There is a commonly-held assumption that theatre and performance for children must be interactive; it’s often phrased as ‘joining in the fun’. However, through observation of audiences, of my own son, and anecdotally from friends and colleagues, it seems many children aren’t as uncritically keen on audience participation as the received wisdom dictates.
In summer 2021, I took my 5-year-old son Rufus to see Get Happy, a joyfully anarchic non-narrative, clown-based show for family audiences by Told by an Idiot. Not long before, we had also been to see Marty and the Party, a lovely devised show for early years audiences by Milk Presents, at Derby Theatre. In both cases, there were moments where characters encouraged children in the audience to copy actions and sounds that they were performing onstage. And in both cases, although the performers made the offer gently and playfully, Rufus was made deeply uncomfortable by the expectation to join in. A conversation with him afterwards went like this:
K: You didn’t look like you wanted to join in with the actions, why not?
R: Because I felt like everyone was looking at me and going ‘ha ha, you’re an idiot’.
That seems pretty clear, and pretty damning to me. We shouldn’t be asking audiences (of any age, but particularly children) to do something that they feel exposed or ashamed by doing. Children are constantly asked to copy others, often performing acts that they, the child, are less skilful at that the person they are copying (at school, in dance, sports and other extracurricular activities.) The feeling of failing to match the standard of their example must be a familiar and unpleasant one that intelligent children will not enjoy. Why the hell would we seek to replicate that experience when we have invited children into a theatre as our audience?
I picked up this conversation with writer Sarah Middleton, when we were starting work on Little Red Riding Hood for Nottingham Playhouse (she writing, me directing). Sarah had observed this same response from her niece, and it became clear that not only did the request from the stage to join in with a performance act make the children uncomfortable in the moment, they then continued to worry that it was going to happen again. If one of the theoretical purposes of audience participation is to keep children engaged in the performance, then distracting them out of their engagement and enjoyment of the show by making them worry that they’re about to be asked to do something embarrassing is really counterproductive. Not to mention that it’s also lazy theatre-making! A well made show shouldn’t have to demand physical actions from the audience in order to hold their attention.
Rufus and I then talked a bit further about the interactive elements he did enjoy. These were:
- The bit where we threw balls at the clown.
- The bit where the clown didn’t know where the ketchup was, and we told him, and then it moved before he could get it.
- The bit where the puppet couldn’t find her boyfriend, and we told her where he’d gone.
In all these examples, the audience knows more than the onstage character, and is therefore in a position of higher status. Surely one of the central joys of watching clowning for adult audiences is an appreciation of another’s stupidity, seen from the comfortable position of not being that stupid yourself. Why should child audiences be treated differently? These examples also didn’t require the children to perform any actions or vocalisations that they hadn’t created or decided on for themselves. They could choose whether to pick up a ball and where to throw it, and they could choose whether and how to respond to an onstage problem or question. They also allowed the children to feel that they were helping to advance the story or playful moment, engaging them within the world of the performance, rather than distracting them out of it. These moments gave the children agency, removed the imbalance of child/adult skill level, and gave them status over an adult. These, surely, are far more positive takeaways than a lingering fear of everyone looking at you and going ‘ha ha you’re an idiot’.
Putting it into practice
Following our conversation, Sarah and I agreed on a set of guidelines for audience participation in Little Red Riding Hood. We think it should:
The interactive moments we're currently planning are these:
- A request for suggestions from Granny- what are people scared of in the woods?
(Giving agency and status, advancing the story)
A request for suggestions from Lil- what could Wulfrick eat that isn’t an animal?
(Giving agency and status, advancing the story)
A similar one from Granny- what should we put in a pie? Which will then be referred back to and represented by a prop pie with lots of clearly different sections, so the children can see a representation of their various suggestions.
(Giving agency, advancing the story and seeing your contribution valued).
A request for physical help from Lil- can everyone help her pull Granny out of Wulfrick’s belly?
This is a borderline one, as it does require the children to perform an action requested by a character onstage. However, we hope that because it’s framed as a request for help with something Lil cannot do herself (giving agency and status) and the action itself isn’t proscribed (they can pull however they like, or not) it should sit on the right side of the embarrassment/engagement scale.
We'll see how the moments land when the show goes into performance, in the Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse, and perhaps even more vitally, on its tour of primary schools in the New Year.