One audience member threw up. Others made purely recreational trips to the bathroom. Eager-beaver volunteers sometimes had to be physically returned to their seats—or retrieved from the stage.
Controversy over the arts, how to pay for them and whether they’re worth the price, may be rampant. But the children at two Old Town School of Folk Music Field Trip shows this week—Kidswork Touring Theatre on Monday (repeats April 26) and Child’s Play Touring Theatre yesterday—only knew they were having a great time. Go ahead and laugh at the over-the-topness of children’s theater, but at its best, everyone gets caught up in the frenzy.
And kids learn at these shows—important in our bean-counting times. Kidswork accentuated the positive in “Peace Tales From Around the World,” which had about 400 schoolchildren from 5 to 13 (most from LaSalle Language Academy) giggling, pointing, and squealing, oblivious to the fact they were learning about the continent that gave birth to the human race, cruel dictators, respectful treatment of women, and the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Hey, when the Comanche rain dance finally succeeded, all they knew was that they were being showered with real water from a giant spray bottle. Of the two groups, Kidswork was the more participatory and physical, giving the entire audience lots to do: everyone bowed respectfully or supplicated the gods, while a chosen few got to be camels, parts of a dragon, or an oppressed peasantry.
Child’s Play, performing for an audience ranging from pre- to slightly post-kindergarten, was more word-oriented in “Animal Tales and Dinosaur Scales.” This troupe specializes in bringing children’s writing to the stage in sketches and songs; “Animal Tales” accentuates the negative—fears of monsters, the dentist, sharks—to make it go away. When one actor announced she was going into the deep, dark woods and proceeded up an aisle to a blank rear wall, dozens of heads turned to see the scary forest.
There’s a lot of talk about arts education, about the usually unspecified value of nurturing creativity in children and the opposing need to tighten our belts. Nick Rabkin, a researcher for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, recently coauthored a report on the role arts education plays in arts participation—and no surprise, it’s a big one. (Also not surprising: an overall decline in arts education in schools hits African-American and Hispanic children hardest.)
Just a few months ago, in January, National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman made a plea for enhanced arts education (and concomitant cuts in the “oversupply” of arts organizations). But given his history as a Broadway producer, his emphasis on the usefulness of technology, however trendy, is surprising. And suspect. Though he cites an NEA report showing that arts consumers via the Internet and electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live arts events, my guess is that the correlation in consumption is more about income and education than about being drawn to the arts through a screen.
Two things about the OTSFM kids’ shows: Audiences had immediate, virtually unanimous responses to what they were watching. More important, their responses were validated by everyone in the theater: other children, their teachers, the actors onstage—the community at this show. It may be hard to quantify the gains from seeing live theater. But if we choose to ignore them, everyone will lose.