The Children's Educational Theatre
IT will always be difficult to understand why the theatre has failed to obtain proper recognition as a factor in our educational system. Without aid of the imaginative faculty the intellect may become barren, colorless, inert. Dramatic instinct is a vitally focused phase of the imagination, whereby the vague pictures of the mind become tangible and tend to take form and place in the environment. This instinct is at the root of the creative impulses of mental and spiritual life. But, until the establishment of the Children’s Educational Theatre, the operations of dramatic instinct have not been organized in relation to education, nor its product placed in the educational scheme.
To “act out,” “to pretend,” to “play it is,” are among the first impulses of childhood. These impulses spring from the dramatic sense potent throughout the development of the boy, the man, and society in general. Froebel made use of it in the kindergarten to develop the baby mind, the Children’s Educational Theatre organizes it to meet the increasing need of the adolescent as well as the child mind. In our auditorium we meet the insatiable demand of the child to “see a show;” that the child is literally torn with craving to “see a show ” is not advanced as theory merely, in view of statistics which show that eighty out of eight hundred and sixty so-called five-cent theatres, which are nothing but movingpicture exhibits, were closed in one week in New York, because they were patronized by children under sixteen unaccompanied by parents. Proprietors of pennyin-the-slot arcades and cheap theatres often clear a hundred dollars a day, and they offer the child very meagre entertainment in return for his expenditure. Moving-picture theatres exist in all our large cities. Thus managerial thrift turns to commercial profit the child’s fixed determination to seek and find satisfaction for its dramatic instinct. The educator has not turned to educational profit the same instinct.
Education fails, except as it meets or stimulates the craving of the inner living consciousness to realize itself outwardly, except as it engages the senses as the organs of the mind. The desire to “act ” is a spontaneous effort towards this realization. The manager employs actors for his own profit, but the educator has failed to turn this eternal craving for expression to educational profit. Mind, body, spirit, this is the child. Gymnasiums do much for the child’s body; the public schools aim to develop the adolescent mind. Until the evolution of the Children’s Theatre, I can think of no constructive social enterprise planned to meet directly the outreach of the growing spirit.
When, four years ago, the writer undertook to reorganize the Entertainment Department of the Educational Alliance on the east side of New York, she was animated solely by a desire to supply the children in the neighborhood with entertainment of better class than the Alliance and other neighborhood amusement places had offered. It seemed that the improved entertainment should be of educational value. The Educational Alliance supplied a stage whereon plays suitable for children might be presented. The need of correct scenery, properties, and costumes was less promptly recognized. The most rudimentary entertainments, costumed and staged in any haphazard way and acted by careless or ill-trained amateurs or fifth-rate professionals, had always attracted young audiences. In the beginning arose the oftput question, Why improve on what had seemed to serve ? None who asked the question realized that therein lay the reason for giving such audiences only the best. The question involved its own answer, namely, that every play presented in this auditorium on East Broadway should be equipped with correct scenery, artistic costume, and every possible response made to the clamorous cry of the child’s imagination. The need for players was met in the way necessity presented. The usually available “amateur talent ” offered by dramatic schools and the swarming dramatic clubs of the neighborhood had proved valueless. Professional talent was beyond our purse, and we therefore decided, in order to secure practical work on our stage, to choose our players from the neighborhood, training and developing the dramatic instinct latent in every human being, thus making the district responsible for the standard of its own entertainment.
The first regular season of matinees at the Children’s Theatre began in October, 1905, will! a presentation of Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s play The Little Princess. During the preceding summer, while the stage was building, the children and young men and women who were to form the cast of the play were chosen from among the neighborhood people. Rehearsals had not progressed far when it became apparent that a great mine of educational value was to be worked in the player as well as in the audience. Our task was clearly outlined. The imaginative faculty was to be roused on both sides of the footlights. We recognized that in our auditorium moral and educational value must result. In the long preparation for the performance the play was discussed in every feature and detail, the inter-relation of one character to another was suggested, with a view to working out these relations practically. Tremendous interest was awakened through the knowledge that all this activity was not to be left vague and purposeless, but was to be used for definite purpose, — the production of a play. A desire to do was stimulated by doing, by creating. No effort was to be wasted. The great possibility of instruction through suggestion in this wide and hitherto unexploited field became at once apparent. No laziness or indifference balked effort. Confidence was established in the value of the smallest thing well done, whether that thing were tacking down a floor cloth or playing a leading part. Efficiency accomplished its work with as much credit in shifting scenery or managing lights, as in acting a scene. Wholesome competition stimulated cooperation.
