My parents would occasionally invite their grown children and grandchildren to visit for long weekends, to be sure that we saw one another between holidays. The first time they did this, it rained all weekend. It wasn't easy keeping the kids busy, but the effort paid off, because that's the weekend we invented "family theater."
It happened by accident.
I had called the kids into another room so I could tell them stories while the grown-ups got a chance to talk.
I began to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and I mentioned that her dress was red. My two nieces, both 5 years old, joined forces against me. One of them objected: "No, her dress is blue, with polka dots. I know, because I have the real one – on video!"
Her cousin nodded in support. My nephew, 10 years old, said nothing.
But I was aghast. Since when was a video the authority on an old story? And why wasn't a live storyteller allowed to change the details? Most of all,I wonderedwhy were these children so inflexible?
I imagined a conspiracy so large that it took all the old stories, concentrated them in the hands of a few impersonal storytellers, and turned children into mere consumers. I was filled with an urgent need to get the stories back into the hands of these kids.
"Well, anyone can tell a story," I said. "We could even put on our own play, right here."
They asked what I meant.
"We could act it out," I said. "We'll gather the props – all the things they use in the story – and we'll each be a character. Then after we practice, we'll put on our play for the grown-ups."
To my delight, they immediately forgot all about "the video" and started planning their own version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
First we gathered a basket for Goldilocks to carry, a scarf for her to wear, and bowls and spoons in three different sizes. Then we cleared off the coffee table and pushed a few armchairs aside. Their cushions became the bears' beds.
Fortunately, the girls were content to have the blond cousin be Goldilocks. The other girl played Baby Bear, I played Mama Bear, and my nephew played Papa Bear (under duress after I put some friendly pressure on him).
The presentation was a smashing success. We didn't worry about memorizing lines because I did double duty as the narrator, and the actors followed my prompts as I told the story. They were able to improvise most of their lines, but if they forgot, I supplied lines for the kids to echo.
Most important, we all got to take a bow at the end of the show, to much applause.
It was the first of many plays we put on to pass the time at family gatherings. Major holidays brought extended family – and more actors – so our plays became more elaborate (and funnier, with all the mistakes).
Our pattern remained the same: Choose a fairy tale that everyone knew and then agree on its basic structure. Sometimes we would refer to a storybook to resolve disputes.
The next step was to gather props and costumes. After one quick rehearsal, we were ready for the spotlight – and our inevitable applause.
Now that the kids are older, they consider themselves too cool for family theater. The last time I mentioned putting on a play, they rolled their eyes at me and went back to their conversation about music that I don't understand.
But there's a new set of toddlers coming up in the extended family. I'll just wait a few years until they're ready for plays.
Until then, I console myself that I attained my original goal – our family theater put old stories back into the hands of the kids.