SCHOOL PARTIES – IS THE PARTY OVER?
A statistic has recently been quoted that is rather worrying for those of us involved in children's theatre and family shows. Apparently the number of primary-school age children visiting a theatre over a twelve-month period has dramatically dropped from 47.1% in 2008-2009 to 32.3% in 2014-15. This is surprising, because in recent years the perception has been that there are more productions aimed at children and families than ever before. There are the big musicals, like MATILDA, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, THE LION KING, MARY POPPINS (on tour again) and the forthcoming ALADDIN and the HARRY POTTER play. There are many productions for small children like THE GRUFFALO, STICK MAN, ALIENS LOVE UNDERPANTS and my own adaptation of THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA. And there are many productions, commercial and subsidised, large and small, presenting work for young people. And, of course, there are many pantomimes. Most regional venues as well as many London theatres now have regular children's programming that does well at the box office. So what explains the drop in young audience attendance?
The problem seems to be that schools are not organising as many theatre trips as they used to. There are several possible reasons for this. The ticket price may not be prohibitive, but the added high cost of a seat on a coach may be putting off teachers, who are already worried about asking parents for extra money for trips. Children's author Philip Pullman blames it on 'those blasted league tables and this crazy assumption that we've got to test everything'; in other words teachers fear anything apart from test work will waste valuable time. Maybe this explains why the number of storytellers and performers invited to work in schools has also declined. And perhaps the announcement that the new E-Baccalaureate curriculum will exclude arts subjects and concentrate only on the 'academic' has made teachers feel that theatre visits are irrelevant or unnecessary. And, even more worryingly, has the Education Minister's advice to young people that arts subjects will hold them back career-wise meant that schools and parents are now less likely to see a theatre visit as a positive thing?
Whatever the reasons, we must work hard to win back the primary school-age audience. But children don't buy the tickets. So this means winning back parents and especially, in my view, teachers. Many children will never be taken to the theatre by their parents, particularly those who never go themselves. Teachers have the ability to give large numbers of children that 'suck it and see' experience, which gives us practitioners the chance to hopefully trigger their imaginations and hook them for life. Teachers must be persuaded that visits to plays, concerts, museums and art galleries are not optional extras or luxuries, but vital contributions to the education and well-being of their pupils.
Two of David Wood's adaptations will be in the West End for Christmas – THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA (from Judith Kerr's classic picture book) at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue; and GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM (from Michelle Magorian's award-winning novel) at the Duke of York's.
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