What: The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus: Greek Drama under the Stars
Who: All ages
Where: Peloponnese, Greece
Whereas many ancient sites were pillaged for building blocks, the Theatre of Epidaurus is just far enough off the beaten track that it was left more or less alone -- it's the best-preserved of all ancient Greek theaters, where simply robed actors first brought heroic dramas to life. Even when it was new, it was known for its miraculous acoustics: Though it is an open-air amphitheater that seats 14,000, a whisper can be heard all the way from the stage to the top rows of seats. Every ham in the family will want to run down and give it a try.
The theater is only the most famous part of the Sanctuary of Asklepios, an important healing center attached to a cult worshipping Asklepios, the healer god and son of Apollo. Along with lodgings for patients and other guests, it had bathhouses, a gymnasium, and several temples and shrines; little is left but foundation stones, which you can walk around, imagining the bustling site in its prime. As the Sanctuary grew in wealth and fame it added attractions such as a stadium, where games were held every 4 years (much like Olympia ), and poetry and music performances. In the 4th century the celebrated architect Polykeitos was hired to design a full-scale theater, and what a triumph it was. The audience area, or theaton (meaning "seeing place"), originally had 34 rows of seats; 21 upper rows were added in the 2nd century BC., under the Romans. The stage area -- the "orchestra" -- is a full circle, which is rare (the Romans changed most theaters' orchestras to the semicircle they preferred). The low building behind it, the skene, was where actors kept costume changes and props; its roof was sometimes used as a second stage level. Nowadays the skene has tumbled down, revealing a glorious valley view that makes a stunning backdrop for performances. Every summer ancient Greek tragedies and comedies (usually in modern Greek translations) are performed here on weekend nights. The theater's stark grandeur is a brilliant venue for the stripped-down theatrics of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Packages that include bus service are available in Athens from the Greek National Tourism Organization (tel. 210/327-1300); the Hellenic Festival Office, 39 Panepistimiou (tel. 210/322-1459); and the Rex Theater box office, Panepistimiou (tel. 210/330-1881). You can sometimes get tickets at the theater itself just before a performance.
One word of warning: A nearby town is called Ancient Epidaurus, and just to add to the confusion, it also has a small ancient amphitheater. Be careful which signs you follow!
Contact: Lygourio (tel. 27530/22-009).
What: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Who: Ages 10 & up
Where: London, England
It was probably the most important public theater ever built, the place where such masterpieces as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear premiered, all written by the resident playwright, William Shakespeare. While a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is useful for filling in the sketchy details of Shakespeare's life, Shakespeare is remembered today for what he achieved while living in London, and the Globe Theater really brings this to life.
This circular half-timbered open-air theater is a meticulous reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre, built in 1599 as a playhouse for Shakespeare's theatrical troupe, the King's Men, and located on the Thames's disreputable south bank along with the rest of London's theaters. (The original Globe was torn down in 1644, during the Reformation, when all theaters were closed.) The late American filmmaker Sam Wanamaker worked for some 20 years to raise funds to re-create the theater as it existed in Elizabethan times, thatched roof and all. He was able to acquire a site only 200 yards from the original, near where another Elizabethan theater, The Rose, had already been excavated. The Globe you'll see today re-creates the typical floor plan of the period, based on the designs of Roman amphitheaters (remember, the Romans once occupied Britain, and the remains of a Roman amphitheater can still be seen up in Chester). A raised two-level stage thrusts out in the audience, triple-decked galleries seat wealthier patrons, and the ground floor area right in front of the stage is where the so-called "groundlings" stand. If it rains, everyone in the galleries stay nice and dry, but the groundlings had better wear hoods or hats.
Part of Wanamaker's vision was to make this an operating theater, and some half-dozen plays (most but not all by Shakespeare) are produced here May through September. Scenery is minimal, costumes elaborate; all music is live and the actors wear no mikes. If you can't take in a play, you can still visit the attached exhibit (a tour of the theater is included if there's no play in progress), which many children will enjoy more than a performance. The exhibits include live demonstrations of sword fighting and costumes, musical instruments, and printing presses, as well as touch-screen terminals explaining how the Elizabethans pulled off such special effects as Lear's thunder, Lady Macbeth's bloody hands, and Puck's flying.
Contact: 21 New Globe Walk (tel. 020/7902-1400; www.shakespeares-globe.org).