As soon as the player felt the responsibility of translating into his own physical expression the relation between the thought and the responsive action of the body, the idea began to vitalize Ms entire being; this powerful human impulse, dramatic instinct, needed only proper direction to become creative, not merely imitative. It represented the player’s own endeavor to realize and live out the idea which he possessed. Here was the cue which we had never been able to pick up elsewhere, to deal indirectly with the personality of the player, and with his coöperation to establish eternal principles of humanity by the study and playing of characters best expressing these principles. So intense was the interest in the general work of preparation that the children brought older brothers, not only to play but to help shift scenery, and older sisters, not only to wear but to help to make costumes. The desire that their play might prove a great neighborhood success stimulated them in all directions and widened the scope of the work inherently.
When Mrs. Burnett saw her play performed by these children of immigrant parents, she marveled, as have so many neighborhood teachers since, at the clean, flexible delivery of English. Several children who visited the theatre were asked to write compositions on the play. One wrote, “I like Sara Crewe because she speaks her words as though they were her own words out of her own heart.” The demand on the audience side of our footlights would have been met for the entire season by matinees of The Little Princess; but the same instinct which led the audience through the front door of our theatre, brought them also through our stage door with requests to study this or that part which they had watched from the front so carefully that, in many instances, they had memorized entire scenes. We awoke to the necessity of forming classes where every part in every play might be studied by half a dozen different persons.
Several elements were considered in selecting a play: its value to the audience and its value to our classes, its value as a production and as a study, its power to represent a suitable ideal to the neighborhood, its power to suggest things to our players. Those who come merely animated with the desire to play parts remain to be brought into intimate acquaintance with a variety of characters represented in dramatic fiction, thereby widening their circle of human contact, as would otherwise be impossible in their restricted lives. Under wise direction they study in ideal characters motives, possibilities, and purposes active in human nature. Indirectly our work secures the discipline of self-restraint, of devotion to duty, of promptness, of efficiency, and the rights of follow men. Aided by the combination of characters in the play, we are not obliged to confine our moral studies to abstract ethics or even to a survey of life that bounds itself by facts. Life presents no perspective; often it confuses by a mass of unrelated particulars. In studying the play, the force of an ideal carried to practical solution, we make use of the opportunity to discuss impersonally the ways of men, their motives and impulses, whether of individuals or classes. Moreover, the study and production of the entire play reveals both to player and to spectator not only the aspect the individual shows to the world, but also the aspect which the course of events in the world shows to the individual. Herein lies the great opportunity for using the drama as a means of moral instruction for the forming mind. The drama presents a finished whole. It exemplifies the rigid connection between men’s moral natures and their fortunes, it shows that fate is largely determined by character. The interplay of spiritual and physical law, whereby spirit welds body to a likeness of itself, is recognized, not in inert ethical discussion, but as a living force operating on the very bodies of our players. The boy, cramped, dulled, uninterested in the barren round of school and work, perhaps finds no stimulus sufficient to bring home to his will a necessity for standing straight, squaring his chest, or holding up his head. He is told and he knows, but he perhaps fails fully to credit the fact, that the cramped body he is building around himself is not a fit expression of his ideal self. Deep in his heart is a conviction of qualities of courage, frankness, strength, but he is not stirred by his environment to shape these qualities into physical expression, even though his environment includes a gymnasium and the admonitions of teachers and friends. At any rate, he continues to cherish the ideal and ignore its physical expression, and educators distress themselves with the well-founded dread that, failing physical expression, the ideal will droop and perhaps die.
