Culture Vulture

Subsidise theatre tickets for kids

Theatre opens a new world to the digital generation, but the high costs of watching shows are a big deterrent

I will never forget my first experience taking my kids to the theatre, as an arts journalist who thought I had seen it all after watching a few hundred stage productions.

My son, who had just turned two, bawled in fright the minute the house lights went down at the start of The Nightingale, an original production for young 'uns by Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company. He would not stop despite our hushing, so my husband had to whisk him out of the theatre, where they sat out the entire performance.

On the other hand, my four-year- old daughter sat in rapt attention as the story - of a spoilt young emperor of China who would not set his pet nightingale free - unfurled in song, dance and animated dialogue, on a vivid stage set with a rotating red throne that resembled a gilded cage.

I saw the production through her eyes and it was like experiencing the magic of theatre anew; from her gasp of wonderment at how a simple crystal globe suspended from the ceiling could create spinning patterns of light all around the theatre, to her delight at seeing a puppet nightingale "fly" from one end of the auditorium to the other.

That was last year and since then, Erica has watched numerous English- and Chinese-language productions tailored for young children, from blockbuster live shows of TV favourites Peppa Pig and Hi-5 in 1,500-seat venues, to cosier puppetry-based works by Canada's Mermaid Theatre and Singapore's Paper Monkey Theatre.

As for my son, Myles, the usually fearless, rambunctious three-year-old still freaks out when the auditorium goes dark.

We are keeping him away from the theatre - or cinema for that matter - until he shakes off this phobia.

For Erica, these afternoons or evenings spent watching performances are an adventure of sorts. At a time when children are either glued to digital devices or drowning in homework - Erica as a kindergartener is already bringing back worksheets in mathematics, English and Chinese despite not quite knowing yet how to read - watching a production is a stress-free experience for both parent and child that makes languages come alive and lets the imagination soar.

As arts editor of this newspaper, I am pleased to have played a role in starting a Best Production for the Young award which will be given out from next year at the annual M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, thanks to the support of the National Arts Council.

There are now an average of eight to 15 productions every year, made by professional Singapore theatre companies for audiences aged two to 12. While mostly in English, there are also a growing number of Mandarin and Malay productions. Key players include I Theatre, The Little Company, Theatre Practice, Paper Monkey Theatre and the Esplanade - the arts centre commissions a few original works for children all year round.

Amid all this activity, standards vary and there is a need for practitioners to think through what makes an effective and engaging production for the young. Children's theatre worldwide can be extremely formulaic, with companies opting to adapt popular picture books or TV series for the stage because it is the surest way to reel in audiences, as British playwright and children's theatre stalwart Mike Kenny lamented in The Guardian newspaper a few years ago.

It was Kenny, together with Singaporean composer Ruth Ling, British director Kate Golledge and an all-Singaporean cast, who made The Nightingale that we saw such a zippy, stirring affair.

The new Best Production for the Young award, judged by a group of drama educators and journalists, aims to confer recognition on professionals in this sector, and give it a boost in originality and standards.

There is a lot of potential for groundbreaking work. For example, Paper Monkey Theatre has an infectious love for and expertise in traditional Asian puppetry forms, as its recent production of Journey West: Web Of Deceit demonstrated. But the adaptation of an excerpt from the Chinese literary epic Journey

To The West packed in too much and felt too dense for a young audience. The company's challenge is to find the right scripts and storytelling style with which the puppets and puppeteers can take flight.

An award, however, will not solve the biggest problem in making children's productions more accessible - the exorbitant cost of theatre tickets for a family with more than one kid.

In general, ticket prices are either the same for adults and children, or only slightly lower for children under 12. For a family of four, this means paying anything from $80 to $300 depending on the venue and where you are seated.

If you try to save costs by buying the cheap seats, you will find as I have, that squinting at a row of tiny, dancing figures is off-putting for your children, and they will lose interest from the get go.

While there are significant discounts for school groups buying tickets, arts companies, sponsors and policymakers should seriously consider subsidising tickets for young children. This would encourage more families to go to the theatre and get more kids interested in live performances.

How sad it would be if this generation of digital natives could only laugh or feel at one remove through a screen, not realising the enormous potential for creativity and artistry in the people and objects around them, including themselves.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Subsidise tickets for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe