Hold the drama! Theater manners for all ages

Shorewood’s Meg Latsch Jakubik has a vivid memory of her daughters’ first live theater experience. She says, “They were ages three and four at the time, and they just loved everything about the show. They paid attention throughout the performance, and even wiggled in their chairs along with the music.” Then came the curtain call, and that inevitable moment when the applause had died down, the actors had left the stage, and the house lights had gone up. Jakubik recalls, “My girls turned to me and asked, ‘Can we rewind and watch it again?’”

That lack of a “rewind” feature is precisely what makes live theater so magical, says Doug Neithercott, local actor and artistic director of Comedy

Sportz in Uptown. Neithercott’s most recent role was in the Children’s Theatre Company production of The Cat in the Hat, and he’s currently touring with the production. Even in this highly digital age, he says, there is nothing that can compare to the power of theater. 

One-time only

“I still remember a production of the Wizard of Oz I saw when I was in grade school,” he recalls. “That feeling of having the same experience as all those other people, and knowing that it would never happen exactly that way again—it was all I needed to draw me into a life in the theater. I pretty much said ‘Sold!’ right then.” 

Still, he acknowledges that young audiences might have difficulty, as Jakubik’s children did, understanding that real live people are up on that stage, and that what is unfolding can happen exactly that way only one time. “For most kids, their experience most similar to live theater is going to the movies. In that environment, no one is expected to react or applaud. And you know you can always see it again on DVD.” 

Applaud along with Santa

“When children go to a live production for the first time, it might be hard for them to understand that you need to savor this unique moment, and thank the cast for their work by applauding,” he says. “As an actor, one of the worst things is to pour your heart out in a great song or dance, and be greeted with silence. It’s such a deflating feeling that you ask yourself, ‘Did we not do this well?’ but usually the reality is that kids haven’t learned how to show appreciation in a theater setting.” He remembers last holiday season, when he was playing Santa in Youth Performance Company’s production of A Reindeer Line. “At curtain call, the kids would just sit and look up at us with happy faces, hands in their laps. I would start applauding and pointing to the actors, and they’d begin clapping along with Santa.”

Can they manage at the movies?

Neithercott has some good suggestions to ensure that a first theater experience is enjoyable for everyone, including fellow audience members. “One good indicator that kids are ready for live theater is to see how they behave when watching films. If they can’t sit through a video at home without needing to run around, they may not be ready for the movie theater yet. And if you take them to the movies and it’s not a good experience, you may want to wait a while before buying tickets to a [live] theater event,” he says. 

Ditch the electronics

Parents are key in modeling good theater behavior, so it’s a smart idea to talk to your kids about what’s going to happen, and how they are expected to behave. Remind them to save all their questions for afterward, not during the performance. And, no matter how pressing those work emails or Facebook updates might seem to you, try to refrain from letting electronics interfere with the experience, including during intermission, which is a good time to talk about what you’ve just seen, and anticipate what might happen next.  

Tammy Burns Woodhouse, mother of two from southwest Minneapolis, has observed first-hand how a reliance on electronics can interfere with everyone’s theater fun. On a recent family outing, she says, “The people in the row ahead of us were playing handheld video games until the usher shut them down. During intermission, we were struck by how many people were clustered around iPads, not talking to one another. To me, that was the perfect moment to interact as a family. The theater experience is often more ‘real’ to youngsters than a movie or television, and the message portrayed by real people seems to take hold and hang on more so than the purely digital experience.”

“It’s not an inexpensive proposition to take a family to the theater, so you really need to make sure that everyone is ready for it,” Neithercott adds. “Parents should call the box office and ask about the show, to have as much information as possible and make a smart purchase. Look at a seating chart and make sure you have an aisle seat that will allow you to leave quickly if necessary. Ask about things that are an issue with your child, such as very loud noises. You don’t want kids to be so scared that they aren’t having a good time.” 

As with most parenting experiences, the first time at the theater doesn’t always go the way you’ve planned. “You have to roll with the punches. You can do a lot of research, think you are ready, get to your seats, and 15 minutes into the show, everything falls apart for your kid. You have to be willing to let the experience go and not force a child to stay. It’s important to remember that even though this experience is important to your family, there are hundreds of other people who have paid just as much money, trying to enjoy the same performance,” Neithercott says, adding, “Going to the theater with kids is like taking them to Disney World. Parents will push kids to their limit and wonder why they’re crying. The same thing can happen with the new experience and the big crowd that’s part of the theater.” 

But, he urges, “Don’t be afraid to say, 

‘It didn’t work out this time, but we’ll try another show next time.’ Don’t give up. Theater is such an important means of communication and expression — it should never be denied to a child if you can find a way to make it work for them.

“I believe that theater can help kids get what they need,” he says. Then, recalling that production of Wizard of Oz he saw as a child, he adds, “That was certainly the case for me.” •

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