Friday, 14 December 2007

Doin' it for the Kids #2

It's that time again, when the year, ebbing away into its life support, is prematurely euthanased by endless end-of-the-year reviews. Let it be known, therefore that there will be no end of year summary from Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, until the year is good and dead.

The end of the year summary, incidentally, provides an excellent illustration of the founding temperament of this blog, viz, last year was a bit disappointing but here are all the reasons to be excited about next year. You'll get that from me on January 1, as I'm trying to emphasise the optimist. Call it a new year's resolution, but not til a fortnight Tuesday.

With which in mind, today I'm going to talk about children, whom Molly Flatt thinks should be seen and not heard at the theatre. Except that's probably not what she thinks, as that header is no doubt the work of a scurrilous sub-editor.

Anyway. Obviously it's a real pain if you're watching Shaw or Much Ado and there's a school group restively stirring their crisps, texting each other along the row and chatting about how fit Claudio is. But I put it to you: if your audience is that bored, you simply ought to be doing better work. It doesn't matter how old they are: don't ask them to be more polite, physician, heal thyself! and be less earnestly dull. I absolutely refuse to accept that there are groups who simply cannot behave in the theatre. The fifth comment on that Guardian blog derives entirely from class prejudice and is the sort of thing that makes me really quite cross.

An equivalent to Chris Goode's cat test might be the child test. It works like this: you do a show with some kids, of any age, in your audience. If they get a bit restive and you ignore them, you are not live. If you can weave their restiveness into your action, even just by acknowledging they're there, then you are. The first kind of show sees people getting more and more restive. The second infallibly quells their restiveness. Better still: be live enough, and good enough, to keep them from getting restive in the first place. It really is that simple.

It works on exactly the same principle I use when running workshops containing rowdy elements. If someone's talking while I'm talking, I look at them for the next few words, with no accusation or criticism, just to make it clear that I am talking to them, not just talking. And they listen. Teachers and workshop leaders who talk without making any eye contact at all invariably lose everyone's interest in seconds. Whenever I go for interviews for this sort of work I'm always asked the same question about how I deal with seriously disruptive children. My honest answer is that I've never had any in my groups. Maybe this is why.

Shows which are specifically designed for children make a virtue of audience interaction, as does pantomime. As we get older and we "learn to shut up", we learn to tolerate a certain amount of boredom because "it's good for us", so the work we see is allowed to shut itself off. But I do an awful lot of work with teenagers and, I promise you, they're just as capable of concentrating as you or I. They are also a lot happier to admit they're bored. Any show which is not capable of keeping teenagers interested is not live enough, not good enough, not fit for purpose.

There's a perception, because of its association with panto and childrens' theatre, that talking to the audience is somehow lowbrow and infantile. I give you as counterexamples: the theatre of Brecht and Shakespeare. No writer has surpassed those two in their ability to mix seriousness and fun. When they're produced, of course, people tend to emphasise the seriousness and we get the worst kind of deadly theatre. Emphasise the fun, though, and the seriousness will look after itself.

While I'm about it, there is no virtue in "forgetting yourself" in the theatre. That's what Hollywood rom-coms are for.

This is going to sound like a personal diatribe. It's not. I think Flatt's writing is excellent and I recommend her blog, particularly this post on the genius that is Seth Lakeman (my own long-promised post on folk clubs is on its way, I promise).


Regular readers will notice that, in a mild fit of redesign, I've moved myself further to the left and my thoughts further to the right. Read into that what you will.


olly emanuel said...

excellent blog, dan. and i disagree with almost everything you say.

personally, i have no problem with people 'losing themselves in a piece of theatre', whatever that means. if you mean that the audience are gripped by the story or empathising with the characters, thinking about the ideas or simply arguing with it in their heads, so that, for a short time, they are forgetful of their surroundings - hurrah! i say. think about any story you've been told, any story at all, and tell me that there aren't moments when you forget everything and imagine yourself there, watching, etc. i'm not saying it should always be like this but i don't want it the way you're suggesting either.

i don't want to be a critic in a theatre, i want to be part of the action.

and i don't think that theatre that doesn't speak to teenagers has no claims to be theatre. theatre isn't beer so you can put a bit of lemonade in it and still call it beer. some work is for adults and some is for teenagers, and some is for both.

and i preferred the text on the left...

Molly said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the kind words and congratulations on your excellent musical taste.

As you suggest may be the case, the 'seen and not heard' tag is pretty spurious if you read my whole article. Of course it is the responsibility of plays to be good enough to captivate kids. It is precisely because I think kids can be trusted to be properly absorbed in non-interactive or 'grown-up' plays that I am suggesting they are introduced to them. My whole point is that pantos and rowdy shows are great, but it is important not to make the effort - even if kids are noisy, or reluctant - to show them how good it can be to get unself-consciously absorbed in a show.

And again, I hoped that I had qualified my phrase 'loosing themselves' - not meaning bland romcom escapism, but an ability to look beyond yourself and identify with another human being. And often find yourself in the process.

Kids know how to play better than anyone, as any fule kno.

danbye said...

Olly - I think there's a difference between being gripped by the story and being lost in it. The things I like most of all grip me, absolutely. But I don't forget who I am or where I am. I might imagine what it's like, even feel what it's like, to be in a comparable situation. But I never forget where I am and think I'm actually there, in Elsinore. More, I find it difficult to imagine thinking like that. The power of great theatre is that it can make me both feel something very powerfully, and think about what that feeling means.

Whether you like it or not, I think your best writing does precisely that.

Molly - yeah, maybe the romcom line was a bit pat.

Still, as I hope I've just explained in response to Olly - I honestly don't get the "losing yourself" thing. Does that really happen? No matter how thoroughly absorbed and moved I am - and despite my more recent post, above, I do sometimes cry at theatre, at film, at books - I'm always aware of a critical bit of my brain engaging in another way, asking what these tears mean.

Be it A Doll's House, King Lear, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, good work causes both feelings and critical response. I don't think either diminishes the other. I think both are the stronger for it.

danbye said...

Oh, and Olly:

"some work is for adults and some is for teenagers and some is for both"

True enough. But how old were you when you first read Shakespeare? Brecht? First went to the National?

If it's really good, it'll be enjoyed by teenagers and adults. If, like most work, it's ok it'll get a mixed reception from adults and a panning from teenagers. They're less habituated to the mediocre, and therefore less tolerant of it.

Molly said...

Hmmm. We seem to be getting a bit semantic-pedantic here. I know what you mean Dan - I don't tend to 'lose myself' in a borderline insane/uninhibited/unconscious sort of way. It's all relative - 'losing yourself' in comparison to your normal mode of being, I suppose.

As I said, my idea of 'losing yourself' is a process that activates, rather than obliterates, self-knowledge - all the time you are identifying with those people, or simply acknowledging their difference, you are also asking what that means for you, and says about you. Maybe 'seeing beyond yourself' would be a better phrase, but it sounds a bit more sanctimonious.

To lose myself properly, I'd go for a dirty martini rather than a Marlowe.

Olly. Nice name.

danbye said...

I'd agree with all of that, including the bit about me being pedantic. Maybe I'll rename the blog "Pedantry of the Intellect..." After all, if one can't be a pedant on the internet, where can one be a pedant?

I'm making a fuss, I suppose, because it does seem odd to me to have an idea of "losing oneself" that is about finding self-knowledge - that seems to me, he says pedantically, a contradiction - which is part of why I prefer your re-formulation and don't think it at all sanctimonious.