Staging a family outing? Consider the theater

The theater’s not just for date nights—here’s how to take the whole family.

When you think of live theater, what comes to mind? Is it big Broadway productions and box office hits? Maybe a date night splurge? It can be all those things—but it’s so much more.

Live theater has the unique power to entertain, inspire and educate people of all ages. And if you’re looking to make lasting memories with your family, there are few options better than the theater.

“It broadens the mind, deepens the imagination, sparks questions and conversations, and brings a bit of the world right to you,” says playwright Bo Wilson.

Wondering where to start? There are tons of affordable, family-friendly options. Here are a few ideas and things to keep in mind:

Know your audience—especially if they’re kids

If you’re a parent, you might be wondering when your child is old enough to enjoy a play. “It depends upon the kid,” says Wilson, who’s also a father of two. “Some 4-year-olds can sit absolutely rapt for an hour at a time. Some 7-year-olds get restless after 30 minutes.”

Wilson suggests you ask yourself a few questions: Can your kid sit quietly and attentively if he or she likes the story they’re being told? Does the play you’re considering seem to tell the kind of story your child enjoys?

There are other considerations, too. Unlike movies, there are no ratings for plays. So how can you make an informed decision? “Call the theater box office,” Wilson suggests. “Ask about the content, ask about the language, ask about the subject matter and know your limits. From there, the decisions take care of themselves.”

And when in doubt, children’s theater is always a safe bet, according to Wilson. “The plays are short, there are lots of other kids in the audience and the institution itself is accustomed to dealing with a range of attention spans,” he says.

Look beyond broadway for unexpected delights

Do you know where to find live theater? You probably know of at least one big stage—the kind a touring Broadway show might visit. But productions can range from elaborate, well-known and costly to simple, obscure and cheap.

Scour local papers and search the web for shows that lack the advertising budget of a box office hit. Read about the plays and take some chances.

Consider big theaters and small ones, musicals, comedies, and dramas. There’s fringe theater, dinner theater, improv and cabaret, too.

“I’m always surprised when people say, ‘I don’t like theater,’” says Kelly Fones, a lifelong theatergoer who volunteers as an usher at plays after work and on weekends. “I always tell them, ‘You just haven’t found the theater that’s right for you.’”

Fones suggests following local theaters on social media to stay up to date on new productions. Theater reviews can be helpful, too—but only up to a point.

“Read the review, but have an open mind,” suggests Fones. “Go see the production—and, if you agree consistently with that reviewer, that can help you decide. But at the end of the day, no one can talk me out of seeing what I want to see.”

The cheap seats are better than you think

While some big shows could blow your budget, you can score affordable seats if you know where to look.

Many plays offer preview nights with cheaper tickets. The point is to let actors work out the kinks before a premiere, but you’re unlikely to notice anything off—other than the price of admission.

For a behind-the-scenes experience, scout out plays that sell dress-rehearsal tickets. It’s exactly what it sounds like: full costumes and all of the production value. But it’s still a rehearsal, so don’t be surprised if the director yells “Stop!” to give the actors a little coaching. Not only are you getting a deal on the tickets, it’s an inside look at the making of a play.

Live near a large city? There are websites and apps that offer last-minute tickets at steep discounts to help theaters pack the house. And if you’re heading to New York, Chicago or other big theater towns, do some research before you buy. You can often save money by visiting the box office directly or shopping around online.

Make the most of free, public performances

Want an easy, low-cost way to expose your family to the theater? Look for free productions. City governments and nonprofits across the country host public plays, often outdoors in amphitheaters and parks.

The environment is relaxed. So if you’re worried about restless kids or reluctant partners, this can be an effortless introduction.

Search the web and check your city’s parks and recreation website to find events near you—it’s not just a big-city trend. Dubuque, Iowa; Houston; Kansas City, Missouri; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Richmond, Virginia; Seattle; and St. Louis are just a handful of cities hosting free, public theater.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of live theater

We know we should spend less time on our devices, and we’ve been told to pull kids away from screens. So consider the theater when searching for unplugged entertainment that’ll leave your whole family wanting more.

“Films and television render us largely passive. We sit back and are given everything,” Wilson says. “But in a theater, we’re in the room with the artists. And they ask us, directly, to imagine along with them.”

“We are encouraged to lean forward, rather than to sit back,” he says. “And as we lean forward, we recognize something uniquely human and alive happening on the stage, a feeling that isn’t available from film or TV.”

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