Confront this same boy, however, with the opportunity to “play a part.” If the part is one which represents qualities, accomplishments, environment, that answer to his stored-away ideals, the law of the interplay of the spiritual and physical leaps into operation without any ethical prodding. The lover, the soldier, the hero, with whose being his nature claims kinship, demands by divine authority the gallant bearing, the high head, the clear eye, the ringing voice which, in divine acquiescence, the boy recognizes as a fitting expression for his ideal. Automatically (this is the wonder of the law in its educational value) his body begins to respond. Where dulled cramped habit interferes, the boy’s will springs to stimulate action. If need be, his body, cramped, sagged, stiffened by long misuse or neglect, is put through exercises the gymnasium never suggested. If on the other hand the part is one presenting the interest of motives and deeds which the boy acknowledges as lower than his own, then again the law of physical response summons his faculties into cooperation with imperative authority. The crouched body, the lowered eye, the shuffling gait, the loose-mouthed, sloven speech, all announce themselves as signals and shapings of the debased soul. The boy himself makes this translation from spirit into flesh and never again can his body speak that tongue misunderstood by him. Automatically the impulse operates whereby his own ideal of self tends to fling off expression alien to it and claims responsive physical shape and act; and because of this expression of idea and feeling, it is far more helpful than artificial gymnastics prescribed by others. To exemplify such principles to player and audience the Children’s Educational Theatre has produced The Tempest, As You Like It, Ingoinar, The Forest Ring, The Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, SnowWhite, a play founded on the German fairy tale, and The Prince and the Pauper, a dramatized version of Mark Twain’s book of the same name.
Our production of The Tempest was the first time that Shakespeare had been presented to the East Side of New York in any conformity with the traditions of the English stage. The study and presentation of the play awoke the people to its existence, and during its run no less than a thousand copies of the cheap editions, which had been put on sale at the theatre, were disposed of and read. The pronounced success of The Tempest encouraged the production of As You Like It, Every detail of stage business, of scenery and costume, received minute attention. In The Tempest, as in As You Like It, the intimacy of out-of-doors was opened to a walled-in neighborhood. They saw people eating, sleeping, and discussing problems under forest trees and by the sea. From the smallest boy who played a page to the largest man who played the banished duke, all worked with equal enthusiasm. The very disassociation of the characters in this play from the everyday life of the players and audience rendered it of special value. Horizons hitherto narrowed by street, schoolroom, and tenement, widened as by magic.
A later play, Ingomar, vitalized a bit of the Grecian times and presented a story of the evolution of a brute passion into an ideal love. During the run of Ingomar a prize was offered by a New York daily paper to the one who should suggest the best bargain to be obtained in the city. The prize was won by a girl who suggested “An educational bargain, the performance of Ingomar at the Educational Alliance for ten cents a seat.” Church, school, and special philanthropic effort, all struggle with the “sex problem.” The theatre in general has always been recognized as a powerful influence in this direction. In the Educational Theatre that influence is directly focused. The sympathy and the understanding of our players come into accord with the story of Ferdinand and Miranda, of Orlando and Rosalind, of Ingomar and Parthenia. These are all subjected to broad discussion, love takes on new meaning, the little of truth the play tells is leaven for all life, and when the story is enacted on our stage and the note of truth and purity sounded by our newly-developed player, it finds lasting response in the audience, who carry, it into the tall tenements and kindle the entire home circle into warm sympathy with the verities of the play.
Mrs. Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy presents an ideal relation between mother and child, and it is interesting to note the manifest approval of it by the very “toughest ” neighborhood gamin. We receive constant applications from probation officers for tickets for this play. They tell us that a boy will report steadily for six weeks, encouraged by the promise of a seat for Fauntleroy.
Cedric Errol is a heartily approved favorite, because he is just as kind and considerate to Mr. Hobbs the grocer and to Dick the bootblack, as he is to his grandfather the Earl of Dorincourt. The scene between the boy and Higgens, the English tenant at Dorincourt Castle, in which the child exercises his new authority to permit his future tenant to remain on the estate rent free, always elicits a round of applause. The children like to remember that Cedric learned his good manners in the very poor little New York apartment, and was not by way of forgetting or changing them in the grand English castle.
