Lately, I’ve been having some interesting conversations with elementary school principals. Several weeks ago I performed at a prestigious, inner-city school in a wealthy area, and the very next day at a rural school with a much tighter budget. Though each school was dealing with very different problems, from funding to the attitudes of people about the importance of education, the conversations turned to the differences between the students at each school.
First, let me make it perfectly clear: Kids are kids. They may start off at a different cultural, economic or social level, but any children who are presented with a good story will end up at the very same place. Listening and engrossed in the experience.
Secondly, children from these disparate backgrounds crave structure. I’ll often perform in schools where the leadership at that school allows the chaos. I promise you those children will not learn as much or be engaged as well if they can ‘do what they want’. If you allow the kids the power in the situation, those who respect less will ruin it for everyone else. The structure I provide at the beginning of my performances creates a foundation on which an audience can respect a performer, while giving that audience permission to have as good a time as possible. The comment that I hear more than any other is, “We were amazed at how much they laughed, but then you were able to bring them right back to the story!” Respect the children enough to provide the structure, so that when you allow the chaos, you can bring their attention right back to you.
Thirdly, children do start at different places, and you are better off if you can recognize that. Some schools are filled with kids who have had all sorts of entertainment experiences. I’ll perform for children who just saw “Hamilton” the week before, so their expectations of what entertainment can be are a little different than a school filled with kids who have never seen a live performance. Some children know what it means to be an audience member. Some do not. I have to be patient and firm with the kids who have never had the experience of being at a live performance. Often, I have to teach those kids how an audience can best enjoy the performance. On the other hand, children who have benefitted from a diverse artistic background can be surprised by listening to one man tell them a story. At first they may want to resist how simple the experience is, but when you engage the imaginations of any children, you will be amazed at how these fertile minds will soak up and give in to an imaginative telling of a story.
Yes, schools can be very different, but my joy is meeting children where they live, and leading them to either grow as audience members, or break through the preconceptions of what ‘good entertainment’ can be.