Summer is a wonderful, informal time to enjoy the arts with your family. Spacious lawns starlit skies, and the ubiquitous picnic basket provide the first classical music experience for many young people. Summer Stock Theater introduces many to Broadway shows and Gilbert and Sullivan. Whether you are grabbing a concert on the lawns of The Mall or making a pilgrimage to Tanglewood in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, or whether you are going to Olney Theater or catching a Broadway show on a visit to New York, summer seems a time when we think of going to concerts and theater “for fun” rather than because we feel it an important cultural experience for our children.
I encourage you to read the local newspapers wherever you are this summer and find outdoor concerts and small theatre productions to attend. In many cases it is like a treasure hunt: you never know whom you will find. I remember weekly trips to a small summer theatre in Cape Cod to see Gilbert and Sullivan starring a young Harvard student – by the name of John Lithgow! Read the Washington Post to see what is playing at Carter Barron and on The Mall, and of course there is always the ever-attractive Wolf Trap. Visit your local library the Summer Arts section of the New York Times for a fairly complete state-by-state listing of both classical and folk/jazz music festivals across the United States and Canada, for those of you wishing to plan in advance. But most important is just the idea that when the sun goes down, the day isn’t over. Check your local listing for what is happening LIVE!
To make these outings great successes I offer the following suggestions:
FOR CONCERTS: Arrive early enough to find a good picnic place to eat and to give your children a little bit of time to run around. When the music begins, they should be ready to sit with you on your blanket even if they stretch out and look at the stars for most of the evening. Take an extra blanket if you can carry it. Children love to cuddle under them and it often does become cold at night. Ball and Frisbee playing may be permitted before the performance, but should always cease once the performance begins. Talking during the performance is annoying to your neighbors. Whispering is acceptable and far less problematic than in the concert hall, but help your child by trying to limit it. Only purchase shed/tent/covered seats if your children are veteran concertgoers during the winter, or if you have left them at home for the weekend! Finally, try to find a cassette of something that you have heard at the concert for car listening; you’ll be delighted when your children recognize a little Mozart.
FOR THE THEATRE: Never forget something for your child to sit on so he or she can see! Very few theatres have good sightlines for children and small summer theaters are probably the worst. I have been going to the same summer theater for almost forty years and when I take neighborhood children they are always amazed at how great it is when they sit in my seats and have an unobstructed view of the stage (longevity and patronage have now placed me in the third row!) But even so, we always pack the canvas L.L. Bean bags with life jackets so my sons can see over the heads of those in the rows in front. They now pack their own bags but must adhere to the rule that they may never prop themselves higher than a five-foot-six-inch adult. In addition, prepare your child so he or she doesn’t spend half the performance whispering, “What’s happening?” If possible, find a video, audiocassette or book telling the story of what you are going to see. If this is impossible, explain the plot. If you don’t know anything about the play or show, arrive twenty minutes early so you have time to sit and read the synopsis to your children and explain it to them.
I was associated with a summer music festival for many years just outside New York City at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York. The concerts were held alfresco, at the bottom of a long, rolling hill, on a stage under a tent which covered the performers and an audience of 1,000 persons who wished the safety of cover, while the hillside was itself covered with happy summer picnickers and families attracted by the ambience of the environment overlooking the Hudson River and the sunset over the New Jersey Palisades.
At times I wondered if the live performance was incidental. But then I noted that many young people were introduced to their first classical music on this hillside, far from the formal setting of the concert hall. Brahms symphonies, Rossini Fireworks saluted the Fourth of July with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. For seven weeks, thousands of families enjoyed what once had been Jay Gould’s magnificent estate. If they were forced to share it now, they also had been privileged to have a symphony orchestra play the sun to rest every Saturday night.
In our home, for two and one-half months each summer, the television is put away. Our only exception is when the family “reviews” the weekly musical video for the Thursday night outgoing to Highfield Theatre in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Summer is a time for doing, not sitting. The fifteen or so evenings we will spend attending concerts, musicals and plays this summer may lack some of the artistic luster of our winter lives at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall or on Broadway; but I also know that one of the reasons my children are avid theater-goers is the fun that we always have had peering across the footlights of summer theater, smelling lightly of inspect repellant, and laughing once again at The Pirates of Penzance or lying together under the starts on a blanket never large enough as Beethoven danced the youngest to sleep with the Big Dipper.
Simon, Bonnie. “A Family Affair: Summer Concerts, Summer Theater.” Washington Parent July/August 1992: Print