Children’s theatre: what’s it worth?

Western imports of children’s theatre have led to the perception that only expensive productions are worth watching, says I Theatre’s Caleb Lee

I was recently managing the box office at ACE!, a festival our children’s theatre runs in Singapore, when a parent asked, ‘Why are your shows cheaper compared to other international productions? Does it mean it’s not as good?’ These questions raise two very pressing concerns for me: how does one determine the price of tickets for children’s theatre, and how does that figure affect the perception of the quality of the production?

From a producer’s perspective, box office sales are usually the greatest concern as children’s theatre in Singapore receives very little funding (since it’s seen as less important compared to adult theatre) and often relies heavily on ticket sales to cover the cost of the productions.

The Elves and the Shoemaker (I Theatre 2011)
The Elves and the Shoemaker (I Theatre 2011)

But let’s be honest, children’s theatre can be lucrative if we want it be. Firstly, we know that most parents will not just purchase one ticket and leave their child at the theatre (though shockingly some do!). Most parents would make it a family day out, and this means targeting families is the right way to go. Secondly, schools buy tickets in bulk which ensures a healthy audience size; you either get them all or lose them all.

With the increasing focus on children’s theatre in Singapore, there have been more players jumping on this bandwagon. This also includes commercial companies who have shrewdly identified the gap in the market and have been importing and presenting international shows that are mostly based on famous children’s literature. The nature of such productions is purely commercial and ticket prices often range from SGD50-70 (€29-40), which is pretty steep if you bring a family of four.

Read: Theatre for young people that’s ahead of the game

On the other end of the spectrum, there are state-linked venues, which can afford to charge a nominal SGD10-15 per ticket for their productions as they are programmed in-house and are heavily supported.

Inevitably this puts local children’s theatre companies, like ours, which create original work in a difficult position. Here at I Theatre, we are caught between this price war and are constantly struggling to balance the artistic integrity and economic side of things. We can neither lower the costs of our tickets (as we will never be able to cover the costs of the productions), nor increase the prices (as these turn people away).

Little Red Hen (I Theatre 2013)
Little Red Hen (I Theatre 2013)

What’s worrying is that over time, this phenomenon sends the wrong signal to the community: international children’s theatre is superior to local theatre because it is more expensive. The difference in ticket prices cannot and should not be used as a gauge to determine the quality of a production.

This is made worse when children’s theatre is confused and sometimes grouped together with family entertainment such as Barney and Friends, Dora the Explorer and Disney on Ice. In turn, it perpetuates the mentality of ‘west is best’, a sentiment already prevalent in Singapore.

The big question here is: how much is children’s theatre worth to you? To producers and arts administrators, it is about checks and balances at the end of the day. So have we forgotten the benefits and values that accompany this unique art form? Perhaps we should stop to reflect and try to remember our first theatrical experience as a child. Noone forgets those. Only then will we start to realise that balancing dollars and sense is no child’s play.

Caleb Lee is Festival/International Projects Manager at I Theatre, and also lectures at LASALLE-College of the Arts. ACE! festival continues until 8 June.