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Photo courtesy of the Philipstown Depot Theatre Often the search for current audiences is at the expense of future audiences.  The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are easy choices for parent to make when exposing their children to the arts.  The downside is that tickets, concessions and souvenirs for a family with 2 or more children can drain that family’s entertainment fund for a year. This can limit the children’s (our future audiences) performing arts experience to musicals with simple stories and extravagant special effects.  When these children grow up, will they attend the symphony, the ballet, modern dance or opera? It is not this writer’s intention to weigh the virtues of one art-form over another (I enjoyed Beauty and the Beast more than my kids) but to explore ways to expose young people to the full and varied range of the performing arts. I would like to propose a two-pronged solution: program/education and facility design.  The goal of both is to make attending the performing arts desirable and affordable.

 

Since funding for the arts in grades K-12 is often sacrificed by school districts with limited budgets, perhaps the performing arts facilities and their constituent user groups can fill in the gap.  In the 1960s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York City, funded by a grant, gave workshops in the city schools.  These workshops offered students an opportunity to experience these arts, and the people who create and perform them, firsthand.  Many symphony orchestras have programs, aimed at young children, that explore different sections of the orchestra and how they make music together.  Carnegie Hall has programs of concerts aimed at entertaining and educating young audiences. The formal performance is preceded by an informal session where children can interact with the musicians. Many readers, of a certain age, will remember the Young Peoples Concerts presented by the New York Philharmonic and hosted by its conductor, Leonard Bernstein. 

 

Performances of the Nutcracker Suite are often children’s first, and sometimes only, exposure to ballet.  A feature on CBS’s Sunday Edition noted that many dancers had performed in the Nutcracker as children. The Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the Dance Theater of Harlem, to name a couple, have second companies that present workshops and perform in schools. 


Facilities located on a college campus with performing arts departments have a built-in resource.  By sponsoring events featuring campus departments, opportunities will be provided to give students experience and exposure.  There can also be a synergy with the education department that will benefit student performers as well as student audiences.

 

So, how is this wonderful plan to be funded in an era of increased operating costs, a fluctuating economy and increasing competition for donations?  That is a subject for wiser heads than mine. It is, however, an issue that must be addressed if performing arts groups and the facilities that house them are to remain viable.

 

We have discussed exposing children to the arts but how do we get them to the theater?  And more specifically, how do we get their parents to take them?  If your facility is not “kid friendly,” it will not matter if the program is free - - parents won’t make the effort.  Below are several ideas that can be incorporated into the design of new facilities as well as renovations.

 

Family Lounge/Changing Area: This area would include a child size toilet, lavatory, changing table, bench and fountain. Ideally, each lobby level would have a Family Lounge. This room allows parents a quiet space to attend to their children (and also keep an eye on them.) For existing facilities, locating a bench and a table behind a portable partition will serve.

 

Pre-purchased Food and Concessions: A facility might offer a “package” that would include tickets, a snack, small drink and souvenir.  The tickets could be mailed prior to the performance, but the package could be picked-up in the lobby using a voucher.  As well these packages could be sold directly to patrons.

 

Dedicated Family Areas:  Cordoning off an area of the lobby and identifying it as a family area provides a number of benefits.  It provides an area where parents can more easily keep track of their kids and also a meeting place should a child become separated.  Small benches and a satellite coat check allow parents to avoid crowds and provide an area for tired kids (and parents!) to rest.

 

Family Parking: It is common to provide parking for persons with disabilities to minimize the distance to the venue.  Families also require this benefit.  For matinees and “kiddie” shows, an area can be temporarily dedicated to families. 

 


 

  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.



Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, there were class plays, holiday plays and occasional musical presentations in elementary school. There was also a weekly assembly where, at the very least, we sang America the Beautiful. In middle and high school the weekly assemblies were supplanted by a Drama Club, a fall drama play, a spring musical and various choral and orchestral concerts. Though sometimes meagre, these productions were generally acknowledged to be a valuable aspect of childrens’ education. Funds were regularly allotted for faculty, staff and materials.

The changing economy, decreasing state financial contributions and tax caps have forced school boards and school administrators to make many difficult budgetary decisions. While school boards consider all aspects of curricular and extracurricular activities, it is often the arts and especially the performing arts that are the first to go when funding is limited. This is a no-brainer if schools are only viewed as a means to teach the Three Rs and to meet Common Core and other mandated test standards. It is less so when schools are also viewed as a means to provide students with tools for creative and analytical thinking and problem-solving. The performing arts provide these skills and by the best possible means: they teach without seeming to teach. Participation in the performing arts teaches not only academic and social skills, it also fosters community; an aspect of society notably in decline over recent decades.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, 2000, published by Touchstone explores community in America over the past century. Its basic premise is that significant social interaction has decreased over the past century; most noticeably in the past forty years and that this is not a good thing for American society.  Identified as social capital, what one could call the grease that oils the machine of community, its lack fragments families and communities and thereby isolates individuals from each other.


