Not Just At Christmas
It feels appropriate that my first article about children's theatre should be written as the Christmas season is in full swing. A glance at the listings shows that nearly every venue in the land is currently doing its bit to encourage children through its doors. Pantos, family musicals, children's plays, circus, puppetry, operas and ballets - a festive feast for the young.
Most theatre managers, I am sure, plan their Christmas production with a genuine desire to entertain and inspire today's children. They also see it as an investment, to help develop the audiences of tomorrow. But many, let's be honest, value its commercial possibilities too. Some venues rely on the financial success of their Christmas show to subsidise the rest of the year. Nothing wrong with that, as long as quality is maintained.
But what interests me is to what extent the Christmas show is viewed as an annual one-off bonanza rather than as part of a policy to provide children with a regular programme of attractions throughout the year. How many theatre managers make theatre for children an integral part of their planning rather than a special seasonal event plus the occasional optional extra?
The current situation is certainly much, much better than when I started concentrating on work for children forty years ago. Most theatres present much more for children now. And, despite the loss of so many Theatre In Education companies in the Thatcher era, there are now many touring companies of all sizes specialising in the work. Many talented and passionate practitioners - actors, directors, designers, writers - now see the sector as a career rather than as a step on the ladder to "real" - adult - theatre. There is more variety of product than ever, for all ages, including the under-fives. The Arts Councils now genuinely seem to want to encourage the work. Many commercial theatres now employ Education Officers All very positive.
But financial restraints still deny the children's sector parity with the adult sector. The seat price is usually - rightly - lower than for adult theatre, leading to lower guarantees and fees for the companies and to lower wages for the practitioners, lower cast numbers and lower production budgets, plus lower marketing budgets for the shows and lower returns for the theatres. From a commercial perspective, children's theatre is still an unattractive option.
In the 70s and 80s, when my company, Whirligig Theatre, was touring, civic theatres would sometimes in effect subsidise a children's production. Realising that even with full houses there would be a loss, they would make up the shortfall by putting on a guaranteed profit-making adult blockbuster the following week. They saw the children's show and its low ticket price as part of their responsibility to cater for all their community. This seldom seems to happen today - every show has to pay its way.
I believe that most theatre managers these days agree that children are entitled to quality theatre and would like to programme it more regularly. But the above financial considerations make it difficult. Add to that the fact that matinees mean a severe drop in bar and restaurant takings, and it becomes even less appealing. Consequently they are unwilling to take too many risks, making it more necessary for many companies - and subsequently writers - to play safe, only producing well-known titles or adaptations of famous books.
Might the sector expand further, and offer more opportunities for originality and experimentation, and, dare one say it, the occasional right to fail, if arts councils, funding bodies and sponsors would accept that if we want children to regularly experience live theatre, we must retain the low seat price (in a Utopian society it would be offered free!) but recognise the fact that the work itself is just as expensive to produce, tour and market as its adult counterpart and therefore needs a considerably larger slice of the funding cake to subsidise not only the work, but also the audience and the theatres?
Maybe then it could be Christmas all year round.
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