In the Forest Ring was presented to the children a lesson of kindness and humanity towards animals, woven through a story of unusual charm. Every child in the audience felt personally responsible to see that the three little cubs, which had been stolen by Hank the hunter, were returned to the mother bear, and the fact that the three little cubs were impersonated by various small brothers and sisters of the spectators, made it especially important that the cubs should go back alive!
There is wide variety of opinion among both players and audiences at the Children’s Educational Theatre as to which is the best play that has thus far been produced. I have listened to many serious discussions of this question, and the usual conclusion shows that Snow-White is the popular choice. I have asked several regular attendants of the theatre to explain this preference. One little girl voiced a universal sentiment. “I like Snow-White because the wicked queen is so cruel to Snow-White and tries so hard to kill her that I always have to cry.” “But,” I ventured, “that is sad, is n’t it?” “Yes,” said the child, “but the queen don’t kill her. Snow-white marries the Prince, so you get glad again in the end.” No problem plays which end unhappily would suit these audiences. They are willing “ to purify the emotions of pity and terror by a healthful exercise of them,” but they always desire the happy ending, “to get glad again” after the pity and terror. Other children like this play because, having read the fairy tale, they are alive with curiosity to see whether the stage queen and the ladies and gentlemen at court fulfill their mental pictures. At the queen’s first entrance in her gorgeous yellow gown, trailing from the shoulders a regal crimson velvet cloak, erminelined, a great thrill trembles through the audience and a prolonged ah-h-h of genuine satisfaction resounds. A different note of inflection in this ah-h-h, a sort of finished period of contentment, reverberates “ molto con amore ” when the handsome prince awakens Snow-White from her sleep of supposed death, and the two young lovers are happily united. Every one comes in for a share of applause at the fall of the curtain on this scene, because of the genuine gratitude to the seven dwarfs, who have been so practically instrumental in bringing about the satisfactory issue.
Many considerations entered into our choice of The Prince and the Pauper. It is a play of stirring action and employs many people. One hundred and thirty, including cast, scene-shifters, property men, electricians, musicians, dressingroom and make-up helpers, were at work for the initial production. Each matinee presents some change in personnel of cast, and so at least three hundred persons are concerned during the run of the play.
The scene of The Prince and the Pauper, laid in London about the middle of the sixteenth century, presents a realistic picture of Merrie England. Full advantage is taken of the opportunities for scenic effect and richness of costume. A daily matinee of this play would fill the house. The demand was insufficiently supplied by a single matinee a week, at which the crowds were enormous.
Interest in the play not only packs our auditorium, but crowds our office with children and young people copying the manuscript parts of Tom Canty, the Prince, and other roles. Individual study follows, helped sometimes by class or cast members. What industry, what effort of practice, gymnastics, and voice work is stimulated by the hope of possibly being able to present the parts at “class standard!” The privilege of playing but one performance is considered well worth all such work of preparation. The effort does not seem arduous, because love voluntarily elects to do it. At the termination of the first performance of The Prince and the Pauper, Mr. William Dean Howells, who accompanied Mr. Clemens to see the play, was asked how he had enjoyed it. He replied, “The play behind the footlights was admirably well done, yet I believe I enjoyed the play in front quite as well.” Indeed, a visit to the Children’s Theatre on a Sunday afternoon is a liberal education in the reality which the acted story presents to the child mind, and the stimulus of this reality upon the child’s sympathies and imagination.
The audience literally lives in the play, whose every scene is punctuated by involuntary exclamations of the auditors. Thus, when Mad Anthony has tied the little prince to a beam in the stable loft and plans to kill him, the hero, Miles Hendon, enters with the query, “Where is the boy ? ” A dozen voices in the audience shout, “There he is, mister, up there.” At this stage of the play every boy and girl in front has grown to love the valiant little prince and is consumed with desire to see him returned to his own. When, at the coronation scene, Tom Canty returns the regal garments and reassumes his scanty rags, that the righteous prince may be crowned king of England, a rousing thunder of applause approves the act; and when the newmade king rewards Miles Hendon, not a heart is unstirred at this swift tribute of gratitude to loyalty.
