BAD MANNERS OR MAD BANNERS
All of us involved in theatre for children want our young audiences to have a good time. Some of us simply want to entertain them. Some of us want to educate them as well. Whether we are more interested in making them laugh or making them think, we all want them to be engaged and involved, rather than alienated and bored. The same applies to those who do theatre for adults, but the challenge for us is significantly greater, for one simple reason. Children cannot be expected to automatically have theatre manners. Whereas adults will listen politely and clap at the end, even if they’ve hated every minute, children won’t. And why should they? They haven’t yet learned the convention of civilised behaviour in a public place. So, deep down, we children’s theatre folk dread pitching it wrong, making our audience turn off, make noise, fidget, fight or demand to be taken to the loo. People think I’m joking when I say I’ve spent forty years of my life trying to stop children going to the lavatory. But it’s true. On very few occasions is a weak bladder to blame, rather the weakness of a performance that is failing to enthral. And it is this volatile, dangerous side of an audience of children that makes it – for me and my colleagues - so exciting and exhilarating. And quite frightening. Yet hugely rewarding when we get it right.
Of course, apart from doing our damndest to ensure that our productions have the qualities that can command the attention of our audience, we can, as in adult theatre, pre-empt distractions like mobile phones and flash photography by broadcasting a message before the curtain goes up. But can we, should we do more? In Japan they do. Some years ago I went to a production in Tokyo of my play THE GINGERBREAD MAN. Before the performance an adult member of staff led on to the stage three children carrying large banners, on which were written, the interpreter said, “the three rules of theatre”. Far from being academic theories of theatre practice, these turned out to be a guide to audience behaviour. Rule 1 was ‘Thou shalt not eat during the performance’. I approve of this. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded sound of crisp packets rustling or the sight of parents stuffing their offspring with sweets. But in the UK could we ever persuade theatres to stop making extra income from confectionery or popcorn sales? Rule 2 was ‘Thou shalt not leave thy seat and walk around during the performance’. I approve of this, too. But in the UK would this actively encourage children to want to do something they wouldn’t have thought of doing had it not been mentioned? Rule 3 was ‘Thou shalt not talk during the performance’. I can appreciate the thinking behind this, but many of my plays, including THE GINGERBREAD MAN have audience participation of the vocal variety, and without it the action would grind to an embarrassing halt. Once, before a performance at Sadler’s Wells, a teacher ferociously barked to his class, “If I hear one word, OUT!” I politely warned him that his class might get home very late if they didn’t shout out when encouraged to …
No, on balance I think we have to accept that it is our responsibility to inspire good theatre manners, without issuing orders on banners before the lights go down. We have to do this by creating the theatrical magic that will make the audience settle and be eager to find out what happens next. That’s the challenge.
By the way, I was delighted that the Tokyo children watching THE GINGERBREAD MAN observed Rules 1 and 2, and even more delighted that they totally ignored Rule 3 and joined in with just as much vocal vociferousness as their UK counterparts.
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