I want you to know that I tried.
When schools closed in March, I decided that I would use this time — which is to say time not already spent working, cooking, home-schooling or sitting on the closet step I had taken to calling Mommy’s Special Crying Place — to make my vices a family thing. I would force my children to love theater, or at least movie musicals.
It is creepy and selfish to want our children to love the things that we love — they deserve the freedom to develop their own tastes. If those tastes are terrible, well, that’s childhood for you. How else to explain the popularity of Pixy Stix and “Paw Patrol”? But with a hubris born of too many progressive Brooklyn baby groups, I thought I could somehow transfuse my enthusiasms. So I solicited movie recommendations from colleagues, researched online catalogs, paid attention to new archival offerings. And wow did I fail.
My children, 4 and almost 7 and apparently ruined by too many Nick Jr. cartoons, bailed 25 minutes into “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” 20 minutes into “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” 15 minutes into “Shrek the Musical.” We did make it almost all the way through “The Sound of Music,” skipping out just before the Nazis, but they still won’t let me play “Mary Poppins.”
I sampled weirder stuff, too, like a story theater adaptation of a Herman Hesse tale and a Leo Lionni play. No sale. So I quit, resigning myself to a world in which the children and I may never be able to debate the merits of the various cast recordings of “Chess.” And then, in July, I received several news releases announcing immersive theater for children.
Most live children’s theater has a participatory element, often just clapping or stamping or trying to make more noise than the people in the balcony. But it’s enough to make you — even a you so small that she needs a booster seat to see — feel that the play couldn’t happen in just the same way without you.
That bit gets lost in archived performance, so I couldn’t entirely blame the shorter members of my household for abandoning an Anansi the Spider myth in favor of Disney+ cartoons. But these immersive works, conducted by telephone, email and Zoom, promised to include them in the show, demanding their involvement and attention.
First up was “Mundane Mysteries Playdate,” a kiddie version of an improvised telephone play I had enjoyed back in April. The all-audio project promised to connect distanced kids and send them on an adventure. To join us, we picked a friend of my daughter’s who had left New York for Vermont and on a Monday morning, via conference call and tinny cellphone speakers, we found ourselves all speaking to Inspector Doyle, who quickly deputized the children as junior inspectors and taught them a simple secret code.
In five silly, sweet-natured phone calls over five days, the three children unraveled a mystery involving pizza, buried treasure, an underground maze and multiple unicorns. Is this pandering? Absolutely! I have children who love being pandered to.
That same week, we also began “Madame Kalamazoo’s Magical Mail,” a text-based project from England’s National Theater. (You’re supposed to be a U.K. resident in order to participate, but I searched online for a London post code and made it in.) For 19 days, adult participants receive a personalized email to be read aloud to any resident children. Each email includes a story in which those children have adventures with Madame Kalamazoo, described in the tales as a lady with miraculous hair and a thing for wide-legged trousers.
The stories deal, gently, with the boredom and isolation that many children now feel, attempting to foster resilience and excite the imagination. Many conclude with a suggestion for an at-home activity, like drawing a picture or making a list. Work can be shared via a vetted platform called the Whale Pod (Madame has whales in her hair — long story) and further emails contain links to artwork from unknown friends.
The Britishisms haven’t fazed my children (they have watched so much “Peppa Pig” it has legitimately affected their speech patterns), though the tales have sometimes proved too dreamy and elliptical for my small literalists. Still, the thrill of receiving email, especially email that mentions you by name, has kept them listening.
The next week, during a brief holiday in a rental cabin, we watched “Alice: A Virtual Theme Park,” an ingenious, overstimulated show from Creation Theater and Big Telly Theater Company, in partnership with charisma.ai. I had seen their version of “The Tempest,” one of the first pandemic shows to really explore and enjoy the possibilities of Zoom. This new effort, an interactive adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” has more ambition, but less of the bare-bones let’s-put-on-a-show exuberance that made “The Tempest” such fun.
After an introduction, audience members — or their parents — can navigate from one Zoom room to another, interacting with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Red Queen. (Their monologues are mostly Carroll-derived, with a few contemporary asides.) You can also, briefly, play a croquet-related game on your phone.
But these technological possibilities seemed to distract from what little story “Wonderland” has. I had to use blue raspberry gummies to lure confused children (“What’s Brexit?”) back to the sofa. Then again, this was on the morning of a glorious day when a trip to a lake had been promised and even the maddest of tea parties couldn’t compete. Also the queen ordered our heads chopped off.
Besides, just a few days earlier they had seen the absolutely enchanting “The Wizards of Oakwood Drive,” Tom Salamon’s shaggy dog of an online show, courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls festival. After parents enjoy a lengthy Zoom tutorial, children watch as two rivalrous siblings — at our performance, Jonathan Randell and Edred Utomi — show off their spell casting.
Their pop culture-addled spells — “David Beckham, Mandy Moore/Send it just outside the door” — propel children to discover magical items (heavy on the balloons and candy, more pandering) hidden in and around their homes. The 4-year-old had spent most of that morning either throwing up or lying prostrate on the sofa, but he insisted on racing around, too. The children still don’t know how it was done, but here’s a hint: Their father stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before and went through most of a roll of sticky tape. The one downside: Disappointment in any future event that fails to include conjured sweets.
These different shows all insist, with sass and compassion, that enchantment is possible even indoors, that absent friends are nearer than you think, that a lockdown is no bar to adventure. Which is a really nice reminder of what theater can do, even remotely. Now if only someone can put those wizards to work on something for the grown-ups — reliable testing and contact tracing, say. Or failing that, more candy.
Mundane Mysteries Playdate
Through Aug. 24; mundanemysteries.com.
Alice: A Virtual Theme Park
Through Aug. 30; creationtheatre.co.uk.
The Wizards of Oakwood Drive
Through Aug. 30; lajollaplayhouse.org.
Madame Kalamazoo’s Magical Mail