The box office counts meagre returns, but educationally we coin the very gold of young hearts into eternal profit.
The audience at the Children’s Theatre is under no control whatever, except such as may be self-imposed. Attention is doorkeeper to the mind. The child’s interest in what is going to happen keeps him from actively interfering with the play. When thunderous applause of the heroine or manifest disapproval of the villain becomes too prolonged, an emphatic hush-sh-sh vibrates through the audience, and the children bring themselves to quiet and decorum because they want to hear. The removal of hats is effected in the same way. It is true we print a request in our programme similar to that in other theatre programmes, but this is not half so effective as a dig in the ribs bestowed by the boy behind upon the one in front, accompanied by the admonition, “Say, take off yer cap. I can’t see.”
. When entr’acte music was first inaugurated, the musical director felt that he should be allowed to demand quiet between the acts, so that the carefully prepared selections might be heard. This repression, however, was not allowed, because it was felt that when the children desired to hear the music they would themselves demand quiet and listen. Often the Orchestra Class patiently plays through a hum and sometimes a clamor of inattention. Frequently it happens that the audience remains in perfect silence during the playing of even classical selections, and it very often demands the repetition of a favorite.
The crowd that fills the auditorium is not the entire audience. During a performance of Snow-White, a little girl was “drawn out ” in vain. The child’s passionate attention to the play never swerved. At the end of the performance she was asked to name the most interesting event on the stage. She replied, “All, but this is the first time I saw Snow-White and I have to listen much, ’cause my parents wall want me to act it for them hke I acted for them TheLittle Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I take off for them every part in the play.”
We believe not only in the value to each child of the three hours in our auditorium, because he is for that time, at least, afoot with his dreams, in contact of heart and mind with his ideals, but in the reactive influence of these three hours upon his life and ambition. We know that the youngster who, with his best girl beside him, has thrilled to an understanding of Ingomar’s splendid submission and equally splendid mastery, will judge love-making hereafter by new standards.
We are certain that the historic period of one of our plays becomes for our audience a piece of life as real, and perhaps more interesting than a slice of their daily environment. We know that we form and influence manners, customs, morals, and — oh, triumph indeed — fashion! I recall the production of The Little Princess, when thirty children were to be fitted out to attend Sara Crewe’s birthday party. All the little dresses for the scene were fashioned of fine white India lawn, well cut and carefully made, but finished simply, with a deep hemstitch suitable for easy laundering. When the time of dress rehearsal approached, many members of the group brought suggestions from mothers that children be allowed to wear their own best clothes, which, profusely trimmed with lace, must be grander for a party. The children were persuaded to ask their mothers to wait and see the simple dresses, with their pretty blue and pink and white hairbows and sashes. The result was extraordinary. The girls looked so dainty at performance, that before the end of the season the many hundred children who had interchangeably played the parts had asked the privilege of borrowing the costumes in order that parents might have their little girls’ photographs taken in these gowns. The results being in all cases satisfactory, the fashion of simple “best dresses ” for little girls came into vogue, while the much overtrimmed cheap lace party and confirmation dress grew to be regarded as unfashionable and therefore to be avoided.
Every child who has enjoyed the performance of Little Lord Fauntleroy time and again has made comment on the simple denim suit the lad wears when he is sharing his mother’s modest income in a small New York flat, and the expensive velvet suit in which he appears when he is enjoying the munificence of his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt s, fortune. The audience grows to understand and appreciate that the one is suitable to certain surroundings and station in life, the other to a widely different environment, and that in neither case do the clothes make any difference whatever in the boy. One charm of The Prince and the Pauper is that both prince and pauper are essentially unchanged by the transfer of garments. The nobility of the prince but shines the more glorious in the rags of his misfortune. The royal robes that mystify the people of the play, to the audience present only a fit garmenting of Tom’s royalty of heart. Clothes are recognized by our audience as an outward and visible sign of life and character, and thus only as significant.
