Five Things I’ve Learned from Writing Children’s Theater

When Vital Theater Company approached me in the summer of 2009 to write the score for their children’s musical UNCLE PIRATE, I half-heartedly said yes. They were in a pinch, having just lost their songwriter, I was free, and the director was a good friend. I don’t have children. I didn’t even know much about them, but I figured I’d bang it out in a couple of months and be done with it. Little did I know I’d go on to write two more children’s shows (Awesome Allie: First Kid Astronaut for Vital, about a little girl who turns her bed into a rocket ship and flies to Pluto, and Tilly The Trickster, based on the book by SNL actress Molly Shannon, currently running at Atlantic Theater Company) and that they’d teach me so much, not only about children’s theater, but about theater for grown up audiences as well. Below are five lessons I’ve learned from children’s theater that I feel have improved my work. If you have others from your experience (as a writer, actor, designer, etc) I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

1) It Can’t Be Boring, Even for 10 Seconds
Children, while an incredibly generous audience when they’re being entertained, do not tolerate even the shortest periods of boredom. If nothing cool happens for longer than about 10 seconds, they check out. They talk to each other. They talk to themselves. They fidget. They cry. They dance. They toddle away and try to escape. You get very good at keeping the exposition short, getting right to the fun stuff, and keeping the action rising all the way until the end. And it turns out adults appreciate these things too.

Tilly The Trickster2) You Have to Think Visually
I often refer back to the Menken / Ashman era Disney animated musicals, which I consider at the top of the list for children’s musical theater. In every song, the sheer number of visual jokes – almost one per line, is striking. Kids’ brains are on warp speed, and we need to give them things to look at rather than just listen to. Some of this is in the director’s domain, but to the extent the writers can offer suggestions about the visual world of each song, they should do so. And if stuff can fall out of the sky or be shot into the audience, so much the better.

3) It’s Hard to Be Funny Without Sex and Swearing
I’d like to think that having to sustain an hour-long musical comedy without swearing or making a single off-color joke would tax any adult’s comedic resources. Having now achieved it three times, I can say that it has made me a better writer and strengthened and deepened my general-audiences comedy.

4) You Can Write a Great Musical in 12 Weeks
One very pleasant surprise I had working in children’s theater was that each time I’ve had three or four months to write the show, we did a reading, we made our revisions, and we went into production. There were no four-year periods of development hell, very limited interference from producers, and no focus-grouping the pieces to death. Coming from commercial theater where things really do crawl, it’s refreshing to be able to write something that sees the stage while you still remember what you’ve written and why you wrote it.

5) Children’s Theater is Really Important
There’s a lot of debate about how to build theater audiences: should we produce more edgy material? Give discounts to people under 30? A typical 6 year-old girl who saw TILLY THE TRICKSTER this fall is going to live NINETY MORE YEARS. There’s a good chance this was her first exposure to the musical theater. If she loved it, we’ve laid the foundation for her to support our art form for the rest of the century. If she hated it, or thought it was dumb, she may never go back. Given the state of our business, the stakes surrounding children’s theater couldn’t be higher, and it’s a tremendous responsibility to give children quality early theater experiences. This is the primary reason I’d encourage every artist, no matter what your long-term ambitions, to take some time at the beginning of your career and experience plying your craft for kids. It’s been an experience I’ll never forget, and you might just create a customer that will keep coming for the rest of your life.

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