Bill Harley says it best on his seminal album of stories and songs, “The Town Around The Bend”. The Grammy Award winner remarks that the stuff that happens to you when you are 9, 10, 11 and 12 is the stuff that’ll form who you will be as a grown-up. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us as parents to ensure that their foundation is as thoughtfully constructed as possible.
My parents took me to see “Me and My Girl” at the Hershey Theater when I was in that very age range. I can still see the Playbill in my hands. I can still see the velvet curtains, hear the melodies if not recall the lyrics, and remember the wide-eyed giddiness I felt at being in the room where it was happening on that afternoon some 30 years ago.
My daughters cut their theatrical teeth in Old City, with Ben Dibble and Jeff Coons as Frog & Toad on the F. Otto Haas Stage of the Arden. A conveyer belt of Philly talents like Alex Keiper, Rachel Camp and Steve Pacek followed (along with a couple of brilliant reprisals of Frog & Toad with Dibble & Coons) as we’d show up religiously season after season for Arden’s remarkable children’s theater series. We still go back, now with a tween and teen, every fall and every spring to the room where it first happened for our two girls.
Because the Arden does not pinch a single penny as they transition from ‘adult’ to ‘children’s’ play and musical each season, my guess is that many Philly-area dads and moms could tell a similar story as our’s; a story of children who grew up with a love of local live theater thanks to the Arden but who are now older, and who have since stretched that love up I-95 to Broadway, to the Music Box, Schoenfeld, Barrymore, and Richard Rodgers theaters.
It’s possible that I place too much importance on the theater experience in the lives of young people as they grow up. I’ll concede that, but I won’t stop believing (and preaching) that being in a theater to experience actors performing live on stage has helped, and continues to help me teach my daughters empathy, history, teamwork, hard work, and friendship.
Last month, my wife and I took our Broadway-musical-obsessed teen up to the Big Apple for an overnight on the Great White Way to see “Dear Evan Hansen”, “The Band’s Visit”, and “Come From Away” (with a few hours at MoMA sandwiched in-between) during a thrilling 28 hour stretch. After each show we waited, shivering in the cold, for the actors and musicians to emerge from stage doors so that our girl could get autographs, photos and say many thank you’s for their stirring performances.
I don’t know exactly what the return on investment of time, energy and (so much) money for these live theater experiences in New York City will be in 5, 10, or 20 years time but I’ve long been a believer in the unknowable benefits of investing in childhood in this way, in gifting children impactful, diverse life experiences throughout their entire childhood, but especially in the age 9-13 period because, as Bill Harley says, the person they will grow to become in that time is, underneath all that will happen in the future, the person they will be for the rest of their life.
I would like very much for my daughters to grow up and become the kind of people who admire the passion, hard work, and immense skill involved in all aspects of the live theater experience. As well as, appreciate equally the stars at center stage, the writers working alone for years to tell their stories, the set designers bringing those stories to life, and the musicians out of sight down below.
I’m happy to forgo the other trapping of modern life — the latest and greatest TVs, smartphones, etc — in order to divert our resources towards experiences like those on offer inside the theater.
That’s an investment of money, and of shivering on 45th Street at 10 pm on a frigid winter’s night, into childhood that I’m more than willing to make.