“Look at that face! Look at that happy face!” This was my husband, Jay Hardee, speaking about our daughter after a recent performance of Under the Canopy.
Much hand wringing occurs among creators and devotees of what are sometimes called the “elite arts” — opera, ballet, theatre — about the “graying” of the audience. The worry is that the dependable audiences for these arts are aging and are not being replaced by a reliable younger cohort. Those concerns were vexing no one recently at Under the Canopy, a presentation by Arts on the Horizon. A good fraction of its audience — nearly half, if not slightly more than half — were six. Or younger.
If that sounds encouraging for the future of theatre and for the regeneration of an audience for it, it is also not surprising. Arts on the Horizon (hereafter AotH) targets an audience that ranges from under-ones to six-year olds.
It’s well known that there is a lot of theatre for young people happening around town. There’s enough that it now has its own category at the Helen Hayes awards. I’m a bit more aware of all of this than I was about 19 and a half months ago, when our twins, Aksel and Ivona, were born. I guess it’s not wildly surprising that, with parents who work in theatre, our kids would be introduced to it at a very young age. They’ve now been to a few plays at Adventure Theatre MTC and Imagination Stage. They loved Goodnight, Moon at Adventure and were only a little fussy at Peter and Wendy at Imagination. (They’re not great with blackouts.) So they entered Under the Canopy as somewhat veteran theatre-goers with a few shows under their belts and were a good test case of how children their age react to the aspects of the AotH experience that are different from the other experiences they’ve had.
What makes AotH distinct is that most other theatre for young audiences seems targeted toward slightly older children (though Imagination Stage has a robust Early Childhood component). Frequently, productions will be appropriate for, or special programming geared to, the youngest potential audience. But those youngest theatre-goers are the entire focus of AotH.
One of the chief aspects of AotH that distinguishes the experience is the environment, which feels less like the set of a theatre production and more like a playground. (We saw Under the Canopy at the The Athenaeum in Old Town; it subsequently moved to Atlas Performing Arts Center.) What contributed most to this sense was the natural light, coming through the windows, and the general artificial lighting in the room, which didn’t have any special lighting focusing on the stage and isolating the audience.
Probably the most important difference, though, was that the performance was non-verbal. It was also shorter than the other pieces we’ve seen, about 20 minutes long as against 45 to 90 minutes. And although shows we’ve taken them to have had an interactive component, this one ended with free-play time, during which the kids could explore the set and engage the performers.
It’s disappointing when you see the suggested age range for a theatre for young audiences performance that has caught your eye and learn that your kids are under that range. So it’s really cool that there is a group (the first in the country with this focus, according to the press material) whose mission will never exclude the very young. At least in our venue, the experience was intimate enough that it felt as if everyone could get personal attention, to the extent desired. Affordability is another part of the stated mission. We were there on press comps, so I can’t compare ticket prices, but the run was sold-out. (Not unusual for any activity for children on a week-day, Jay and I were the only fathers there.)
Anyway, DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor implored me to take some pictures of the event, and so I did, and here they are:
Next up for AotH is a piece called Sunny and Licorice, which will run at The Lab at Convergence, 1801 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302, May 30 – June 14, 2014. Adult and children’s tickets are $8. Details and tickets
It is deemed best for children ages 2-5 and will run May 30-June 14. Hmmm. I think we’ll be taking our twins. Though, at 23 months, they will be just under that age range, they are seasoned enough playgoers that I’m confident they will enjoy it thoroughly. More happy faces…!
Under the Canopy was created and directed by Matt Bassett and Tia Shearer Bassett. Full disclosure, both of its performers, Betsy Rosen and Nora Achrati, played leads at WSC Avant Bard while I was Artistic Director, and Nora has used video of our kids for one of her projects.