by Molli Vandehey – PDX mama and avid PDX Kids Calendar reader
First things first: I must admit that this is not my first visit to Play After Play, which probably makes me seem biased, but this second visit of ours was partially an experiment on my part. Although our first visit to Melanya Helen and Marc Otto’s creation was a success from a parental perspective, I was curious to see whether the seemingly simple “play” captivated their attention a second time. When we arrived (a few minutes late, even with very good directions and having been there before … I do recommend that you make sure to give yourself a little extra time for walking a block from the parking lot and locating the Bay), the makeshift studio looked exactly as it had our first time around: Folding chairs on simple risers, a wood floor with a few simple gym mats in the corner, and a small table that acts as both a ticket booth and concession stand.
My oldest child, at 9, had excellent recall of where we were, and quickly took her shoes off and found the soft cushion directly beneath the chairs, and found a comfortable position, and my two preschoolers, although confused, followed suit. As Marc and Melanya launched into their introductions, my younger daughter decided to explore every chair in the place while my son looked near snoozing, and I began to worry. But with no disapproving looks from the actors or other participants, I calmed down and let my kids be kids.
A moment later, Melanya led the audience in a “hand warm up” which resulted in “practice clapping,” and all the kids (including mine) were held at varying age-appropriate levels of attention and participation. Once Melanya showed the kids how they could dim the lights with their hands (thank you, attentive lighting staff for making my son feel magical!), everyone was hooked to the performance, which in and of itself was amazing. With no real “costumes” or “props” like those we generally see at a “play” (Both Marc and Melanya were wearing simple, dark-colored clothes, with fabric accents that matched those on a few sticks that were implemented throughout), the burden was on the actors to evoke everything from snakes to villagers, joy to fear to sadness.
As an adult, this is so eye-opening, to see a real-life demonstration to that which most of us intuitively know but find it hard to practice in an overstimulated world: The real “toys” for children are their own imaginations and the adults that stimulate said fancies. The audience consisted of children aged 2ish-5ish (plus my big girl), and all seemed to really understand not only the plot but the underlying emotions being conveyed. My 4-year-old son, who often gets lost in his own world, was laughing and gasping along with the rest of the kids (and their grownups). There was little fidgeting, and those who did wander onto the “Stage” were acknowledged, incorporated, and politely directed back to their seats by Melanya and Marc, without losing a beat of the performance.
When the lights finally went down at the end of the performance, I saw a series of emotions in the faces of the young audience: joy, at the spectacular ending; sadness with the realization that this means it is “over,” and relief that there was something more to come as the mats were unfolded and pushed together for some “play” after the “play” (hence the name of the production company, obviously). In my opinion, this is the truly genius part of this performance, the aspect that makes it SO parent-friendly.
Quite often, you go to a show or performance of any kind, and there are SO many rules about how still and quiet the kids must be, and when it is all over, your children have so much pent up energy they are ready to jump out of their skin, leaving the parent (you) with WAY more energy than a person over 10 can usually handle. Not a problem here at Play After Play. Oh, the energy is still there, but here, it is used in a physical yet constructive manner, as Melanya and Marc begin rolling across the mats, prompting the audience to “catch” them so they do not “fall” off the (2 inch) mat.
At this point my oldest, who really enjoyed the show both this time and last time, retreated to a chair with a puzzle book she had brought from home, as she is not so much into physical play. My younger two were enthralled, if not cautious, as the other kids began taking turns joining Melanya and Marc on the mat. Considering how shy my kids can be about being touched by strangers (usually a VERY good thing in the eyes of a protective parent), I assumed we would just be spectators for the rest of the show, as that’s what we had done the last time we came. Just as I began to craft a quick and polite “no thank you” to an approaching Melanya on behalf of my children, my son shocked me by crawling on to the mat and JUMPING on this woman he had been watching for less than an hour. As this mom fought back tears of happiness and shock (“How could my baby have grown this much in just 3 months?”, I asked my husband), my son not only took three turns on the mat, with both Melanya and Marc, but also stopped when his turn was over, and waited patiently until he could again, PEACEFULLY “wrestle” (as he later called it) with the adults. My youngest, though not compelled to directly take part, ran around the outskirts of the mat so quickly our camera phones could not capture the look of glee on her face.
I think what is most important to note here is that every level of participation (or lack thereof) is compassionately acknowledged by all, with no big fanfare or shame. This is a very accepting place for families and children.
As my husband noted to me in the car, “They do such a wonderful job of teaching compassionate touch in a way that doesn’t make parents uncomfortable,” a statement which made me think, as I am generally very protective of my kids and “touch” from people outside our immediate family, as are our kids. No one felt any tension about what was being taught or demonstrated, and even my 9 year old said it was wonderful, even though she choose not to participate in every aspect.
The only downside came when we left and my son was VERY upset, because he just wanted to stay. For how long? “For ALL the time”, he said. “We go back NOW!”
Soon, my dear. Very soon.
Molli and her family were given complimentary tickets to attend Play after Play’s performance of The Snake with Seven Heads on behalf of PDX Kids Calendar.