Do you want to take your baby and/or toddler to the Theatre, but the whole idea brings you out in a cold sweat? Let me allay some fears and confirm some probables....
Yes, the toddler will probably want a wee 10 minutes into the show when you’ve just got the baby to sleep but haven’t managed to shove your boob back in your bra underneath the baby carrier.
Yes, your baby probably will save his daily/weekly poo for when he’s in the carrier, on you, mid show.
Yes, your toddler may well shout out at an inappropriate time or decide that the show would be FAR better if he was on the stage / in the aisle blocking all fire exits / sitting on your head.
And yes, in all likelihood you are going to bump into a parent you know, who may well look perfectly coiffed and poised, whilst you look like absolute shit because you haven’t slept, or brushed your hair, and your nursing bra makes your entire body look awful because your tits are about a foot below where they should be.
It will be brilliant. There will be many other parents battling the same struggles. And every time you go, it gets easier.
When I took our eldest to the Theatre (pre our youngest arriving), I remember thinking how proud I felt that I’d made it out of the house and managed to feed him and get him to sleep, and negotiated the buggy park (it’s a cut throat business, dropping off and picking up the pram). As he got older, and started trying to climb over seats and not sleep, it was sometimes pretty tough. Mostly because I felt we would be disturbing the other punters....
But look around. All the children are doing the same. At any one time, a child will be kicking another as they shift about in their seat, they’ll be joining in with the songs or singing their own entirely, repeatedly asking for snacks, and asking really loudly if it’s nearly finished when it’s actually only just begun. Or announcing the arrival of the Tiger, 3 entrances before he's actually due to appear, to the entire auditorium in his biggest voice (ah my lad 💗).
I used to look at the Parent with more than one child in absolute fucking awe. Like that was an assault course that I couldn’t imagine ever completing. And now I have. Quite a few times actually. The baby sometimes sleeps or sometimes watches. The toddler asks questions and steadily gets more and more involved. It is joyous. Crazy, knackering, sometimes VERY frustrating. But joyous.
So... what are your options?
A Theatre that specialises in shows for Children, or offers lots of family theatre - like The Unicorn, Little Angel, Polka and The Rose and The Lyric(I'm aware my knowledge is utterly London centric and apologies for not having the time to research more (cos you know, kids!) - if you run a Chidren's Theatre regionally, pls pop me a message and I'll add a list at the bottom of this blog post for reference). Their programmes vary by age. And babes in arms are usually free. The facilities are fab, and the staff are too.
You can take them to a kids show at a Theatre that isn’t specifically set up for children. Loads of the classics like The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom are on at Theatres throughout the UK in the holidays. Tickets are a bit pricier than the Children’s Theatres, and the facilities aren’t always massively set up for babies/small children, esp in the older West End Theatres. (eg lack of baby change - take a mat with you). The Imagine Children's Festival at The Royal Festival Hall is also brilliant - with free stuff as well as paid. And Producers take note - it doesn't take much to add some baby facilities - the RFH set up some trestle tables with 5/6 baby change mats and some heavy duty bins, behind some grey screens. Parents aren't too fussy you know - we'll change babies pretty much anywhere; they don’t have to be snazzy (or all in the Ladies toilets, cos Dads do this too, right? 🙄) !
Or... you can take babes in arms to an actual adult show. You know, the plays/musicals you used to watch before you became a parent. Some fringe theatres offer a parent/baby or relaxed performance - Theatre 503does one of each for every show that has a full run. And recently, Emilia The Play has announced the first ever parent/baby matinee in the West End (and the tickets are v reasonable as they’ve allocated a free seat for the baby for every adult ticket booked!).
Take lots of snacks. And water if you are breastfeeding. Make sure when everyone else in your row has taken their seat, you've got everything to hand.
If you’re seeing a kids show in a West End Theatre that has set up a buggy park - avoid taking the pram if you can manage with a carrier or toddlers can walk - they are totally secure but it can add 15mins at the end whilst you battle to find yours and they sometimes want you to fold them up.
Allow loads of time and take them for a run around before if you can - Soho Square is good if you’re in town - anything so they aren’t climbing the walls having to sit/stand fairly still for an hour or more.
