If You Believe, Clap Your Hands: On Writing and Performing with Young Audiences

Original program for the 1904 production of "Peter Pan" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Original program for the 1904 production of Peter Pan — which featured a whopping 25-person cast — at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London | Source: Wikimedia Commons

In perhaps the most famous moment of J. M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play Peter Pan, a fading Tinkerbell, dying after drinking poisoned medicine meant for Peter, tells him that she believes she could get well if children believed in fairies. In this moment, Peter dramatically breaks the fourth wall, imploring the young people in the audience: “Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!” In short order, Tink is saved and Peter is off to the play’s final battle to rescue Wendy, all thanks to the children in the audience.

This connection between Peter and the young audience members is not far removed from the audience-performer relationship of any theatre production, regardless of audience age or performance genre. Actors ask an audience to spend some time believing in the world and characters they create. Then, at the end of it all, if the audience has believed, they applaud through a curtain call, often clapping with increased fervor for those who made them believe the most.

An illustration by Oliver Herford of Wendy Darling (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

An illustration by Oliver Herford of Wendy Darling, mending clothes in the Underground Home, from The Peter Pan Alphabet | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The key difference in what Peter asks of his young audience is not that he asks for applause before the curtain has fallen, but that he asks for sincere belief. The children in the audience are asked to applaud for their belief in true and genuine magic. The actor (or more often in the case of live productions of Peter Pan, actress) playing Peter does not ask that audiences believe the performers before them have truly become the characters, that the light flitting about the stage is Tinkerbell. The children, it is assumed, already believe in all that.

In this way, their unabashed willingness to believe in the reality of the story they are seeing unfold before them, children make an ideal audience. This was what first attracted me to performing for young audiences as an actor. For me, part of the thrill of acting as a high school student was that opportunity to convince people, for an hour or two, that I was someone other than a lanky, socially anxious high school student. Imagine, then, my joy when I came off the stage in age makeup and a red and white striped shirt, still hunched like a candy cane, to find elementary schoolers calling out, “Geppetto! Geppetto!” In this audience’s eyes, the transformation I sought to achieve was complete.

The children in the audience are asked to applaud their belief in true and genuine magic.

Gazing (Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

Opportunities for Authentic Interactions in Performance

For young audience members, this desire to interact with the “reality” playing out before them seldom contains itself until a post-show meet and greet. More often, children seek at some point in the performance to join in the action. If Pinocchio forgets his coat, in spite of Geppetto’s reminder to wear it, they will shout reminders of their own. If the treacherous Minotaur is stalking the hero through the labyrinth, they will tell him to turn and see.

To adult audience members — often teachers or parents who feel a duty to keep children from disrupting the performance — this seems like the ultimate breach of expected audience conduct, and they frantically try to hush the crowd as the shrieks of children lay waste to the fourth wall like horns at Jericho. But why shouldn’t they yell? If they believe in the reality of the world on the stage, they ought also believe in their ability to interact with it.

Many writers for young audiences seize upon this possibility for interaction. Audience members are asked to point out which way a character may have gone. They are asked to sing along, to repeat the magic words, to clap if they believe.

Dora the Explorer (Source: Vocalized)

Dora the Explorer | Source: Vocalized/Vocalised

In many cases, this invitation to interaction is not new to them, even for first-time theatergoers. In their far more regular television consumption, Steve has been asking them to point out Blue’s clues, while Dora stares out of the screen in expectant silence with each question she asks. What theatre brings, though, is the opportunity for these performers to give authentic responses to the interaction. Too often, this opportunity is passed up.

Imagine, for example, what a performer playing Peter Pan might do if a tepid audience gave only lukewarm applause to keep Tinkerbell alive. It might play out as one character recalls in Christopher Durang’s play ‘dentity Crisis, where “the actress playing Peter Pan turned to the audience and she said, ‘That wasn’t enough. You did not clap hard enough. Tinkerbell is dead.’” Of course, the absurdity of Durang’s description rests on the idea that this could never happen. That would deviate from the script. But it highlights the fundamental inauthenticity behind Barrie’s original intent to engage his audience. Tinkerbell was always going to live, applause or not. It was written.

As we imagine the possibilities for the next generation of theatre for the next generation, we should explore the myriad ways — short of killing Tinkerbell — that we can offer authentic interaction for young audiences.

