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Minding their manners

Kids learn theater etiquette at Children’s Theatre of Salt Lake

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The teachers herd the second graders into the theater and up the stairs. There's a small delay as the first children in line find their seats. While they wait, the last ones in line begin to wiggle.

"Sergio!" intones a teacher. "Hold still!" At her command, Sergio Gonzalez, still waiting on the stairs, attempts to quiet his upper body. His feet continue to shuffle and hop.

This method of holding still works well for him. He manages to rid himself of excess energy and his teacher, gazing down the row, is under the impression that he is using his best theater manners.

It's often a bit scary to take children to the theater — or to any event that demands refinement — because they always have to twitch.

Enter Joanne M. Parker. She's the artistic director of City Rep, which is in the process of changing its name to Children's Theatre of Salt Lake. The new name recognizes the fact that this can be done. Week after week, year after year, Parker and her co-workers bring works of art to children — and somehow the children manage to handle it.

Parker's secret is this: She has faith in children. She thinks, with a bit of coaching, they can be an attentive audience. She has faith as well as an ability to harness their enthusiasm.

So today she stands before them and welcomes them happily. This is a daytime performance, part of the theater's field trip program, and today there are elementary and pre-school students in the audience, as well as a small group from the special-ed class at Brighton High. Parker is also in the habit of welcoming the audience to the evening performance. But in the evenings, when there are grandparents and parents on hand and even some patrons without children, Parker doesn't have to be quite so explicit.

Today, Parker tells the children, "This is a live performance. It only happens once! It's not a video! So can you pause it?" The children answer, "NO!"

"So can you stop watching and go outside to play in the middle?"

"NO!"

Good manners in the theater mean really, really, really encouraging the actors, she explains. You must listen (so you can hear the jokes) and laugh and clap. She leads the children in a contest to see if they can clap louder than the adults in the audience. They can.

"You can add sounds, too," she says. "You can shout, 'Yeah!' and 'Go!' That is part of good manners in a theater."

Parker tells the children that this play, "A Christmas Story," is her 86-year-old grandma's favorite play. She tells them a bit about the plot. She tells them they will have a time to ask questions and shake hands with the actors afterwards. Soon she has the children entranced. They sit up straight in their seats, ready to discover if the boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas will actually get it.

Earlier in the day, before the school buses even pulled up to the curb, the teachers were prepared. Parker had given them a hand-out. The paper offers age recommendations — children should have the ability to sit for 50 minutes at a time without interrupting the enjoyment of others — and other suggestions.

"On our stage, the scene changes often occur in blackout," the flier warns. "Youngsters need to know what is happening beforehand, as they may be afraid of the dark." Also, "teachers should train children to whisper quietly if they have questions or comments which cannot wait until intermission."

For more advice on taking children to the theater, you can wait until intermission and ask the kids themselves.

Jack Murphey, 8, of Horizon Elementary, says he has been to lots of plays including "Phantom of the Opera." He knows the theater has the power to transport him. "If I get into it, I'll just sit still," he says. Faith Bourne, 8, says, "My mom took me to a play when I was about 5 and she told me all the rules, and I behaved, and then she was really nice and bought me a treat."

Preschool students demonstrate that even young children can enjoy a play with lots of action. Schyler Brandell, 5, has been to a play before and he knows "you have to be quiet." His friend Hyrum Plumb, 4, perhaps referring to "The Nutcracker," says, "There's a dancing play, too! I have come to a dancing play!"

And finally, Gonzalez, 8, offers this tip, "Before we came here, we went to the bathroom."


E-mail: susan@desnews.com