There’s no tougher audience in theatre than children

When your audience is children, and their attention spans are shorter than their tempers, how do you keep them entertained at a theatre show? Thomas LaHood talks about his approach.

The thing about making live performance for kids is that kids as an audience are just not polite. If they are bored with the show in front of them – no matter how beautiful the costumes and set, no matter how many back flips and facial grimaces the actor is putting themselves through – they will simply give up and stop watching.

I do this sometimes too at the theatre when I’m bored, to be honest. I start looking up at the lighting rig or at my feet and start gently chanting a mantra in my head: “Not long to go now, not long to go.” But for kids this is impossible. They will just start wriggling. Whimpering. Complaining loudly. Crying. Assaulting their parent or grandparent or the strange kid next to them. Quite often they will simply stand up and say “Let’s go now.”

Once a critical mass of fidgeting and whining has been reached any illusion that you are helping children discover ‘the magic of theatre’ is well and truly dispelled.

I mostly know this as a parent, but also as a performer. I work predominantly with clown techniques and this has naturally led to a lot of work in children’s theatre. In two separate touring shows I have dressed in a lycra onesie and basically run around on stage non stop for an hour until I collapse – because if you stop for more than a few seconds, the kids start getting bored. I’ve also spent many years working as a Clown Doctor in hospital environments, and that is even more unforgiving. Bad lighting, cramped spaces, everyone is in pain or scared or both, and then you bust into the room and start improvising…the kids will let you know immediately if they don’t find you funny.

They will not politely endure. Nor should they.

So, you know, it’s tough work. I guess unless you already have a massive franchised brand like the Wiggles. Then you can just be a paunchy middle-aged schmoe in a foam rubber mask, lip-sync a couple of mega-hits and the kids will love every second of it.

This sounds really cynical, but in fact having an audience that lets you know when they’re bored is a great gift for theatre-makers. It’s one of the core aspects of clown practise – to always stay in contact with the audience, to always acknowledge when something hasn’t worked, and to always share your enjoyment when the audience likes you.

When we (myself and my wife Jo Randerson, artistic director of Barbarian Productions and the director and co-writer of Odd One Out) pitched our idea for a kids’ show to Capital E National Theatre for Children, we already had a list of things we were pretty sure would go down well: Lots of peekaboo games, lots of mischief, lots of things going wrong.

Auckland Live presents Odd One Out on the 1st June.

The pitch was for the junior touring production which needs to be targeted to audiences from two to eight years old. Any parents will know that this age range is incredibly broad – what stimulates a three year old is very different from what stimulates a five year old, let alone an eight year old.

So we knew that we had to create a world and a narrative that would be simple enough for a toddler to understand, but also have enough surprise and pace that an eight year old wouldn’t feel embarrassed to sit through it. We made a decision very early on to work without text and to try to tell the story entirely through action. What we ended up with is something like Teletubbies but with more slapstick comedy and a bit more of a storyline.

Odd One Out introduces a world where three upbeat, naïve creatures spend their days sorting coloured blobs into coloured zones. The blobs arrive randomly from giant tubes, putting the blobs into their respective zones sort of switches them on, allowing the creatures to sunbathe, take showers, or jam out music together.

It’s an orderly world but not a mechanical one. In early development we worked with a production-line feel to the sorting of the blobs but it was quite boring and predictable. Having said that, we also saw that kids respond very well to repetition. So we found a lot of the narrative design was about how to repeat sequences to establish a sense of routine and repetition, but subtly changing up the pace or variegating the rhythm so that it doesn’t fall into monotony.

We knew that, once we’d built up this world of order and harmony – with the odd slapstick gag thrown in – we wanted to bust it up and let things get out of control. Hence the fourth character, the Odd One Out.

Responses to disruption are much less predictable. Some children become anxious when the order gets broken – others become hysterical with excitement. So figuring out how to make the Odd One Out relatable was important, as was calibrating the balance between the other characters learning to accept the Odd One Out’s behaviour and acknowledging that the disruption WAS stressful for them to experience.

Another thing we discovered making this show was that the best way for a play to engage younger audiences is…well, to play. The more tactile and responsive the world, the more the children want to belong in it. The more the characters enjoy finding creative ways to do routine things, the more children relate to them.

In early workshopping, we were also delighted that many children who were in ‘special needs’ classrooms were very responsive to the world – with the strong visual narrative and a strong use of the audio dimension we found the show reached out to people who communicate in a variety of different ways, which made us happy.

It’s been hard work and a lot of fun making this show with a great team or designers, educators and performers around us. We wanted to make something that as many people as possible would enjoy, while respecting that every child is unique and that some kids just really don’t like sitting down for long (including ours)!

Live theatre can be thrilling for young ones, and it’s great to support New Zealand artists so thanks to all the parents and children for your amazing response to our show so far, and for getting out to live theatre and remembering there are many different styles and forms of performance to experience in our country.

Auckland Live and Capital E present Odd One Out, playing at the Bruce Mason Centre in June 1st. Tickets here.

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