Letting little children storm the theatre, for their sake

A play begins at Atlanta’s renowned Alliance Theatre, and a 2-year-old rumbles onto the stage, practically beneath the actors’ feet.

And that’s just fine.

This is the philosophy behind The Kathy & Ken Bernhardt Theatre for the Very Young at Alliance Theatre. It’s also the approach more theatres around the world are beginning to use to reach more young children and families — and bring the wonder of the arts straight to them.

From a Theatre for the Very Young performance of From Head to Toe

“We thought if we were going to reach the youngest children in our community, we had to remove any barrier to experiencing the art form,” said Christopher Moses, The Dan Reardon Director of Education and Associate Artistic Director at Alliance. “We’re trying to make it clear that there is no prerequisite to enjoying theatre. You don’t need to know how to sit still. You don’t need to know how to be quiet.”

Audiences are limited to 50 adults and children for each performance, which include plays such as Dinosaur!, Waiting for Balloon, Play the Play with Cat the Cat. The shows are fully interactive. There’s no ‘fourth wall,’” Moses said.

The shows are “created with and for kids,” he added. The productions can take a couple of years to develop. During workshops for new plays, the theatre invites toddlers and parents to attend and participate in the development of the show. Multiple languages are intentionally part of every performance.

The shows are also affordable. Season tickets begin at $20 for two shows and include discounts for adult productions, future plays for children, and even acting classes. In fact, season tickets are free for children 0–5 years old with paid adult admission.

Throwing open the doors of theatre for a community’s youngest children is the type of strategy Capita is using to help leaders in the arts — but also in community development, business, civic life, and education — to develop new ways to incorporate children into every public setting. Last fall Capita hosted the first-of-its-kind convening of artists, architects, and early childhood experts to develop agendas for action and collaboration across disciplines. Plans are underway to host another convening this November.

From a Theatre for the Very Young performance of Beautiful Blackbird

In Atlanta, the theatre began to notice emerging research that children’s brain development begins much earlier than scientists had thought. “Neurological development starts earlier than most people realize,” Moses said.

In fact, Alliance Theatre has participated in two U.S. Department of Education-funded studies of the arts in pre-K classrooms of children from high-poverty communities and who were learning to speak English. The findings were clear: Arts education help children learn, imagine, and build skills that will benefit them as they grow.

“Drama can really unlock the key to language development,” Moses said.

Other theatre companies internationally have been performing such shows for years, he said. “We had a lot to learn from our international colleagues.”

The Theatre for the Very Young doesn’t stop at the doors of the Woodruff Arts Center on Peachtree Street. The theatre conducts professional workshops for educators who work with young children, sharing artistic strategies, interactive storytelling techniques and other methods to help educators and parents “bring stories to life,” Moses said.

The theatre also is considering the redesign of all its spaces so that children can become a greater part of its work. Alliance may dedicate one of its performance spaces to children, next to the High Museum of Art.

“There are still places on our campus that don’t feel intentionally designed for children,” Moses said.

And there are new collaborations with the adjacent art museum in Atlanta. A production of Winnie the Pooh will coincide with an exhibition of original illustrations. Alliance Theatre’s scenic designer will lead the making of the exhibit space, possibly using the concept of the “Hundred Acre Wood” or Christopher Robin’s room. In turn, the drawings in the exhibition will inform the theatre’s set design and entrance for the production.

The performance should reach into children’s worlds and be multisensory, “an immersive experience for the child,” Moses said.

Thanks to Alan Richard for his help in preparing this piece.