Children and the Arts: The conversation begins

Damon Calderwood and Robyn Wallis, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Last Saturday I was invited by Jessie van Rijn, General Manager for Carousel Theatre for Young People, to a Bloggers’ Night at Carousel Theatre’s holiday production of The Wizard of Oz at Waterfront Theatre. While the bloggers in attendance were invited to tweet and live blog before and after the performance and during the intermission, Jessie was careful to stress both in her invitation and at the event itself that Carousel did not require or expect us to do so.

What Jessie did want to do by inviting bloggers to a Carousel production was to start a conversation about the role of the arts (and in Carousel’s case, specifically theatre) in the development of children and young people. Even without Jessie’s kind invitation to watch the stage version of my childhood favourite film (the MGM classic starring Judy Garland), I am more than happy to do so.

I know without a doubt the invaluable effect images, films, books, theatre, music, and dance had on my imaginative life and on my creativity growing up. From having the ending of Romeo & Juliet explained to me by my mother (after which I wondered why the heck anyone would bother writing a story that ended like that) to realizing after a conversation with my dad that I’d perhaps sided with the wrong character (apparently, the Phantom of the Opera was not a very nice man), the art I was exposed to led me to question what I saw, to hunger for explanation, and to create my own possibilities and versions of events when the explanation didn’t suit me (a creative act and one that the most lauded adult innovators perform constantly). I know that the cultural activities I was exposed to as a child and as a teenager shaped my own ambitions regarding becoming an artist and a writer.

Whether or not a child grows up to become an artist themselves, any activity that inspires and nurtures creativity (such as a trip to the theatre or the ballet) will be beneficial to them and to the world they will inherit. Celebrated 21st-century figures such as Steve Jobs were not only technically skilled–they were also incredibly creative. Terms like “innovative” and “thinking outside the box” get thrown around a lot nowadays as desirable traits for the work world of today, but what everyone really means is creativity, the ability to break from an established pattern and make something new, even if it’s simply something old viewed in a new way.

Creativity is not only useful in the workplace–it is also necessary for developing life and coping skills. Far from the stereotype of the miserable suicidal artist, reinforced by the high profile suicides of artists such as Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh, a faculty for creativity is NOT a precursor to misery and suicidal ideation as creative people are better able to envision alternative solutions to the unhappy circumstances they face, and to find an outlet for the emotional and mental distress they may be feeling. The more choices you can envision for yourself, the less likely you are to find yourself powerless and trapped by your circumstances.

If you are still wondering why it is important to nurture children’s imaginations, my favourite answer is simply because children have them. Kids have a rich image life and as they begin to learn about the world they are exposed to new fears and wonders. I can think of no better example of this than the experiences of the five-year-old guest I brought with me to The Wizard of Oz (along with her mother, a friend of mine). Today I’ll call her LG (for Little Guest). LG is an outgoing and sassy little girl, who wanted to be the one to buy her Mentos from the lobby concession BY HERSELF and who chatted freely before the show even though she hasn’t seen me since she was three.

Meghan Anderssen, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

When we sat down in our second row seats (thanks Jessie!) and we saw how close to the stage we were, LG became a little apprehensive about her proximity to the Wicked Witch, and then she became downright terrified and asked to go home. My friend (her mom) had a chat with LG in the lobby about what she was afraid of and Jessie at Carousel not only helped by describing what would happen in the show to LG (explaining that in this production the Witch is more funny than scary) but was also able to re-seat us near the back of the theatre where we could still see and hear everything perfectly well (there’s not a bad seat in the Waterfront) and where LG could have a few rows of audience between her and any onstage witchiness.

After the show, the children in the audience were invited to climb onto the stage with Jessie and take a look at the sets and props used, meet the cast members, and ask questions about how the play worked. I think understanding how the images and characters that scared her are created helped smooth over LG’s initial fears and in the car afterwords she announced proudly that though she was “a little scared at first” she was glad she went and that she liked Glinda and that Jessie explained to her how the magical snow was able to defeat the Witch’s poisonous poppies.

The point I am trying to make with this heart warming little story, besides the fact that Jessie van Rijn and Carousel Theatre are good with kids, is that whether we encourage it or not children will imagine. No one told LG to think about the Wicked Witch, or to imagine that the Witch could possibly harm her, but LG was frightened anyways. What nurturing creativity does is provide children with weapons to combat their imagined fears (in LG’s case, Glinda and some magical snow did the trick).

The bright side of children’s ability to imagine that horrors lurk in the closet or under their bed is their ability to imagine that the world around them, while dark and strange sometimes, is also full of wonder and light. My little sister’s imagination once plagued her with night terrors, but her imagination was also able to convince her that the dream catcher my parents hung above her bed would stop them, and so it did. The same mind that believes in the Bogeyman and ghosts is also able to believe in Santa Claus and fairies. Children will imagine whether we tell them to or not–why would we not want to provide their imaginations with images and experiences that make them feel happy, inspired, and powerful?

I once came across a quote from Lewis Mumford (American historian, philosopher, cultural critic, and father) which I have loved ever since for eloquently framing my feelings on this issue of encouraging (or discouraging) imagination in children:

In repressing this life of fantasy and subordinating it to our own practical interests, we perhaps…gave the demonic a free hand without conjuring up any angelic powers to fight on the other side. We did not get rid of the dragon: we only banished St. George

                -Lewis Mumford, Green Memories

So there you have it folks. Give your kids something lasting this Christmas, something that will encourage their creativity, stimulate their imaginations, and arm them against their fears. Give them a St. George, or a Glinda the Good Witch, or even just a fun evening at the theatre or with a great book.

For me, this is what has lasted. This is what I remember and treasure after my old toys have been boxed up or garage-saled or forgotten. My parents gave me as much imagination and creativity as they could and it’s those gifts I am continually thankful for.

Robyn Wallis, Darren Burkett, Mike Stack, and Josue Laboucane, Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Full disclosure: I do not have children of my own. But I was a child once, and I have a good memory. I also have teacher parents, teacher neighbours, little cousins, TC’s cousins, friends with kids, babysitting experience, and an obsession with YA fiction.

My ticket to The Wizard of Oz, as well as the tickets of LG and her mother, were provided by Carousel Theatre for their Bloggers’ Night event. I was not asked to review or promote the show.

Carousel Theatre’s current season is based on literary classics. For more information about its productions and what Carousel does,  please visit their website.