With so much to battle in our world today, theatre is a proven way to create empathy in children's minds, and I appreciate everyone who wants to open their doors to families. Putting that desire into practice, however, is a lot more complicated than you may think.
I've been a theatre maker, marketer for family friendly programming, and in the course of that time I became a parent. Here are some simple - and some not so simple - ways to reach people with families and make it likely that they can actually consider attendance.
One note that will resonate throughout this article: parents need to stay flexible. Anything that sounds minor to a non-parent (speaking from experience) is enough to throw an entire day out of whack for a family: teething, missing a nap, diaper blowout, forgetting a 'lovey' or 'transition toy,' meltdowns. Most of our time from age two to puberty is preventing a meltdown of some sort.
Staying Flexible to a parent feels like Flaking Out to a theatre producer counting on you to fill those precious seats. I get that. I completely understand. I used to feel that way too, before I had my first. You could fulfill all of the ideas below and still have people flake on you. Trust me, they rather wouldn't and if you are considerate while hearing a dissertation on sleep regression in a toddler, then that same parent will be even more loyal the next time they try to attend your show.
Steps to Courting Families to Your Show:
1. Children under 2 are free if they're lap sitters
Nearly every other arts institution has this policy: museums, theme parks….theaters need to follow suit. I'm a potential audience member dying to bring my sons to art, but I hesitate or just close the browser if I have to pay for a child under 2. You never know how the kid will react or if they'll nap through it or if you just needed to stretch your budget to account for the larger diaper size she just grew into.
My point is, give a little to get parents in your door and they're loyal for life (at least through puberty). If I feel welcome in a restaurant with my family no matter how the little monsters/angels act, I return. All the time. Because I know the staff there welcome us.
Same with art.
2. Changing tables and supplies in bathroom.
You just need a flat surface, really. I had worked at 24th ST Theatre for two years with the specific intention of getting families through the door before I realized how important this is. You know what made me understand? My own experience of bringing my infant to a meeting and needing a place to change him. If you have a flat surface then you only need this $17 top and a few sheets. Some extra wipes and trash can nearby helps too. Also remember to add extra time at intermission to allow for changes. Extra credit if you offer a complimentary branded onesie or shorts for accidents - free advertising at the playground! And please don't patronize fathers; put it in the men's room too. Just ask any Dad how often they've changed a diaper on a nasty bathroom floor.
3. Childcare at matinees.
I'll go into more detail on this one, but if you want to retain audience after they're parents, realize how expensive a night out can be ($90-120 for dinner and a show, JUST for a sitter). Advertise the matinee date well in advance and be willing to lose money until the program gains word of mouth and momentum.
4. Off prime time start times
Consider your evening show start time to be 4pm. Bedtimes range between 6-10pm, and if there's an infant in the mix, evenings may be out completely. Be understanding when a parent says there's no way they can make it because that's naptime; if a child doesn't nap on time, the nicest Jekyll goes all Hyde in a heartbeat. You also want to consider if your target is church going, in which case a Sunday morning show is moot, but that's a whole other blog post.
5. Staff or volunteer on call to answer questions (and giving parents that knowledge)
I explain this in more detail here, but some parents are not typical theatre goers, and therefore do not know the ‘rules' or assume there are any. For instance, I almost lost a parent influencer and blogger because she thought you had to dress up to see theatre.* Send an email the day or two before the show, when all the pieces needed to make an outing go smoothly are being calculated, and tell them who will answer their questions as they have them. Don't assume the box office staff will have time to talk a lost mother down from the ledge (or off the freeway, or into a parking space).
4. Healthy snacks provided and advertised. Really, any snacks. Plus tea, coffee, beer, wine for the parents.
Have some fresh fruit ready and you'll be an angel.
5. Allow eating inside the theater.
This makes a huge difference. Best way to avoid a meltdown is sometimes the Cheerios being ready at a moment's notice. It takes about ten extra minutes to clean after each show. Most parents will clean up themselves so no one thinks their kids - or they - are slobs. You also must welcome breastfeeding. Babies eat milk, breastfed or formula, exclusively the first 5-6 months of life. And if a baby wants it, because they're hungry or need comfort, Parent provides.
6. Stroller parking.
Have a secure area in the lobby or offer valet “parking” backstage if you have room. Think a parent can just go without a stroller? Try to control both my infant and toddler on a walk back to the car sometime.
7. Open door policy during show.
Two words you never want to mess with: Potty training. If you tell people at the curtain speech how to exit, you can trust that no parent wants to be the one disturbing the show while their kid holds their crotch. We'll be discreet, I promise. And no one's experience of your show will be ruined. At least, not more ruined than if they smell pee running down the aisle because I didn't know if I could or where I should exit.
8. Clear expectations.
This comes once again to communicating with your audience ahead of time and often. Tell them if it's interactive and they talk back. Explain the difference between TV and theatre (quickly) if it isn't. Frame it as respect, not being bad if you talk out. (This goes for adults, too, but that is, again, another post). And by Dionysus, do not shame anyone whose kid speaks out. That means they got excited, they were involved, they were excited by your show. If you don't want to risk that energy or consider it an interruption of the art, then your show isn't for kids.
Let me know any questions you may have on this subject, and please share your own experiences. I'm sure I missed some things. And I know many small theaters don't have the luxury of lobby or bathroom space, but a little accommodation for families goes a long way towards creating loyalty for years.
*If you are someone who still believes that you must dress up to attend theatre, well, we have much more to discuss.