Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Performing for children

Warning: Cranky post.

I'm disappointed when I see children's performers who deliver mediocre shows. That is, when they bore kids, when they perform for children because they think it will be easier than performing for adults (hah!), when their shows have no real substance, when they don't believe in the worth of their material.

Lately, I've seen a couple of performances for children that disappointed me. Nah, they did more, they made me mad. Kids deserve better, and so do their parents.

One show was a thinly veiled marketing ploy. Children were invited to be in a play. They were given costumes, roles and lines. The adult director told them what to say and do. There was a little bit of input from the kids, but not much. The setup took a long time and was boring. The story had almost no dramatic tension. The director made sure the parents understood that the play was being videotaped and they could buy the DVD for a nominal fee. Smart, eh? Then the company had the contact info so they could sell even more of these "participatory" shows.

Another show was a small musical band, heavy on props, costumes and audience participation, light on substance. The frontman's goal seemed to be to get the kids wild--he sprayed them with water at one point, with silly string at another. Like the other show, this one featured kids coming up on stage to put on costumes and play parts. It, too, took a long time. The frontman used a character voice, stepping out of it to reprimand the children for not following instructions. He announced several times that the band was available for other events. The musicians were good, but do I remember any of their songs? No.

Don't get me wrong, the kids had fun. They laughed and joined in, but will they remember the show in a week or a month or a year? Worse, will this be the standard by which they and their parents judge children's performances? If we don't get the kids all riled up, will they feel they haven't gotten their money's worth?

And don't get me wrong about audience participation. I include lots of it in my performances for young children, though because I was terrified of being called on when I was little, I do participation from the safety of the group. I've seen it done well: Jim Cosgrove, a.k.a. Mr. Stinky Feet, is a good example of a performer manages audience energy smoothly, bringing kids up on stage without boring anybody. His shows have real substance, too.

Hmm, mentioning Jim reminds me that there are lots of good performers out there, those who respect the audience, their material and themselves.


Flo said...

Not nearly cranky enough - but that's just me.

Granny Sue said...

I have had to follow performers who do this very thing--get the kids all fired up and out of control, then I get them. Thanks. Bringing them back to earth and listening is a real challenge if you follow an act like that. The best solution I have found is a song with audience participation. Kids love to sing, and the singing gets their attention and focus. It's actually better at this point if there is no body motion to accompany the song so that they still themselves and by the time the song is over, they're back to listening mode again.

Participation is an excellent way to bring the audience into the story, but incompetently used it hinders the story and cheapens it. Adding participation simply to add it isn't good either; it should be a naturally occurring part of the tale and bring something to the telling.

megan hicks said...

I once had to follow a unicyclist who had just flossed his nostril with a balloon, after juggling a chainsaw and a bowling ball. Of course the kids went wild. The roar of the chainsaw! The longest booger in the world! What ten-year-old would NOT love it?

My analogy for this situation is as follows: Offer a kid a glass of water or a glass of soda. Which one is s/he going to choose? Which one is actually good for you?