and others in the audience. As a family experience, it gives us the opportunity to explore a range of emotions and to share those feelings with those we hold dear.

Reinforcing those human bonds is integral to many families' celebrations. And, there's nothing better than the performing arts to make strong connections. The vast number of performances – many of which are specifically geared to children – in the Washington area this holiday season may actually make it more difficult to choose the best show for your family.

Ready To Go?

Before calling the box office, there are a number of factors you may want to take into consideration. More than anything else, the ages of your children will dictate your holiday selections. While most directors of children's theater use age four as a rule of thumb, there are some shows that kids as young as two can enjoy. Many productions offer age recommendations. If not, call the theater or concert hall and inquire about the show's running time, story content, special effects and characters. Even holiday shows can have a scary villain.

If your child can sit still and remain quiet for 45 to 50 minutes, she probably is a candidate for the theater. While children are expected to behave when attending a show geared for kids, they are not held to the same standards as are those who attend traditional theatrical, dance or musical productions. If your child enjoys the performing arts, but is a "squirmer," consider a show or concert with a high level of audience participation.

Theater Etiquette

"There are two things I'll never give in on as a parent," a friend once told me, "wearing a seat belt and behaving at the theater." An informal survey of local performers and directors indicates that theater etiquette cannot be stressed enough.

Preparing your child for the theater experience is paramount. Take her step-by-step, from waiting to get tickets to the curtain call at the end. Prime her for the darkness of the theater as well as the bright lights and loud noises that she may experience during a show. Let her know that, unlike a movie theater, most concert halls and live theaters do not allow food or drink inside.

Let your child help you establish the ground rules. Ask her, "How should we behave?" Brainstorm a bit and then fill in with anything she missed, such as:

Be Prepared

To ensure that a child gets the most out of her theater experience, some preparation is called for – no matter what her age. "Read the story," is the resounding cry of performing arts educators. Visit the library, and check out the book. Many ballets are based on well-known stories, such as The Sleeping Beauty. And, there are some beautifully illustrated children's books that tell the story of The Nutcracker. Some theatrical productions veer from the traditional story line. Ask about plot when making reservations. That way you can point out the differences between the story in the book and the one your child will see on stage.

After reading the story, give your child a chance to tell the story in her own words or to try her hand "on stage," acting out the story in the comfort of her own home. Don't interrupt but, when your child is done, do take time to clarify any misconceptions.

CDs and cassettes are instrumental in preparing children for orchestral performances. Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra can help kids, from elementary school on up, learn to identify the sounds of certain instruments.

The Internet is an invaluable resource for preparing your child. The Kennedy Center (www.kennedy-center.org), for example, offers parents a wonderful educational tool to use with some of its performances. Called "Cue Sheets," these short publications give parents and educators a variety of ways to build upon the ideas and values addressed during the performance.

So Many Choices

Picking the perfect show is no easy matter. Clearly, you should select a show that meets your child's intellectual and emotional levels. Children's theater is a good place to start for preschoolers and early-elementary aged students. By fifth grade, many children are ready for more complex plots and acting that more closely approximates the real world.

With few exceptions, orchestral and choral concerts should be reserved for late elementary-aged students. The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) offers both family concerts, for ages 7 and up. Its Kinderkonzerts provide opportunities for those 4 and up to learn more about instrumental music. These NSO concerts feature a "petting zoo," where children may use their sense of touch, in addition to sight and hearing, to learn more about the various instruments.

When it comes to ballet, selecting the most appropriate production is key. For younger children, start with a ballet that has a story line and avoid the abstract. With older children, abstract might be the way to go. Upbeat music and funky costumes often appeal to preteens on up.

For children with special needs, several local theaters offer accommodations; chief among them is wheelchair accessibility. The Kennedy Center provides three types of accessible performances on select dates (see http://www.kennedy-center.org/accessibility/schedule.html). These include concerts and shows that are sign-interpreted or captioned for deaf members of the audience, and audio-described for those who are blind. Imagination Stage in Bethesda produces several children's programs each year that are accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences. Other shows on its calendar have specific dates for sign-interpreted performances.

While a holiday performance can be truly enchanting, it is the conversation afterwards that can add a new dimension for children. This is a time when parents can reinforce family values and deepen the child's understanding of the season. Of course, not all holiday performances are meant to be deep. Some express the pure joy of the season, instilling a warm feeling on a cold day.

No matter how you celebrate the holidays, starting a family tradition that includes the performing arts can be of enormous value. Traditions provide a sense of security and leave an indelible mark on childhood memories. For so many reasons, a trip to the theater or concert hall is one of the most wonderful gifts a child can receive.


Karen Finucan Clarkson is the mother of three boys.