Philip Pullman is arguably one of our generation’s best living authors and an all-round wise, sensible guy so I felt a twinge of shame when he recently decried that not enough children were going to the theatre.
His concerns were directed at schools which were prioritising league table performance and results over class outings to experience the arts first hand.
The facts back him up. According to Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in 2008-09 the proportion of primary school-age children who had visited the theatre in past 12 months was almost half (47.1%) but six years later, in 2014-15, this figure has fallen to less than a third (32.3%).
As a parent of a primary school-age child I have to hold my hands up. We haven’t been to the theatre for about two years.
I’m no philistine. Without the arts I’d be a lesser human being. Drama was my best subject at school. I’ve even dabbled in amateur dramatics and fringe theatre, myself. We have two local theatres within walking distance from her home, plus access to many more in our region.
We also live within a forty-minute train ride from Edinburgh, one of Europe’s great cultural capitals and home to the famous Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe. Edinburgh also hosts Imaginate, a theatre festival targeted specifically to children.
So why have we stopped going to the theatre? Here are my very frank reasons.
- We’ve introduced gaming into our home
I did used to take Toby to the theatre when he was younger and much easier to coerce or bundle into a buggy and take somewhere without an hour-long debate about why we should or shouldn’t do something. But since he’s discovered tablets and the Xbox, he has all the entertainment we need at home. And quite frankly I’m less inclined to spend money on another form of entertainment that is only going to cause friction during our rare free time.
- Money’s too tight to mention
And that neatly brings me on to my second point. My disposable income has certainly shrunk in recent years and money for extras like days out and entertainment is just not so abundant. Plus, the last time I forked out close to £60 for tickets to our local pantomime (yes pantomime still counts) we had to leave after about 10 minutes because Toby was scared, which perhaps explains why I’ve been reluctant to return to a theatre ever since.
- It’s a bit dark and creepy
Fleeing from Jack and the Beanstalk wasn’t a one-off. We also abandoned a theatre adaptation of The Gruffalo’s Child although I can’t remember if it was fear or boredom that resulted in us walking out. However, most previous attempts at going to the theatre did usually result in me persuading him to stay before anything has even started. He was definitely always creeped out by the darkness and sensitive to the loud noises. It just wasn’t a pleasant experience for him.
- Some lazy programming
I sometimes despair at the choice of shows on offer at our local theatre. It’s clear that they have a strategy in place to appeal to mass market audiences with a regular programme of comedians, musical tribute acts, and kids’ shows attached to well-established CBeebies characters. Fine, but this leaves a gaping hole for anyone aged between six and eighteen. I’d love to see more original children’s drama staged; plays with great characters and an exciting plot. We’d find more of that in Edinburgh and certainly London but what about the rest of the UK?
Now Toby’s getting older and may not feel quite so frightened of the theatre, I may try to make more of an effort, but as Philip Pullman rightly points out we need schools to help fill this gap.
A good story is a good story whether it’s told in a book, on stage or on a screen but it’s important for children to experience storytelling in different ways. With a book you can disappear into the head of a character. With film you can see how a story unfolds with the imagery presented beautifully for you. With theatre, however, you can feel the story – and that is something magical and an experience that we should be careful not to remove from our children’s formative years.