Hi, parents and other conscientious grown-ups!
Before seeing The House’s production of The Nutcracker with young children, it’s a great idea to get a sense of content.
Is it scary? Is it sad? How young is too young?
As one of the playwrights of the show, I want everyone to see it and enjoy it. As a father and preschool teacher, I want you to do what’s right for your kids. And, of course, every child is different. We’ve had three and four year olds come with their families and have the time of their lives, laughing in delight at the silly toys and their shenanigans, shouting in defiance at the mean rats who are trying to ruin Christmas, and following right along with the deeper themes of the show without any trouble at all. Some of my four year old students who saw the show last Christmas played pretend as spooky rats well past Valentine’s Day. We’ve also had sensitive (and I don’t use that term disparagingly) six year olds who needed to leave the theater at the scarier moments. In many cases, they’ve still raved about the show and wanted to hug all of the actors at the end. Only a couple of parents have reported bad dreams and sleepless nights, but it has happened and it breaks my heart. And so I want to help you make the best choice for your family.
Things to know:
- The play begins with the implied (and offstage) death of Clara’s older brother, Fritz. He returns in the form of a magical nutcracker (a gift presented by Uncle Drosselmeyer) to help save Christmas from villainous, British-accented rats. The goofy adventure that unfolds is spurred by the grief of losing a loved one, and the rest of the family’s journey towards healing.
- Clara’s toys come to life and are hilarious and loveable - It is a holiday show, after all! They include a robot, a monkey, and a baby doll. The final scene before intermission takes the characters to the backyard where there is a ton of confetti snow. Children flip out over getting to play with the snow during intermission while stage management cleans it up. We encourage this. It’s one of the best things ever.
- The Rat King is the much alluded to scary villain of the play and is the “big bad” the heroes must defeat. He is portrayed by a giant five-headed puppet with red glowing eyes that surrounds the space, accompanied by dark lighting and a loud, scary voice-over (also British). He threatens and tries to eat our heroes. It is meant to be scary. We meet him once, near the end. It is the most intense sequence in the play, when all hope seems lost and our heroes are in the most danger. It is the climactic face-off the play’s action is building towards.
- The heroes win!
- Seating is general admission with plenty of aisle seats to choose from should you want to give yourself a quick escape route.
- We try to open house at about half hour before curtain. Feel free to arrive early to have first dibs on seats.
- The show is about two hours long with an intermission halfway through.
Nothing I’ve mentioned so far is really much of a spoiler, and matter-of-factly taking the suspense out of the story is a good way to relieve some anticipatory anxiety. I don’t recommend laying it on too thick though, or giving multiple warnings with a concerned look on your face… you may end up causing more suspense than the play does. I suggest something along the lines of, “I heard that at the end there’s a really big scary puppet, and if you need me you can sit in my lap, but I don’t think we’ll be too scared.” The actors are also good about checking in with little ones at intermission for high fives and to let them know that they’re going to need their help to be brave in the second act, which is nice for everyone.
If you and your kids need to take a small break for bravery (or for bladders), feel free to sneak out for a minute. Sitting a few rows back from the stage can also be a good emotional buffer for younger kids. In any case, don’t let your young kids sit by themselves. They may need to borrow your lap, and there’s enough grown up stuff going on that they may need to ask you a question or two. Last year, I sat in the front row with a six year old family member, and when we finally met the Rat King, he held onto my arm as tightly as he could (which I loved) and asked in a rather loud and urgent whisper, “Why did you write this part?!” (which concerned me). In the end, the heroes won, the monsters were vanquished, the Nutcracker was laid to rest, and Clara was reunited with her parents. And my six year old relative said it was “awesome!” And even though he closed his eyes (mostly) during the Rat King sequence, when the play was over he declared, “That was so scary!” with the giddy pleasure and pride of someone who had just braved an excellent roller coaster. He also wanted to take a look at those puppets after the show, just to reassure himself that they weren’t real. This is welcome. Some informed families have asked to see them before the show starts, and any actor or crew member at The House will be happy to help you do just that. Letting them see that the Rat King is actually just paper maché and bicycle lights can go a long way to helping them remember that it’s all pretend.
If your kids already enjoy a delightful fright, if they talk about ghosts and mummies at Halloween and like playing games with monsters and scary bad guys, if lying on the floor and pretending to be dead (for a minute) is occasionally an element of their pretend games, then I predict they’ll be just fine. Better than fine; I predict they’ll have a total blast! But if being chased by the tickle monster upsets them and the idea of death causes them significant concern and anxiety (a normal developmental stage that can come at a variety of ages), then now might not be the right time for this show. Based on our experience over the past couple of years, I would feel safe recommending this show for most kids five and up, and for some kids who are still three and four. But you know your kids, and if you have more specific questions, we’ll be happy to answer them.
One of the reasons for playing pretend, one of the reasons for going to the theater, is to practice the things we are afraid of. Casting our lots alongside imaginary heroes is a great way to practice our own heroism. Going along for the ride as a young girl faces monsters, and as her family faces grief, may cause moments of real fear in us. But the courage we gain by going on the journey is also real. And when we can’t quite muster it on our own, the courage lent to us by sitting on our parents’ laps and hiding our eyes behind their sleeves, or even by sharing a cookie in the lobby though the play is still happening… that’s real, too.
Wishing Happy Holidays and love to your whole family,
Co-Writer, The Nutcracker
The House Theatre of Chicago
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 773-769-3832