More than a century before there were video games, there were toy theaters -- small stages made from paper where children and adults could act out plays of their own invention, or dramas based on existing plays that were published especially for these household performances. These miniature, model theaters came complete with stage curtains, sets, and actors which could be snipped from large sheets of paper, like cut-outs or paper dolls, and assembled to create child's own productions.
Toy theaters began as souvenirs of actual, full-sized plays, echoing the costumes and setting, and sometimes the real features of the theaters where the plays were originally performed. The children lucky enough to have one of these theaters could repeat the play, over and over again, like a form of 19th century video game, adding levels of complexity and variation as they went. And when they grew bored with the pre-packaged play, they could make up their own. We know that Charles Dodgson, who would later take the pen name, Lewis Carroll, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many other writers acted out some of their earliest stories for their families and friends with toy theaters. The popularity of toy theaters is easy to see: they offered children a special, empowering space for imaginative play. Here they could work together or alone to create stories, which they could amplify with sets and designs of their own construction. In the process of staging these performances, toy theaters also allowed children to deeply explore different avenues and possibilities of play. Toy theaters occupy an interesting intersection in the evolution of print-based toys into their 20th century, digital progeny. Pop-up, cut-out, and lift-the-flap books were all popular in the late 19th century, but toy theaters took the idea of interactive toys many steps further. They expanded on the play that was possible with individual toys, and they further allowed for the creation of a place new and continuing narrative possibilities. Some toy theaters even included lighting and music effects so that they could be played with by a group of children or adults. Different group members could provide the dialogue for the various characters, and the performers could also play music to accompany particular scenes. Toy theater shops even sold red and blue flash powder so that the dramatic climaxes of the plays could be enhanced with special effects.
Some modern artists, like Edward Gorey, have kept the toy theater form alive. As a souvenir of the Broadway production of Dracula that he did the sets and costumes for, Gorey published Dracula: A Toy Theater that includes fold-ups and foldouts based on these designs. Most recently, video games provide the newest extension of the interactive engagement to be found in toy theaters. We tend to think of video games as thoroughly contemporary phenomeon, but in fact they grow out of a long tradition of toys and games that includes toy theaters. While toy theaters are hard to find outside of special collections in libraries and museums these days, video games are everywhere. And in some cases, they allow children to play on the same imaginative intensity that toy theaters once did. Who knows, maybe a child playing the video game, "Sid Meier's Pirates," may be getting ready to compose the next Treasure Island.
Copyright 2004 © Laurie Taylor
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