Take a coin for binoculars if in traditional West End theatres (not because the views are bad, but because as soon as one child has a pair, they all want some).
Go to the loo before it starts, safe in the knowledge they, or you, will need another wee mid way through, and take a travel change mat if you have one and are taking a bubba.
Grab a booster seat on the way in - the ushers usually have them but I only cottoned on after about 3 Theatre visits.
Go with a mate or your partner first time - it’ll make it less stressful and you can get the lie of the land and be well set up for a solo visit next time.
Have a chat with the kids about not buying merchandise before going in - they often sell loads. So if you’ve headed it off with a suggestion that they can ask for stuff for Birthdays/Easter/Christmas, you’ll save a small fortune. Or you can sometimes get a picture with some of the cast in costume after, which is a good distraction.
Don’t stress about getting up and returning or your baby crying. Everyone knows the gig. And we all know our babies. I’d take mine out if he was full on crying but not if he was a little disgruntled.
Enjoy it! It isn’t always easy, but there is such joy in hearing our toddler talk for days about a show he’s seen. Or just the feeling that having managed a Theatre trip with 2 kids, that you could conquer the world. And there might be the odd time you move heaven and earth, or just your bank balance (cos, let’s face it, it’s a privilege and sometimes a sacrifice, to be able to take them), and they don’t enjoy it. They get bored. And you want to hit yourself over the head repeatedly in sheer frustration at the effort/output ratio. But that’s Theatre. Or indeed any live performance. And at least you’ll learn that they’re more interested in Dinosaurs than Witches. Or similar 😜
I’m taking our baby Arno, to the Emilia Parent/Baby show on Wednesday 24 April at 2.30pm ... Please come if you can - there's a handful of seats left. Join us!
The more successful these parent/baby matinees are commercially, the more they will happen. Producers have to take a hit on profits as they require a little planning and need to leave some seats empty. But it means that those Theatregoers keep going. They still feel there is a place for them. They will keep going even when the babies grow up. They’ll be grateful for an opportunity to see something that isn’t specifically aimed at children. And I firmly believe that those children will grow into Theatre lovers. If it’s a place they feel familiar with, comfortable in, they will come and spend their money in due course. I should also say that the kids shows are a delight. It takes a massive amount of work to create something that keeps children entertained and also engages the parents - we are heading back to The Unicorn to spend the last of our Christmas vouchers watchingPolar Bears Go, Go, Go!again, it was that good.
I firmly believe every single major producing Theatre, and all the West End, should have a parent / baby matinee. No matter what the show. Admittedly the actors have to be on board. It may alter their performance for that one show. It may be difficult. It may be brilliant. Babies might cry in the poignant pauses. But let’s please open it up. Stand-ups get used to performing to rooms of silence and shouting (I once did a gig where all the audience were foreign and none of us got a laugh. For the whole night. Which was an open mic, and thus lasted about 2.5hrs. It was soul destroying and hilarious in equal measure. But we survived). Indeed, stand-ups do perform to parents/babies - check outScreaming With Laughter.
So it can be done. It just requires a shift of attitude. An acceptance that the usual pact between audience and performer might be skewed. If a Fringe Theatre like Theatre 503can manage it for every show that has a 4 week run, then everyone can. Indeed, those with lots of funding or large charitable donations should absolutely feel an imperative to do so. And it's not only important for the general public, it's important for everyone in the Industry who have children, and want to keep in the loop. We lose talent along the way because we haven't adapted our practices - something that PIPA is already looking at. The very least we can do is make sure that that the Theatre is still accessible to those who work in it.
If you are holding a Parent/Baby Show, or want to know more about them, pls join our Facebook Group, where you can share events. We'll aim to collate a list of venues which we can share on the group and I'll add it into this blog as well.
My dream: that it’s standard for Arts Council applications to include budgets for relaxed and parent/baby shows. That Producers of large scale shows or tours, automatically budget in parent & baby matinees. And perhaps a subsidised crèche for the toddlers who aren’t yet at school (Mismanaged Theatre did this recently with Bea & Co providing the crèche). And that this happens for all shows, not just the female led ones. Let’s push for all of this - it’s all do-able xxx