Isaac Mizrahi On The Joys Of Making Theatre For The “Most Fantastically Smart” Audiences... Kids!
The famed designer and creator also has some profound advice for parents.
As I sat in the well-padded chairs of the auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan last month, enjoying the sight of multiple musicians warming up and an enormous tree holding court stage left, I noticed the theater-goer to my right express a tinge of impatience. “When the beginning?” she demanded. “Five minutes,” replied her companion. “Fih minuhs,” my row-mate echoed, and waved her program gently. I noted her excellent outfit: navy blue velvet dress, pink organza headband, sparkly silver Mary Janes, and, of course, the au courant accessory, a large water bottle with a sippy spout.
Exactly one minute (apparently) later, she repeated her question. “Four minutes,” came the patient reply. “FOUR MINUHS,” came the echo.
And so it went, as the minutes ticked down, and the auditorium settled in. An audience member house left stood up, hoisting her date on her hip, and waved to a cello player, who cheerfully waved her bow back. Ahead to my right, a small chap nestled into a man’s lap, and as this small chap gazed about the auditorium quietly, two fingers comfortably stuck in his mouth, I wondered if he’d be awake when the action started.
At last, there were no more minutes left. The house lights dimmed, the musicians lifted their instruments, and the stage came aglow.
“I have to say, I feel like an audience of children is the most fantastically smart, receptive audience that you could possibly play to,” the show’s director Isaac Mizrahi had told me earlier in the month. And now, amid so many enthusiastic, pint-sized theater-goers, I could see what he meant.
“Prokofiev wrote Peter and The Wolf to educate, to tell kids what instruments are, what instruments in an ensemble are, and what they can and might represent, either onomatopoetically or just when you endow them with a certain kind of a sound or a certain kind of a meaning,” explains Mizrahi. And that’s the template he and his collaborators (composer Nico Muhly and choreographer John Heginbotham) used as inspiration for Third Bird, which takes place in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, where above the Manhattan skyline, a man in a white shirt perches and calmly surveys the unfolding store: he is the moon.
Watching Third Bird, it’s easy to see that Mizrahi means what he says about an audience of children. With costumes by, of course, Mizrahi himself, the production’s pallet is muted yet magical — never once is a garish nor patronizing note struck. Mizrahi returns to his role as narrator, charming and wry, never pandering. (He introduces an ornithologist as just that, no friendly wink or broad explanation needed.)
“Children come to the show with no preconceived notions [and] I in return kind of approach the show, approach the audience, as though I don’t have any preconceived notions about them. I don’t dumb things down.”
But perhaps more delightful even than watching Third Bird is watching the audience watch Third Bird. My row-mate, having risen to her knees once the music started, eventually climbed onto her mother’s knees, the better to take it all in. “UH OH!” yelled a little voice from behind me as The Cat, danced by a sensuous young man, slowly crept up on her would-be meal, the bird. And the little chap on his father’s lap, the toddler whom I was sure would be conked-out or fussing tiredly, did not for one second take his glowing eyes off the stage.
Below, I chatted with Mizrahi about making art for children, the brilliant sophistication of Bugs Bunny, and his profoundly helpful advice for parents.
April Daniels Hussar: What’s most exciting or appealing to you about creating and performing for children?
Isaac Mizrahi: It kind of neutralizes an environment — it doesn’t feel like you are communicating with adults who have different political perspectives and different beliefs and different religious beliefs. It’s a kind of more direct and simple communication: what you’re trying to tell them and what they tell you back. It’s a very simple and pure thing, and to me it’s extremely sophisticated in that regard.
Also, I don’t know why, but I don’t have stage fright when I appear in front of kids. I have such incredible stage fright when I appear in front of adults. But for some reason I don’t with kids. And what I love about the experience of doing these shows at the Guggenheim, both Peter and the Wolf and Third Bird, is that it informs me how to work with adults. It’s great information.
“I would love to get a 7-year-old critic to write an article about it.”
ADH: That’s so interesting that you don’t get stage fright!
IM: I don’t know what that’s about. I think I know that they’re not there to... First of all, they have no idea who I am. And second of all, they have no preconceived notions of what the show is going to be about. And third of all, they’re usually there with a rapt kind of attention. They’re really watching. And even if they call out or cry or whatever, that’s a very, very pure kind of a response. It’s not like someone sitting in the audience calculating how many things they hate about a show. It’s just someone actually just responding to what’s in front of them. It’s a very, very — to me — sophisticated, pure kind of thing.
ADH: In your memoir, you talk about how, in your childhood, your mother spoke to you and to your friends as if they were fellow adults. I’m wondering if that informs how you think about creating art for children?
