Why theatre? Why opera? Why children?

Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the
fresh air. They need to hear real music played by real musicians on real
instruments as much as they need food and drink. They need to read and
listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for.

The difficulty with persuading grown-up people about this is that if you
deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise,
they die visibly, whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and
theatre, they perish on the inside, and their starvation doesn't show. So
the grown-ups who should be responsible for providing these good and
necessary things --teachers, politicians, parents - don't always notice
until it's too late; or they pretend that art and music and theatre and so
on are not necessities at all, but expensive luxuries that only snobbish
people want in any case; or they claim that children are perfectly happy
with their computers and video games, and don't need anything else.
I'm not going to argue about this: I'm right. Children need art and music
and literature, they need to go to art galleries and museums and theatres,
they need to learn how to play musical instruments and to act and to dance.
They need these things so much that human rights legislation alone should
ensure that they get them.

But just let's think about the theatre for the moment.

The experience of being in the audience when a play or an opera is being
performed is not simply passive. It's not like watching TV; it's not even
like watching a film in the cinema. Everyone in that big space is alive, and
everyone is focused on one central activity. And everyone contributes. The
actors and the singers and the musicians contribute their performance; the
audience contributes their attention, their silence, their laughter, their
applause, their respect.

And they contribute their imagination too. The theatre can't do what cinema
does, and make everything seem to happen literally. There are no pixels up
there on the stage; what happens is caused by physical bodies moving about
in real space, not by computer-generated imagery on a screen. So it has
limitations. That isn't a real room, we can see that it's painted canvas;
that isn't a real boy, it's a little wooden puppet. But the limitations
leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. We pretend these things are
real, so the story can happen. The very limitations of theatre allow the
audience to share in the acting. In fact, they require the audience to
pretend. It won't work if they don't.

But the result of this imaginative joining-in is that the story becomes much
more real, in a strange way. It belongs to everyone, instead of only to the
performers under the lights. The audience in the dark are makers too. And
when it all works, the experience we take away is incomparably richer and
fuller and more magical than it would ever have been if all we did was sit
back passively and watch.

When we are adults, and if we're lucky enough to have developed the habit,
we can find our own way to plays and operas; but children can't do it on
their own. They need to be taken. They need to be helped to find their way
into the experience by people who've been there before, and who can tell
them something about it and excite their curiosity. A little knowledge helps
a great deal. A theatre especially set up for children helps even more; and
plays presented by people who know how to perform for children without
talking down to them, or being facetious, or leaving their brains behind,
are best of all.

I can remember evenings in the theatre, both as a child and as an adult,
which were among the most important things I've ever known. Seeing Frankie
Howard as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic when I was
nine, and laughing so much I fell off my seat; watching Peter Hall's
production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre, and feeling a sense of
awe at the gradual unfolding of this ancient, savage, profound story; more
recently, simultaneously helpless with laughter and shivering with pity and
terror at the extraordinary Shock-Headed Peter. If I hadn't seen those
things, my life would be much the poorer. Theatre feeds the heart and
nourishes the soul and enlarges the spirit.

The best description of the way this happens comes in Tove Jansson's
wonderful Moominsummer Madness. The Moomin family, after being flooded out
of their home, find a refuge in a floating theatre; but none of them has
seen a theatre before, and they are puzzled by the oddness of this house
with its rooms full of wigs and costumes, and stairs that end in mid-air,
and doors that have stoves painted on their other side. Emma, an old stage
rat, comes out of hiding to tell them about it, and says "A theatre is the
most important sort of house in the world, because that's where people are
shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they'd like to be if they
dared to, and what they really are."

No-ones ever said it better.