About 30 families recently went to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the first time. Just stepping into TPAC — soaring windows and balconies and full of dressed-up people — was almost excitement enough for sixth grader Blake Allen.
“I actually haven’t been out of the lobby, honestly,” he said. “I don’t know what to expect, because I’ve never actually been to a big musical before.”
And that’s coming from a gung-ho theater kid.
Blake has been singing and dancing in productions like “Peter Pan” at Creswell Middle Prep, his arts magnet school in North Nashville.
But seeing this live-action version of “Matilda,” is different, says his mom, Jamie Allen.
“We’ve been to musicals that Blake’s been in, but we’ve never actually been to a musical, because they are, you know, a little bit pricey,” she said. “And (I) haven’t been the biggest fan. But, you know, his school’s kind of changing that for me, with him doing it.”
With the help of the Economic Club of Nashville — which pays full price — families get free tickets and help paying for parking, a snack, and even daycare for younger siblings.
Last year, the club helped more than 600 family members attend cultural events at eight institutions, including the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Children’s Theatre.
The club's thinking is that if you want a child to truly enjoy the arts, it might help to get the entire family to a show together.
A Day Downtown For Families
As Blake Allen went off to explore the concession stand and the interconnected Tennessee State Museum, his classmates poured in — often greeted with hugs by theater teacher Elizabeth Lybarger.
“It is a big day. It is. And I see a lot of mine coming in now, so I’m ready to get tickets in hand,” she said, approaching a family. “Hi! How are you, sweet girl? So I’ve got your tickets right here. Are you so excited!?”
Lybarger chatted with a dad who helps build sets for school productions. She primed him and his son to get ready for elaborate lighting, and some special effects.
Knowing that some of her families have never seen live theater — or had the chance to interact with other Creswell families — Lybarger roamed the lobby to make sure families were getting the most out of this trip.
She hopes they’ll make cultural events routine.
“It’s a bonding agent,” Lybarger said. “You go and you have this live experience together and then that’s a memory. That’s something that you two have and you can talk about years later.”
She compared the family outing to a normal field trip, in which it's possible for a student to return home to find no one to talk with about the experience. The shared trip creates common ground for sharing emotions and conversation.
When an overhead voice prodded the crowd to take their seats, the Creswell group posed on the staircase for a group photo.
Then they went in to see “Matilda,” the story of a neglected girl who stands up to an evil school principal.
By the time the two-and-a-half hour show wrapped up, there were some signs of fatigue: parents carried kids to the elevator and dragged coats and water bottles.
Scenes Stick With Students
A week later, the kids were back in Lybarger’s drama class rehearsing for “Star Wars,” which was a blend of video production and live action on stage.
Blake Allen said his favorite “Matilda” scenes were still coming up in conversation.
“Sometimes when my teacher says, ‘Read kids,’ I’m like, ‘But why? The man in ‘Matilda’ said not so,’ ” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking in my mind.”
His show review is pretty sophisticated for a first-timer.
“Honestly, it was actually better than I would have expected,” he said, “because I think they rebooted it a bit.”
Blake says he also loved his balcony seat — and the giant pretzel that he got.