Stage Fright: My Child’s First Time at the Theater

A couple of months ago we took JJ to his first live theater experience, and something odd happened. A friend who works at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC suggested we check out a kids’ holiday show being produced by Arts on the Horizon, part of Atlas’ Theatre for the Very Young season. While JJ had gotten through his first full movie theater showing, we’d yet to expose him to any live theater. The Washington area has a wealth of options for kid-friendly programming, we just weren’t sure our little ball of energy was ready for them. Or they for him.

But the show was called Drumming With Dishes: Holiday Edition, so it sounded like it would be nice and loud and chaotic. Great to mask the likely din created by a crowd of rowdy preschoolers, but requiring earplugs and Advil for us weary parents.

The day arrived, JJ seemingly excited for this new adventure. Our drive was a good 40 minutes. We parked across the street from the theater and JJ and I went on ahead while Papa paid for parking. Yet as we started to cross, my usually outgoing son started stalling. He said he didn’t want to go, that he in fact wanted to go home. What-the-huh?

We stopped on the sidewalk a block away and I asked why. “I just not want to go!” was his pouty reply. I tried walking with him a few more steps and his fear and resistance only increased. I’m not sure if he was scared of the unknown experience or unfamiliar neighborhood, or if the planets were misaligned just so. Whatever the cause, I was determined to find a way to make this happen.

Papa caught up and I explained the situation. He and JJ stayed outside while I went in to scope things out. I made my way through the lobby, weaving through groups of kids, parents, babies and grandparents. As I picked up our tickets, I overheard an employee say they’d be leading everyone to a play area before the show began. Good thinking — they’d done this before.

I went back out and the three of us forged back in. As we got inside the door, I explained we were going to a playroom. No response. As we walked down the hall, following a herd of other families, we stopped so he could bang on a timpani drum. Meh. As we got near to the playroom, I saw a door open to where our performance would be. I asked the attendant if we could peek inside. We took a quick look into the black box theater, but I could tell my little ‘fraidy tot wasn’t interested.

The playroom was a neighboring black box, with rows of seats against the back wall and a collection of toys and baskets of books in a corner. We sat down in the front row of chairs, I got some books for JJ, then went to the bathroom. When I returned, Papa and JJ were on the back row of chairs, looking through a book, while all of the other kids ran around. This was going to be interesting, I thought.

A first-time theater-goer timidly watches from afar.

Not much later, it was showtime. The theater had a large mat set out with rainbow-shaped rows for the kids to sit on. Most of them were filled, so we sat along the back wall, JJ on my lap so he could see. He was still pretty tentative, although becoming more and more curious.


The performance started with a whisper (not a bang) as one of the actors crawled on stage, portraying a little girl exploring her kitchen, engaging the audience as she quietly played with various utensils and cardboard food boxes. A second girl entered from a secret panel in the cupboard, and a guitarist sat on the side providing the sweet, and mostly subtle, soundtrack. Without a single word of dialog, the simple story unfolded, and JJ began to be drawn in. After a few minutes, he said he wanted to go sit with the other kids. He and Papa found a seat near the front and settled in for the rest of the show.

Contrary to its name, Drumming With Dishes was surprisingly mellow, with the few moments of loud percussion building and subsiding rather quickly. Action on the floor-level stage was interspersed with interactivity with the audience. Other than the occasional toddler outburst, the kids remained enraptured and attentive.


As the show ended, the crowd milled about and I gathered our coats to join my boys and head to lunch. I turned around with our belongings and JJ had walked up to the guitarist and was asking to strum it, which the musician gladly obliged.

After the show!

We made our way out of the theater, all of JJ’s fears completely forgotten. Lunch was next door at an Irish/Jewish pub (Seriously. And seriously good). We sat at a corner table, ordered, and as were waiting, I asked JJ what he thought of the show. He hopped out of his chair and with much enthusiasm, began reenacting several scenes, much to the delight of our waitress and the diners at the next table.

JJ reenacts scenes from the show while we wait for lunch.


I’ll never understand what was going through JJ’s mind when he initially became fearful and demanded to leave. But I applaud the Atlas and their performers for helping to make his first theater experience not only entertaining, but transformative.

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If you’ve never been to the Atlas (or even if you have), there are a slew of excellent family-friendly programs happening soon as part of Atlas’ Intersections Festival!

A few highlights to consider:

Mutts Gone Nuts Sat, Feb 22, 1:30pm
A circus comedy act meets a hilarious canine thrill show! This crowd-pleasing performance will benefit two causes — the Atlas’ family programs and DC Animal Rescue. Come and enjoy free family activities with DC Actors for Animals, Metro Mutts and Atlas Vets in the lobby before the show. Ages 2+

Under the Canopy Fri, Feb 28; Sat & Sun, Mar 1 & 2; Fri & Sat, Mar 7 & 8 (various times)
A theatrical experience designed especially for babies and young toddlers, inspired by the wonders of the rainforest! Using colorful objects, puppets and playful sounds, the performers discover and build a rainforest setting around, within, and above the audience. After each performance, children are invited to explore the props and environment. Presented by the nationally-acclaimed young children’s theatre, Arts on the Horizon. For ages 0-2 (but also fun for siblings & friends up to 4)

Every Week of Winter Sat & Sun, Mar 1 & 2, 1:30pm
Winona Waxwing longs for the return of spring and of her dear friend Westerfield, a bird who has flown south for the winter. How will she stay happy while longing for winter to be over? Children and adults will delight in the playful adventures of the resourceful Winona. The play invites the audience into the action! Ages 5+

For a full listing of kid-friendly performances, visit the Intersections site, Special Events, and look under “Family Saturday” for all three weekends.

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And if you’re in the mood for something a little more adult, come see me and a dozen of my friends from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, in a cabaret-storytelling event entitled, My First Time. Fri, Feb 21, 7:30pm; Sat, Mar 8, 9:30pm

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[Disclaimer: I received complimentary tickets to our show in exchange for this post. Regardless, I only recommend products, services or events I use or experience personally, and believe will be good for my readers. All opinions are mine and/or JJ’s.]

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