The author cites many civic and social activities that have declined including: theater attendance, bowling leagues, PTA membership, membership in fraternal organizations, entertaining at home, blood donation, voting and volunteerism in general. Among the reasons he offers for the recent decline in social capital, all without judgment, are: television, the internet, racial tensions, generational tensions and the stress caused by both parents having to work to support their families. I would suggest that budgetary decisions made by school districts are an underlying cause and one that can be improved by greater inclusion and support for the performing arts in K-12 curriculum.


Still, the budgetary scales remain weighted toward the “basics” and the question that looms large is why. Some view the arts as a non-essential element and others see great value, but likely the majority have a neutral opinion, and this, I believe, is due to a lack of understanding of the nature and history of the performing arts in human culture.


Since the creation of spoken language, human beings have had a need and desire to communicate - to tell a story. Today, one only has to look at people; from all walks of life; performing all of life’s tasks with a cell phone at their ear or with fingers dancing a text across their smartphones. Earlier in our history story telling was a much simpler affair. We can imagine our ancestors, gathered around a fire, listening to tales of the day’s hunt. Over time, story-telling became more than an account of daily activities; it became a forum to explore the world. Soon special places were dedicated to telling stories and stage drama was born.


From Greek amphitheaters and Roman coliseums to the use of perspective during the Italian Renaissance; to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, to the Drottningholm Theater, Wagner’s Bayreuth, Appia and Craig, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus School, Broadway; Josef Svoboda, Peter Brook, The Living Theater, of the 1960’s - - all have sought to re-define drama and the places where it is performed.


Over time, theaters (by which I mean all the many different types of performing arts facilities) have been built by many agencies and for many reasons (of which the presentation of a theatrical event has often been the least!) The size, cost and sheer magnitude of the undertaking have limited the building of theaters to individuals and groups with a great deal of money and political power. In the historic past this group was small and included only monarchs and municipalities (i.e. various European city-states.) Today, the group includes: federal, state and municipal governments, K-12; colleges and universities, corporations and philanthropists, well established performing arts groups - -well, you get the picture. These groups build theaters with a capital “T”. The intent is to create large scale venues seating large numbers of people.


The past fifty years or so have seen theaters created in many different kinds of spaces by individuals and small groups with limited budgets. They can be found in church basements, shopping malls, office buildings, parking garages, barns, tents and outdoor spaces. These theaters, with a lower case “t,” are less interested in where their performances take place or how large the audience might be. This is not to say one is better or more desirable than the other. Both small and large theaters have their virtues and drawbacks and I will not pass any judgment.  I will say that there can be as many kinds of theater buildings as there are people who wish to use them and this is a good thing. The proliferation of smaller, ad hoc theaters has, in a sense, returned us to the camp fire where drama becomes an activity for everyone to participate in.

  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.


A couple of nights ago a praying mantis took up residence outside my bedroom window. Though not unknown in our neck of the woods, sightings are infrequent. I went to tell my wife who asked, “Aren’t they good luck?” A quick Google search turned up:

Many cultures also believe that seeing a praying mantis will bring good luck. In Africa, they have been thought to bring good luck to those they land on, and even bring the dead back to life.

I don’t know about reanimation, but it got me thinking. A horse shoe should be hung facing up so the luck doesn’t run out – at least according to an old episode of M*A*S*H. My mantis was upside down – does that indicate luck or the lack of it? Is position even a meaningful distinction to a mantis?

The mantis is immobile until a meal comes within reach and in the blink of any eye grabs and devours it. Google also says that this speed has made the mantis a symbol of martial arts in China. Presumably she stays still during mating, but promptly devours the male afterwards. Lucky for her - - not for him.

Luck is an ineffable thing that just seems to happen, though we often endeavor to make it happen. The Oxford Dictionary offers several definitions:

luck /lək/ noun

· success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions.

· chance considered as a force that causes good or bad things to happen.

· something regarded as bringing about or portending good or bad things.


So, it can be good or bad; it can be an active or a passive agent and sometimes it changes from one to the other depending upon time or circumstance. There’s an expression that “you make your own luck,” which is true - - if you get lucky - - - It’s a very slippery slope.

Does the mantis portend anything for me and my family? Have I been lucky or unlucky until now? Will I become luckier or less lucky? In a sense it’s a matter of faith in oneself and the choices made and to be made. I can’t change the past, but hope my future choices will, at least, be appropriate and if I’m lucky, good ones.

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