No business like kids' show business
If you think theatres are dying -- oh no they're not! They're attracting a whole new generation of youngsters, thanks in part to the popularity of kids' TV shows
OUR theatres are experiencing a boom thanks to hungry caterpillars, flying snowmen, bossy talking pigs and can-do builders. The audiences that these surreal plays are attracting have a reputation for being immature but in this instance it is socially acceptable.
Theatres nationwide are being mobbed by our little ones desperate to see their heroes such as Bob the Builder and Peppa Pig in action.
If you think theatres are dying and not attracting new audiences -- oh no they're not! Kids are keeping the box offices ticking over all year round and not just during traditional panto season, which begins in earnest next month.
It was revealed recently that only an elite group of gigs coming to Ireland sell out immediately when tickets are released. These included Michael Buble, Pearl Jam, Take That and the Peppa Pig show!
Even pantomime is cooler and more down with the kids this year as Jedward are set to star as Cinderella's fairy godbrothers in Dublin's Olympia Theatre. Shane O'Driscoll is director of entertainment at the INEC Killarney, which is a 2,000-seat theatre, and one of the main venues for kids' shows nationally.
"It's good business because kids' shows are holding up, while adult shows have taken a hit with the recession. People are coming to Killarney from Cork, Limerick and Kerry and parents even knock a weekend out of it and book into a hotel.
"The shows are a real buzz for kids because their idol is there in real life. We keep space in the front rows so the children can dance around and the characters come down off the stage," he says. Price is a key factor nowadays especially when theatre-goers have to shell out for both parents' and kids' tickets, so corners have to be cut.
"We have to try to keep prices down because for every child there is an adult, and we have to keep attracting business. The average ticket price is €20. We would often see two parents bringing along 12 kids to a show to keep the price down," says Shane.
What are the big box-office draws in Killarney? "The big ones are the UK shows from Nickelodeon and HIT like Barney, Fireman Sam, Peppa and Thomas the Tank Engine," he says.
The next big event in Killarney is Fireman Sam's 'Pontypandy Rocks', which is coming in January. This show, about Wales' most famous firefighter, will feature a mixture of songs and live action including fireman rescues to keep the kiddies on the edge of their seats.
With everything on offer, parents could end up sitting in the stalls more often than your average theatre critic.
Carmel O'Doherty is programme co-ordinator with the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire and mum to Jesse (three), step-mum to Jake (13) and Ben (16), and a veteran of kids' shows.
"I took Jesse to 'The Snowman' in the National Concert Hall last year and he loved it. Both the music and the narration were beautiful," she says.
Parents often feel pressure to bring their kids to the big shows with the recognisable characters from the telly but they don't always live up to the billing.
There were negative reports of the recent 'Peppa Pig' show in Dublin. "I was glad that I didn't pay to go to the 'Peppa Pig' show because I heard some parents weren't happy," says Carmel.
Reviews from some of those unhappy parents were posted on the Ticketmaster website.
"My daughter absolutely loves 'Peppa Pig' but I think even at only four she was very disappointed and not amused at this show. We didn't like the idea of people running around with the puppet characters in their hands," posted one parent.
Another reviewer also bemoaned the lack of life-size characters. "They were expecting life-size characters so the fact they could see the people with the puppets didn't go down well."
Despite the heavily marketed touring shows, for many kids their first introduction to theatre is on a smaller scale in their local libraries and school halls. These are hosted by local theatre groups and are much better quality than the amateur dramatics that 1970s and 1980s kids had to endure. This is a cheaper and more informal way for parents to get their children interested in the theatre scene with tickets costing as little as €5.
Carmel recently brought Jesse to 'Waiting for Billy' in Deansgrange Library in south Dublin -- a show about vegetables that need to be eaten to get their super powers!
"They are nice, small compact spaces and the children are happy to sit on the floor and get involved. Jesse had a big smile on his face and was totally captivated," says Carmel.
Another show that she went to was 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar', which was staged around Ireland in October by the Mermaid Theatre Company of Nova Scotia.
The caterpillar show was a huge hit around the country and has been seen by over 1.3 million people worldwide. "It's so famous and is really accessible and he loved it," Carmel adds.
The show was an adaptation of the much-loved work by author Eric Carle about a caterpillar's metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly. This book has sold 30 million copies since it first appeared in 1969.
Director of the Pavilion Theatre Martin Murphy believes that when children's theatre is done well it works brilliantly.
"There is something particular and special about children's work and kids get a huge amount out of it. The past 10 years have seen big changes in children's theatre with more and more effort being put into productions.
"The major change came with the Arts Council allocating a certain percentage of their budget to children's work," Martin explains. The dad of two says television is a very big influence on children's shows and that it is getting more difficult to sell lesser-known ones.
"I understand the bigger venues have to fill seats and the big names get the numbers. We are lucky that we are subsidised and so have the luxury of being bit more picky with the shows we bring to the theatre.
"This Christmas we are bringing in 'Cinderella -- the Final Frontier'. It is 'Cinderella' crossed with 'Dr Who' and 'Star Trek' and lots of fun."