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Audience Etiquette Primer for Kids at the Theater

Whether it's Sesame Street Live or a tween music concert, kids love shows. But what if they don't behave? Here's a guide for teaching 'em the ropes.

From Sesame Street Live, Kidz Bop and The Wiggles to puppet theater, dance performances, musicals and symphony concerts, families in southeast Michigan have loads of live-entertainment options. But how do you decide what type of show will be the most worthwhile for your child – and how can you prepare them to be a good audience member?

Your kid's temperament

"The first thing would be to make an evaluation of how well your child can sit still and how long of an attention span you think they have," says Linda Zublick, president of Stagecrafters Community Theatre in Royal Oak – and a veteran concertgoer with her two kids, now in their teens/20s.

"If you know you have a child who's going to stand up, jump around and holler at the stage – if they want to interact with the characters," she says, "then take them to something that's going to encourage that, like Dora the Explorer Live!"

Live theater productions take a bit more attention – even if they're age-appropriate. "They need to understand, 'There are other people around you watching the show. You can't talk out loud. Use a whisper voice."

Bill Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for Olympia Entertainment in Detroit, says he's taken his four children, who range from 5 to 13, to "everything."

"Children's shows are typically an hour and a half with intermission," he says. "The kids' shows are very stimulating and geared towards audience participation. They tend to move very quickly for the children, so it keeps their attention."

Symphony selections

Charles Burke, director of education for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and father of two kids under age 10, says it's important to know what your children like – and what will challenge them.

"It's finding the concert experience where children can not only be entertained, but more importantly, educated," he says. "I also think it's good to take some chances sometimes.

"The symphony has a stereotype, for people who have never been, as something that might be unattainable or inaccessible – and that's quite the contrary. It's very accessible and family-friendly."

Like the DSO's Saturday morning kids shows, which often sell out. Tiny Tots Concerts take place in The Music Box, a cozy spot where families sit on chairs or floor cushions – and kids 6 years and younger are free to dance, sing and interact with performers. There's a diverse range of music styles, including jazz, rock, classical and world traditions.

And Young People's Concerts, aimed at kids ages 6 through teen, are held in Orchestra Hall with the DSO. These interactive concerts present an introduction to classical music and are also visually stimulating, as they often include dance, theater, storytelling and videos.

While children ages 6 and older are welcome to attend evening concerts at The Max, it's still a matter of knowing your child, Burke says.

"I think we get too hung-up on age restrictions. We have 4- and 5-year-olds coming to the Young People's Concerts," he says, adding his son enjoyed them at age 3.

But consider that evening concerts start at 8 p.m. That's bedtime for some children.

Theater-goers

Mike and Ruth Dargay of Clarkston have taken their three children, now in their tweens and teens, to numerous live shows – from the interactive children's variety to big stage productions like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

The girls are especially fond of musicals. Mom let them dress up in Belle costumes when they saw the Disney theater production of Beauty and the Beast.

"Musicals are the only shows we go to. The girls like the singing and dancing," Ruth Dargay says. "Tickets for the theater are expensive, so that's why I choose something they already like. They've heard the songs and the story is familiar, so they're not bored."

Dargay says the girls are too old for Dora Live!, and there are not many age-appropriate theater performances she can take them to. Productions that she and her husband have enjoyed – Rent, Hairspray, Monty Python's Spamalot – have adult themes and storylines that Dargay is not ready to discuss with her kids.

"We have the DVD of the 1950s musical Kiss Me Kate, and the girls have watched it over and over. When we saw it at the theater, there was some swearing in it," Dargay says. "It took me by surprise, and I don't think it added anything to the show. It was disappointing."

10 tips to make it fun

Concerts and theater performances can be more memorable and fun for the entire family with this cheat sheet:

  1. Make sure the performance is appropriate for your child. Take into consideration his interests, attention span and maturity level, and how long he can sit quietly in a non-interactive show.
  2. Choose a concert that doesn't interfere with naptime and doesn't end long after a child's bedtime. Morning or matinee performances are more conducive to younger families.
  3. Look at the venue's seating chart and talk to box office personnel to make sure children will be able to easily see the performers on stage.
  4. Infants are welcome at interactive family shows, but a fussy baby might spoil the performance for those around you. Consider using a sitter, or be prepared to take a crying infant away from the audience if he needs quieting.
  5. Check to see if the venue allows you to bring in snacks, drinks or formula bottles, and what types of food options are offered. Eat before the concert – even if it's only a snack – so that kids don't arrive starving.
  6. "Prep" your child for an upcoming show, especially a theater performance. Read stories about the play, watch a movie version of the musical and listen to soundtracks of the songs.
  7. Talk to your child about being a good audience member, so she knows when it's appropriate to sing along, to talk, to whisper, and when to be quiet.
  8. Give yourself plenty of time to travel to the venue, park the car, use the restrooms and settle in the audience before the show starts.
  9. Keep an eye on your child, even at smaller venues that allow kids to get up close to the performers. Wandering children can get hurt.
  10. Get into the action! Sing and dance with your kids at interactive shows and concerts. Watch your children enjoying the performance, and talk about the experience after the show.

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