Critics have suggested that the wearing of finely wrought garments and the assumption of elegant manner and carriage may lead the mind of the player into unsettling channels of desire. If to the audience clothes become an “outward and visible sign ” only, to the player this lesson is one that not only influences mind, imagination and ideals, but sunken shoulders are lifted, slouching gait corrected, sagging spine vitalized, in obedience to the law of suggestion set in operation by dramatic instinct. The garments of the queen are put on and off with the play; the grace and dignity acquired become part of our players’ personal equipment. The dainty care required for the satins of the court lady reacts in the care of our players’ own belongings. The very rags worn by our “vagabonds ” become justly significant, as rags and dirt perhaps have never been before, and the world is seen with new eyes by our player, to whom our stage has been more real for a little time than any other lesson of real life.
The Children’s Theatre distributes its tickets in the public schools, these tickets, exchangeable for ten cents at the box office for seats, being sent to a different school each week. For the first two years the price of a seat at the theatre was five cents, the decision to charge this sum being arrived at after deliberate consideration, and discussion with a little friend who was in exactly the position to know just what the poorer children could afford. She said, “A child can easy save a penny on Monday and one on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, mostly from chewing gum and candy, so by Sunday any boy and girl can have five cents.” But the theatre will accommodate only seven hundred, and those turned away at each performance far outnumbered those who could obtain entrance. Although the doors cannot be opened until half past one, the children begin to line up at eleven and even earlier, their pennies tightly clutched in their hands, always alive with the hope that this time they may perhaps be able to buy a seat. The lines of expectant children grew interminable, and seats were put on sale at the box-office each day after school hours. No diminution in the length of the Sunday line resulted. Our limit of one matinee a week forbade an effort to accommodate the crowds, and the alternative of diminishing them grimly pressed towards a raise in admission price. Again the little girl was consulted. She looked grave at the suggestion of ten-cent seats and her reply came slowly, “Well, ten cents is just twice as much as five cents.” A realization of all that answer implied was borne in upon the management; the inauguration of the ten-cent regime was carefully watched. The occasion was a matinee of LittleLord Fauntleroy, a play which had been running the entire previous season. The waiting crowd was larger than ever, drawn from precisely the same class of children. That day I asked several boys in the audience whether their parents were willing for them to pay ten cents. They answered “Sure! Yer have ter pay fifteen cents fer a standee over ter Miners, and here yer git a seat fer ten and a better show.” The latter part of the reply was of far more interest than the former, for although we doubtless offered a better seat than the Bowery managers, did we provide a better show according to the street urchin’s standard ? Evidently we did, because we continue to crowd the theatre week after week and to shut out more children each week than we can admit. Not one child has ever suspected our educational intent. The children come for amusement, and they get it. What they acquire by the way sinks deep into heart and mind — its quality we control, and its reactive effect is lasting, wholesome, upbuilding, for we have supplied an embodiment of the child’s imagination, and our triumph is that his ten cents buys our entrance into his heart and life while he spends it for a “show ” which he counts a good bargain.
The Children’s Educational Theatre is a constructive social enterprise that has developed to meet a pressing need of the lower East Side of New York, and has brought to view a need, the boundaries of which are not yet realized. It is an institution as abiding in its relation to adolescent humanity as church and school, since it has guided the manifestation of an elemental impulse to organized educational result.
Through eager pursuit of personal interest players and audience come into unforced relations wherein unconsciously they guide, reprove, punish, educate, and cultivate one another by varied incitements to activity, by cooperation, competition, and mutual restriction. Planned only to provide wholesomely for the amusement-seeking interest of the neighborhood children, it has disclosed itself an educational, moral, and civic force, not only for audience but for player. As such it is not merely a neighborhood but a communal need, and this need its further development wall doubtless meet, since its beginning and its growth are the guarantee of its future.