The Family Friendly Arts Conference in Birmingham on 15th April has been set up by the TMA to encourage venues to be more welcoming to family audiences, both in their programming and in their general attitude. This positive move made me think - what is a 'family show'? Is it different from a 'children's show'?
Most of us probably approve of the film classification system. We can feel safe taking the whole family - children, teenagers, grandparents - to a U-rated film. But would we approve of a classification system for theatre shows? Probably not. The industry was happy to see the back of the Lord Chamberlain's power to censor. But we probably still feel it necessary to sometimes warn the punters about nudity or bad language. And, let's face it, Shakespeare productions wouldn't always get a U certificate - a five year-old could in theory witness the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear.
The term 'family shows' refers, I suppose, to the equivalent of U-rated films. Like U-rated films, family shows can mean big business. Appealing to the widest possible age range means the target audience is much larger. Producers of pantos and big musicals like Joseph, Shrek or Matilda know this. Disney, having made millions by mastering the art of family film, then saw the potential of family theatre and produced stage versions of Beauty and the Beast, the Lion King and Mary Poppins.
But are 'children’s shows' also 'family shows'? On one level, obviously, yes. They are suitable for the whole family. But will the whole family enjoy them? Probably not. Ten year-olds might feel patronised by a show for under-fives. Grandparents might baulk at submitting to the noisy audience participation demands of a show aimed at six to nine year-olds. In other words, children's shows are usually targeted at a particular age group. Accompanying adults will hopefully enjoy the show, mainly because their children are enjoying it. But the show will not have been created with adult enjoyment in mind. And these adults would not choose to go to a 'children’s show' on their own, whereas they might well go to a 'family show' without taking children.
This truth has been brought home to me by two of my recent productions. Goodnight Mister Tom, which I adapted from Michelle Magorian's children's novel, has undoubtedly become a 'family show', partly because of its World War 2 evacuee theme, and partly because of the success of the TV film starring John Thaw. Audiences in the West End and on tour have been wonderfully diverse in age. Elderly former evacuees, their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren have all come together, alongside parties of schoolchildren, for whom World War 2 is on the curriculum and Goodnight Mister Tom is a set book.
And, surprisingly, Spot's Birthday Party, adapted - as a 'children's show' - from Eric Hill's books, seems to have become a 'family show'. Although it is aimed at the under-fives, it seems to be appealing as much to the parents and grandparents as to the children themselves. It has been a delight to witness the enthusiasm with which the adults join in the party games and action songs, with no embarrassment and no tongues in cheek. They don't just tolerate the participation, but enter into the spirit willingly and joyously.
What strikes me most is how special the atmosphere is in the auditorium when all the generations share with each other a theatre experience. Families are brought together in a powerful and unique way. Why don't politicians celebrate this socially beneficial effect that theatre can have, rather than see it as an optional extra, an easy target when budgets are tight and cuts are necessary?
David Wood, March 2013
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