Performing for Families and Children

John Currivan shares his experience of working in family shows and the importance of creating art for children.

by John Currivan

Just because something has been made for children doesn’t mean it’s of less inherent value

It’s that time of year again. The weather is colder, the evenings darker and the panto dames are appearing like hyperactive blooms, opening at sunrise. Families are seeing more of each other, going to theatres and gathering around televisions to experience stories together.

With that in mind, I want to present some things I’ve learned from performing and creating work for young audiences and families.

Withhold your judgement

There’s an opinion that art made for children or families is worth less than other types of art; that children’s movies are not real cinema, and that children’s theatre can never be pronounced 'thee-ah-TAH'. This is complete rubbish and poppycock (C.R.A.P. for short).

Having trained for three years to become an intense, dramatic and obnoxiously serious actor I would have arrogantly thought myself somehow above working on ‘kids plays’. That was until I actually got a job making theatre for young audiences (TYA) and I was introduced to the array of quality work that was out there and saw just how mistaken and snobbish I had been. I also underestimated the global industry opportunities available as some TYA companies run international touring schedules similar to those of massive commercial musicals.

Not every show will appeal to every person, but that’s always the case. At least with adult work we accept it for what it is and give it some consideration or thought before dismissing it as C.R.A.P. We need to give work for children the same consideration and judge it on its own terms.

For some, going with family to see panto or a Christmas show is as important a tradition as church, dinner and gifts

Theatre for children is not a single genre

If we hear the words 'Adult art' we might assume it will be violent or sexual in nature and use strong swear words. Similarly, we may assume 'Children’s Art' to be frivolous, brightly-coloured and use words like pants or Lord Poofartbum of Stinkysnots Manor. While these generalisations may have some truth to them, we know that adult movies aren’t all pornographic and that children’s movies aren’t all cutesy cuddles and glittery gumdrops. Just look at how the Harry Potter series of children’s books has silly characters, ridiculous names and a genuinely scary evil would-be dictator who believes that wizards are a master race.

Theatre for children is not one genre unto itself. There’s a myriad of work, covering all genres being created for young audiences and some may come with different labels. Theatre for young audiences (TYA) is not the same as Pantomime, Theatre in Education (TIE) is not the same as Children’s Entertainment and working in Community Outreach is not the same thing as being a birthday party clown*. Each different type of work requires different approaches, different skill sets and has different goals and aims. They are all games with different rules that we can learn, follow, or break if we wish.

*NB. For those who think that kids party performers aren’t artists... you just haven’t been invited to the right parties.

Be sensitive to your audience

Art is art, theatre is theatre, bums is bums and just because something has been made for children doesn’t mean it’s of less inherent value. While there are no absolute, hard and fast rules there is definitely a set of considerations to bear in mind when making or performing work for children.

The first thing is age range. Each age group comes with different experiences and will be in wildly different places in terms of their identity, desires, wants, needs or education. We need to be on their level and try to understand how they might be reacting to the work whilst never talking down to them.

Don’t for a minute think that young people can’t deal with heavy issues or complex ideas, they can and do, but the main concern is about how the issues are handled. I love art with raw emotion, harrowing circumstances and rollercoaster stories that risk causing whiplash. However, we need to be sensitive to our intended audience. We may need to add a little bit of softness, distance, silliness or playfulness to form a safety area around the performance that allows a child to safely experience the emotional rollercoaster without getting traumatised.

For any actors who feel like I’m suggesting that they hold back on the drama, I offer you this. An actor can be like a sound desk with knobs and dials for volume, tone and various other effects. We may need to equalise our performances so that even if the volume is only halfway up, the drama, intention and story is still clear and doesn't isolate a young audience. This can be very challenging and involves a lot of trial and error.

Children are not stupid. Yes, they may have a more limited vocabulary and might struggle deciphering the subtleties of body language but they still experience emotions and will instinctively respond to the quality of your voice or movement. You’d be surprised how easily they can relate to characters in complicated relationships and detect moments of manipulation, betrayal, disappointment or unfairness. Parlour tricks and flashy lights might awe them more easily, but if a performance is not engaging or if they spot something fake they will let you know.

Often we see children as ‘less’ than adults. I won’t argue that children are less experienced and usually less knowledgeable than adults but they are also less biased, less cynical and less sarcastic. They are so much 'more' than adults, more imaginative, honest, courageous adventurous and open to exploring new experiences.

That work of art, story or idea shone a light into your life, it blew your mind, woke you up and helped you to see the world in a new way

Be passionate about why we do what we do

Some people talk about how works of art offers escapism and can allow for peaceful isolation. Art can also be used to bring people together and experience something as a group and community. For some, going with family to see panto or a Christmas show is as important a tradition as church, dinner and gifts.

At a family show, children and adults can laugh together at slapstick silliness, funny dances and rude jokes. Kids turn to parents and say, "Did you see that?", they are enjoying a communal event and hopefully they will leave a show with stories to tell, new pieces of information and the ability to articulate feelings and ideas that they hadn’t been able to before.

Chances are, one or more of your happiest memories of a movie, book or play, comes from your childhood years. There is a reason for that. That work of art, story or idea shone a light into your life, it blew your mind, woke you up and helped you to see the world in a new way. That is the power and importance of art for children.

After Christmas has finished, when the evenings get brighter, the weather heats up and the panto dames have all retreated back into their oversized costume-boxes there will still be artists out there making this kind of work. Creating performances all year round, to give children and families unique experiences to talk about, exciting stories to share and hopefully shine an awakening light into the lives of the young people who will build the future.

John Currivan will be performing in ‘Black Beauty’ at London’s Southbank Centre, from the 14 December-5 January and would love to see you and your family there. ‘Black Beauty’ is presented by Red Bridge Arts & Traverse Theatre Company. Created by Andy Manley, Andy Cannon and Shona Reppe. Supported by Creative Scotland.