Teaching Theater: New York City Children’s Theater

Show-Score | Aug 25, 2017

With the school year kicking off, Show-Score explores New York City Children’s Theater—a company dedicated to bringing students to theater, and theater to classrooms, across the city.

When did you fall in love with theater? Somewhere along the way, there was an awe-inspiring moment—an actor who enchanted you, a story that hit home, a song you couldn’t stop singing. Somewhere along the way there was a day at the theater so magical it stuck.

For many of us, that love goes all the way back to childhood—perhaps to a school trip.

The connections between theater and education run deep. There’s an army of teaching artists out there trained to bring students closer to the world of a play. Theater companies create education departments to foster relationships with schools and teachers. Actors readily participate in post-show discussions geared towards younger audiences.

And for some companies, working with children is the whole ball game. New York City is home to some of the best children’s theaters in the country—among them the long-running New York City Children’s Theater.

The Project that Grew

In 1996, Barbara Zinn Krieger, then Executive Director of The Vineyard Theatre, spearheaded a program aimed at correcting a gap in the arts world. While there were plenty of performances aimed at kids, she felt that children’s theater as a whole wasn’t given the same care (or even respect) as adult theater. She wanted to see engaging, well-crafted children’s plays—so she made it happen

What started as a side project soon grew into an independent non-profit company under Artistic Director Krieger’s leadership. Over the last two decades New York City Children’s Theater has given thousands of students access to high-quality performances and in-class activities aimed at enriching their education. Last year alone, the company brought education programs to 85 schools and community centers, including 18 homeless shelters. From their mainstage season to their anti-bullying workshops, NYC Children’s Theater strives to offer kids from all walks of life a transformative encounter with art.

Kids Deserve the Best

Their approach is simple. “We believe children’s theater should be as good as adult theater” says Emma Halpern, Co-Artistic Director. “Kids deserve the same high-quality performance experience that adult audiences expect.” And the show should be entertaining for both children and adults. “Children’s stories should be smart enough, well-told enough, that they resonate with adults as well.”

The company is dedicated to promoting children’s literacy. Naturally, that requires strong scripts. “Our work is based in literature,” says Halpern. “A playwright might use a book as source material, or, as in the case of a show like 2014’s “Dear Albert Einstein”, source material like personal letters or interviews.” The theater commissions work from artists of the highest caliber—current works in development include a dance piece by Stephanie Klemons (Associate Choreographer of “Hamilton”) and an adaptation by Pulitzer-finalist Dael Orlandersmith of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

Another hallmark of their work is a dedication to diversity. Halpern believes this is a vital part of making theater relevant to kids in the audience. “They need to see themselves onstage. They need to see their communities and their experiences represented. So, we make sure that both the storytelling and the casting reflect the diversity of our audience.”

Above all, the company don’t dumb it down. Kids face complex and often challenging familial, social, and cultural realities. Halpern loves that NYC Children’s Theater tackles those realities. “Our shows ask questions that don’t have simple answers—you have to grapple with them. We want families and school groups to walk out of our shows having great conversations,”

Art + Education = A Brighter Future

When asked about why theater should be a necessary part of every child’s educational experience, Halpern says it comes down to the power of imagining other circumstances. “Theater helps kids to see their own experiences in a new light, and to see their own potential to create change. It can empower them to think critically about the world around them, and about how they can make a difference in their communities and in the world. It shows them that their stories, that the future, isn't pre-scripted."

The Program

NYC Children’s Theater offers programming for families looking for a fun outing and for teachers eager to enhance their students’ cultural experience.  Check out their website for more details about both productions and school programs.

Mainstage Season

Each year, New York City Children’s Theater offers fully staged productions aimed at young audiences, from original plays to adaptations. They look for exciting and diverse stories of young protagonists on journeys of self-discovery.

Currently, the company performs at Theatre Row. Tickets are a reasonable $25, and school groups often receive tickets for free (on a first come first served basis). “It’s great to be able to offer subsidized tickets,” says Halpern. “We get teachers coming in saying: ‘We haven’t had a field trip in four years!’”

On the Road

Touring Performances and Workshops: Who doesn’t love a traveling show? NYC Children’s Theater brings their work to elementary schools throughout the city. From professional performances based on literature, to interactive pieces created to spark classroom conversations about everything from exploring the five senses to dealing with bullies, the company offers a fantastic array of fun, insightful art.

In the Classroom

Literature at Play: This classroom residency brings professional teaching artists into the classroom to work with students from Kindergarten to 5th grade.  Over the course of four or more weekly visits, the artists lead students through acting, songwriting and playwriting workshops as they actively explore the literary elements of a children’s book.  The kids might even create an original play or musical to share in the final session.

Family Fun

Literature at Play for Families: Using a book with an inspiring theme, this workshop lets children and their parents and caregivers create together. Teaching artists lead participants though collaborative theater and songwriting activities.

So, whether you’re a parent looking for a great weekend adventure or a teacher looking for a arts experience to expand your curriculum, New York City Children’s Theater will have something out there for you.

Do you remember your first theater field trip? Share your story in the comments!

And check out our Summer Camp Guide for more opportunities to get your kids involved in theater!