IM: That is very, very true about my mother and why my friends all adored her, because she never spoke down to them. When I said that children come to the show with no preconceived notions, I in return kind of approach the show, approach the audience, as though I don’t have any preconceived notions about them. I don’t dumb things down. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny, which was extremely, extremely sophisticated and gorgeous and sort of slightly transgressive. It was great. I feel as though as an adult, I could watch Bugs Bunny now and get so much out of those incredible shows. And so that’s what I set out to do. I set out to make a version of something extremely smart, a Bugs Bunny-ish kind of version.
ADH: Those shows were incredible.
IM: Also, I think the most fascinating, smart shows are “poor” in production. I tend to suspect and not like shows that are extremely, extremely produced and where you have cutting, cutting, cutting-edge technology, and costumes that are molded out of plastic, and costumes that are striving to mask the human body, or scenery that is just so, so, so all kind of sophisticated. I tend to not trust those shows. I tend to see those as a lot of effect and very little context.
I want for kids to be able to dissect and bisect and take something apart themselves, you know what I mean? [In Third Bird], you have a duck, and she’s basically a woman. She’s a woman, but she’s wearing striped tights and she’s wearing those funny flipper feet and a pair of glasses that have a nose attached. It has a real kind of “use your imagination” for kids watching. That’s very important to me. And I can’t believe it’s not more important to other smart people who make things for young people. But of course, everybody’s so concerned with getting money and getting people in the door and all that, so it’s like when you see any live shows for kids, it’s all so produced and so overproduced!
ADH: Similarly, a lot of contemporary children’s literature is quite didactic and really beats you over the head with, say, lessons about feminism, or other topics. It’s so grim. Where’s the story?
IM: It is grim, and it’s kind of this very, very, very shallow idea of what we think is relevant, and it’s a little cringey. It’s like, oh, please, we know you’re trying to teach kids about feminism. We know you’re trying to teach kids about racism, but there are so many better ways to do it than the literal way. In the world of Peter and the Wolf and the world of Third Bird, it’s very integrated. [Lessons] are integrated, and that’s what I feel like people notice more than being hit in the head with concepts.
ADH: How was the response to Third Bird’s first run, in June of 2022? The Times review was mixed, but what did the kids in the audience think?
IM: They loved it. They were rapt! There’s this one part of the show where one of the main characters sort of rubs his hands together. And you could see the kids in the audience kind of doing that, and it was so just incredible. And they were rapt and laughing and just adoring. Of course, everybody stood up at the end of all three shows. And so I just adore it. I’m very pleased with the reaction from the audiences. I would love to get a 7-year-old critic to write an article about it.
ADH: Shifting gears just a little bit, in the beginning of your memoir, you paint a scene that is so compelling and evocative – you are a little boy who desperately wants a Barbie, and your mom really resisted buying it for you. And throughout the book, you talk about how you felt like your parents — in many different ways — were trying to protect you, from your specific community, from the cruelties of the larger world. There are still parents who are worried about the same thing, today. I’m wondering what you would say to someone who’s like, “Well, it’s not that I don’t want my 5-year-old son to go to school with a My Little Pony backpack, but I’m worried about how the world will treat him.”
IM: I mean, I am not a parent. I made the conscientious decision to not have kids. But I have to say, it’s going back to that first thing that we spoke about where you actually look at them, not necessarily as “children who are underage” or something like that. I feel like… listen, is all. Listen to them, and listen to yourself.
Did you see the movie May December? You know that scene where Julianne Moore’s character says to her daughter, “Well, you’re so brave to show your arms. At your age, I couldn’t do that.” It’s like, you hear her but she doesn’t hear herself.
ADH: Yes! You just know you are watching a young girl develop a complex she will have for the rest of her life.
IM: And the thing is that person, that character, I think she thinks that she’s doing her daughter a favor. She really thinks she’s protecting her. And in my life, my mother really felt that she was protecting me by telling me, “Darling, you’re way too fat for those pants. You can’t wear that. You shouldn’t wear it. You’re just too fat.” And in some ways, she was. It’s a really, really delicate, delicate balance about raising kids and what you say to them. I don’t know. It’s a person by person, relationship by relationship, parent-kid by parent-kid situation. I don’t think you can say there’s one really good thing to do. I will say listening is a very, very good thing. Listening down to the most bare basics, just listening to the exact four words the kid just said. Listening to all the sub context, listening to the sub, sub context, listening to what they didn’t say, the negative space. It’s like, you really do have to listen, I think, a lot.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.