What: American Museum of the Moving Image: New York on Film
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Astoria, Queens, New York, USA
Don't tell Hollywood, but New York City is really the home of the American movie industry -- it's where Thomas Edison screened his first moving pictures and the early talkies were all shot, many of them in Paramount's 13-building studio complex in Astoria, Queens, just a hop, skip, and a jump over the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. And if you're not convinced, you will be after visiting the American Museum of the Moving Image, an in-depth museum for TV and movie fans housed in one of those Astoria studio buildings.
Many of the historic artifacts on display -- a 1910 wooden Pathé camera, a 1959 Philco TV set -- will mean little or nothing to youngsters, but the extensive costume gallery should grab them, with items like Robin Williams's padded housedress from Mrs. Doubtfire. Famous props exhibited range from Charlton Heston's chariot from the classic film Ben Hur to a Yoda puppet constructed for the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back. The Monk's Coffee Shop set from Seinfeld is re-created here, and there's a fun display of tie-in toys and lunchboxes promoting TV shows from Howdy Doody to The Simpsons.
What really fascinates kids, however, are the hands-on exhibits demonstrating the moviemaking process. While it may be demonstrated with more flash at Universal Studios, here the kids get more involved in the process and really learn how it's done. At interactive workstations you can fiddle with sound effects, dub in new dialogue, call up different soundtracks, and even add your face (a la Woody Allen's Zelig) to classic movie scenes. Sit in front of a camera and make a series of wacky expressions and, presto! They're reproduced in your own flipbook, which you can take home. At the digital animation stands, you can move cardboard cutouts around to create your own animated short. The makeup exhibition, too, has more than enough ghoulish masks to satisfy young horror movie fans, with staffers on hand to demonstrate how they were made.
While in New York, media mavens should also take in the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan, 25 E. 52nd St. at 5th Avenue (tel. 212/621-6600; www.mtr.org).
Contact:35th Ave. and 36th St. (tel. 718/784-0077; www.ammi.org).
What: Ghibli Museum: The Genius of Animation
Who: All ages
Where: Tokyo, Japan
Animé addicts -- you know who you are -- just may find this idiosyncratic museum the highlight of their trip to Japan. It's not so much that it pays homage to the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki, it's that Miyazaki himself was so involved in developing this museum that his wondrous sensibility is written all over it.
Miyazaki and his fellow animator Isao Takahata are the talents behind Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki -- the genius behind such classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle -- makes optimistic films with children in mind, because, he has said, he wants them to develop a positive view of the world. His heroines are usually plucky girls, with mysterious animals and otherworldly creatures drifting in and out of their lives almost at random. The animation is so detailed and lifelike, the stories told with such lyrical emotion, that they are truly spellbinding.
It does take a bit of effort to visit the Ghibli Museum. Tickets must be bought in advance, up to 3 months ahead, either through the museum's website, through Japan Tourist Bureau offices in Japan or abroad, or at Lawson convenience stores in Japan. When you buy your tickets, you commit to a specific date and time. The museum is not conveniently located, set on the outskirts of Tokyo (a 30-min. train ride from Shinjuku station, followed by a 5-min. bus ride or 15-min. walk along a river). But once you're there, you enter a whimsical flight of imagination.
Even from the outside, the dreamlike quality of Miyazaki's animation is expressed in the rounded stucco buildings, softened by flowers and foliage. Inside, the floor plan is delightfully random, with catwalks and spiral staircases shooting off in all directions, and many of the exhibits are waist-high, speaking directly to children. A ground floor exhibit explains how animation works, using strobe lights and spinning plaster figures from Ghibli films; on the second floor, reproductions of animators' studios demonstrate the filmmaking process, from storyboard to cel painting -- you can almost feel the creative energies at work, with a flurry of sketches tacked up over the artist's desk and books piled everywhere. Children can scamper on top of a giant stuffed kitten bus like the one from Totoro (my children have longed to climb onto that bus ever since they first saw that movie), or scurry up a spiral staircase to the rooftop garden with a metal sculpture of the giant robot from Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. A fancifully painted theater shows animated shorts made exclusively for the museum. Note: The text accompanying displays is only in Japanese, so hang onto the English-language guide you're handed when you enter.
Contact:1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka City (tel. 0442/40-2233; www.ghibli-museum.jp).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.