Is sci-com just for kids?

1 03 2011

In a recent blog post, Jay Sankey, a famous magician, complained that magic is not taken seriously. He blames this on a commonly held view that magic is “just for kids”.

Why is this a problem? Well as Jay says:

Sadly, this profoundly limited public view of magic and magicians also impacts where we can perform, what styles of magic audiences find ‘acceptable,’ how much we can charge, and much more.

One of the most frequent comments I get from the adults who see my shows (normally parents or teachers) is that the adults loved it as much as the kids. This is great but I wish it wasn’t said with a surprised tone. It seems that increasingly adults watching my science shows are not expecting to enjoy the show.

Why are science performances being perceived as just for kids. What are the consequences for science performers if this becomes more prevalent? And what can we do to avoid it happening?

In this case Just for kids is shorthand for OK but not very good. Audiences and performers alike are guilty of thinking that if they are watching or performing a kids show then it doesn’t need to be as professional and as well thought out as entertainment for adults. After all, it is just for kids.

Not only is this wrong- shows for kids need to be more professional and better thought out than adult shows- but it leads to a dangerous cycle of reduced expectations: performers put in less effort so audiences expect less from performers so performers can put in even less effort etc.

How many people that you know would ever think of watching a clown show? If you suggested that to most kids they’d politely decline and if you asked an adult they’d probably snort in derision. Why? Because they haven’t seen shows like Slava’s Snow show.

Those who have a dislike for clowns and performing artists will have their opinions turned upside down as this is certainly not a trip to the circus. Snow Show is an individual masterpiece of theatre that stands alone. A trip into the surreal, a fantasy wonderland that transports you from your theatre seat into a world of fun and make believe that could melt even the coldest of hearts, a show for young and old to enjoy. Link

OK, well what about a trip to the circus? I use to work in circus and I am the first to acknowledge that a lot of it is hackneyed and naff but not all of it. And I’m not just talking about Cirque du Soleil. One of the greatest juggling acts working today is a company called the Gandini’s. Take a quick look at this and tell me it doesn’t challenge your perceptions of “circus” and “jugglers”. (Skip to 3.35secs if you’ve only a few moments.)

Science performances don’t have to go down the same route as magic, clowning and circus. We are still a young enough field that we can avoid that just for kids/OK but not very good label.

A great example of this is Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60. This is a show that started on CBBC but has now been repeated on BBC One HD in the evenings. This is a great example of something that was conceived of being just for kids but was of a sufficient quality that it was recognised that anyone could enjoy it.

How can we make our own science performances exceed expectations? How can we ensure that our performances don’t drag down the appreciation levels of our chosen field?

Jay Sankey suggests, “one way to do this is by being the most creative and professional performer you can be”. And I would agree wholeheartedly with him.

But we must also dismiss any idea that because an audience is mostly kids that we can get away with any less preparation than if the show was for adults. We must raise our collective game so that we don’t end up driving down the cul-de-sac that magic and clowning have found themselves in.

If we don’t do this and end up with a field that is considered as just for kids then we will end feeling as frustrated as the magicians do and as poorly paid as most clowns. It really is a vicious cycle and one that we should do all we can to break.

In another post I have suggested three evaluation questions that we can apply to our own shows and other shows we see. I wrote this to encourage people to become more reflective performers. I think that if we apply these questions to our shows we will see where we can improve. But we can also use these questions to help other performers we see get better.

Jay Sankey writes:

All of us who love magic must ask ourselves: “What can I do to inspire greater respect and appreciation of magic?”

All of us who love science communication should ask ourselves the same thing.

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