Mixed audiences

25 02 2011

You can’t treat every audience the same. Groups of school kids with their teachers react and need to be spoken to very differently than kids out with their parents. Sometimes you can get into trouble when those groups are mixed.

I’ve just returned from Engineer’s Week in Ireland and throughout the week I was performing to big groups of kids- sometimes in theatres and sometimes in lecture halls- but the audiences were always made up of class sized blocks of kids with teachers in tow. The groups were homogeneous and so it was easy to decide on how they should be treated. On Saturday I performed for the Engineer’s Ireland family day to a very mixed audience. I thought this last show would be the easiest of the week but it turned out to be one of the hardest. The reason was the different way that you needed to approach the kids.

The first four rows were four Scout packs and the ages ranged from 5 to 12. These guys were out of school on a Saturday morning, wanting to have fun, being supervised by leaders who had less control than your average teacher. Behind them I then had another 5 rows of families with their kids.

The Scouts at the front needed to be “sat on”. I have a saying- a quiet child isn’t necessarily listening but for a child to hear it needs to be quiet. This group (quite understandably because of their age mix and the fact that it was a Saturday morning on a Scout trip not a Monday morning at school) wanted to wriggle and chat and generally play up. I knew they would enjoy the show if they could be got to listen so I had to be firm but fair with them.

Behind them we had the families. I love working for families as I don’t normally get the chance to do it and because if you’ve brought your kid to a science show chances are you are the sort of parent that knows how to behave, and more importantly, cares that your kids behave during the show. No-one wants to be seen as the parent with the unruly kids. And this means as a performer you can be a lot more subtle in your behaviour cues because the parents will pick up on them and then nudge the kids to be quiet.

The show went great and everyone enjoyed themselves. Luckily apart from the mixed audience the venue was perfect- small curved amphitheatre-style seating, excellent sight lines with great audio and video facilities. But I had to work very hard to keep the Scouts in order so the parents could enjoy the show with their kids whilst not seeming so strict that I alienated those parents by seeming too authoritarian.

I think the most important thing I did was to insist that the Scouts entered the auditorium first and were seated neatly at the front. I was able to let them know the rules before anyone else came in. This also meant that the Scouts were all together in the one area. If they had been spread out around the room I don’t think I’d have been able to deal with the situation. Keeping them together and close allowed me to eyeball and peer pressure them into behaving well. It also meant that if the younger kids were a little distracted, and who wouldn’t be aged 5 on a Saturday morning watching an hour long show designed for 10 year olds and above, then their distractions were hidden from the rest of the audience and controlled in a small space at the front.

So when you are dealing with different groups of people in your shows think about the appropriate way you speak to them. Consider how you interact with them. Different groups require different treatment and if you are treating everyone the same in every show you do then I’d suggest you might want to make some changes. But watch out when you have groups that need different treatment in the same audience. It commonly happens because of ages being mixed but it can also happen as I’ve described above. Try to avoid mixed audiences if you can but if you can’t anticipate the problems and do what you can to make you life easier before you even start.

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