Teenage audiences

1 03 2016

I know there are people out there who have just had shivers go down their spine reading that title.

There’s a reason most organisations provide shows for P5-S2 (in Scotland) and Years 4-8 (in England). It’s hard to do shows about science for people younger than eight but it’s even harder to do science for teenagers. 

Once audiences hit thirteen and until they reach sixteen/seventeen they can be brutal. 

In this video Jimmy Fallon is talking to the writer and star of a new musical about politics and how they’ve got funding to do the show free for 20,000 teenagers. You can imagine the kids’ reactions when they’re told that’s the school trip. A musical, about politics, for an audience of teenagers…

At 1:30 they both talk about how amazing their first experiences of musical theatre was. You can hear their enthusiasm as they speak- but one went on to be a chat show host  and the other wrote his own musical! Of course, they both loved going to their first musicals. 

They are like us the first time we saw science. We felt for science the enthusiasm they felt for musicals- that’s why you’re reading this and I’m writing it!

But as we know not everyone is like us. Not everyone gets musicals just like not everyone gets science. As the writer explains:

Teenage audiences can’t lie. They’re the most incredible audiences we have and I remember being a teenager in an audience and if it was bad people would be like “whaaack”…

  
“This is whack. She doesn’t like him… Why are they singing..?”

I’ve done one performance that still haunts me. It was in America, before YouTube and camera phones so don’t think you can find it, thank heavens. It was a hastily organised show written for younger kids but somehow in one of the first performances I ended up in front of 1300 teenagers.  They spoke all the way through it, they turned their backs. It was terrible.

Since then I’ve seen presenters from some of the most respected SciCom organisations in the country fall prey to the same fate. Their teenage audiences have let them know in no uncertain terms what they thought of their shows. 

My show and all those others had something in common. The shows were substandard rubbish. The shows weren’t good enough to hold the attention, they weren’t good enough to deserve the attention, of the teenage audience. 

It is possible to do musicals and science for teenagers but the key factor is that your material has to be good. If you’ve got material that’s good those same teenagers will be the best audience you’ve ever had for the same reason they can be the worst. They can’t lie. 

I’ve love working with other presenters and I love to discuss stuff with them. I’m happy for people to totally disagree with almost anything I’ve got to say about science presenting except for one thing. 

However tough teenage audiences can be, if you got roasted it’s not their fault

Remember they can’t lie. It is your fault. It is my fault. Our material and the way we presented it just wasn’t good enough. 

We should never blame the audience before we’ve had a good long look at ourselves. Yes, some teenage audiences might sit quietly and let us do our thing but they are the exceptions. Like adults they’ve have learned to lie already. Adults will smile and endure our substandard shows and then probably tell us they loved it.

The others are just expressing what the rest are thinking. Teenagers can’t lie. 

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