Like everything in life, being an active and engaged audience member is something we learn.

Instead of jumping to the next scripted line, actors can be prepared to volley back and forth a bit more with audience members when they open that door with a hollered, “What do you think?” Individual responses can be called out, and particularly bold directors may bring young audience members up onto the stage for direct and displayed participation.

Writers can work to create situations for audiences to have a genuine say in what takes place on stage. The opening event of the first children’s theatre play that I co-authored — Super! — involved the audience voting for which reality show contestant would become the main character’s sidekick. One character would win, the other would go on to become the play’s antagonist. The winning outcome was not dictated by the script; it was decided by the audience. From that moment forward, our young audience members knew that they were creative collaborators in the work that was unfolding before them.

Opportunities for Authentic Interactions in Creation

This creative collaboration need not wait until the script is finished, the play rehearsed, and the audience seated. Indeed, I would argue that it ought not wait until then. If a play is to appeal to young audiences, it should be developed with young people. Not “with young people in mind,” but with actual, real life young people.

In his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C.S. Lewis cautions storytellers against approaching writing for young audiences as an exercise in “giving the public what it wants.” He notes that conceiving of a young audience in this way reduces them to “a strange species whose habits you have ‘made up’ like an anthropologist or a commercial traveler.” Young people are, of course, not made up. I was once one myself, and I’m willing to bet you were, too. But even with our records of experience, if we simply take aim at what we think “kids these days” would want, we will almost certainly miss.

If children’s theatre is to stand out among the other, often more accessible modes of children’s entertainment, it must capitalize on its community aspect.

I was involved in one such production in college, a play for children that blended a classic fairy tale with rap and karate — you know, kids stuff. After one performance for a small audience, I checked in with some students from the back row who had seemed less than enthused. I asked them what they would rather see a show about, and they instantly responded: superheroes. So, when I started drafting later that spring, I knew my subject matter.

I was also able to collaborate with real members of the future audience when I workshopped superhero stories with a 4th-grade class. Working directly with young writers served as a good reminder of the capable and wildly creative artists that children are. I was tapping into our shared enthusiasm for a subject, finding no room for a sense of adult superiority. As we worked together, we generated hero names and villainous plots that would make it into the final product, and I left with the confidence that young audiences would enjoy this story, because young writers had shaped this story.

Gazing Through a Telescope

Involving young minds in the writing process also helps to avoid a common pitfall of children’s theatre: heavy-handed moralizing. When writing for imaginary young people, it is easy to fall into a trap of writing down to them, offering advice from the moral high-ground of adulthood. When writing with real young people, writing down to them becomes impossible, because you spend so much time eye-to-eye. It was through collaborating with other writers — first elementary school students, then an adult co-writer — that Super! became a play about a hero who learns he cannot do it all and needs to work together with sidekicks to get the job done. From collaboration, a lesson about collaboration. Instead of stiffly moralizing from on high with a faux-sense of age-earned superiority, organic lessons emerge from the experience of collaboration; lessons that benefit all audience members, regardless of age.

Opportunities for Authentic Interactions Across Generations

While young writers should be directly involved in developing and shaping plays for young audiences, they must not be the only people that writers, directors, and performers have in mind. Though it may seem at odds with the “Children’s Theatre” label used by many companies, I believe that presenting a piece that adult audiences find equally enjoyable and entertaining is critical.

Maurice Sendak, reading from his book "Where the Wild Things Are" (Source: Self-Styled Siren)

Maurice Sendak reading to a child from Where the Wild Things Are | Source: Self-Styled Siren

This sentiment is far from original. In his aforementioned essay, C.S. Lewis wrote that “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” In a 1970 interview with librarian and children’s literature authority Virginia Haviland, Maurice Sendak remarked, “I am certainly not conscious of sitting down and writing a book for children. I think it would be fatal if one did.” He chose to return to this theme to conclude the interview, noting that “it would be so much better if everyone felt that children’s books are for everybody.” There should, they agree, be something universally enjoyable about children’s stories, to the extent that perhaps “children’s story” is a misnomer.

In a recent appearance on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, actress-turned-children’s-book-writer Jamie Lee Curtis weighed in on the importance of uniting adult and children audiences in enjoyment. Approaching things from an extremely practical sense, she noted that “parents are the ones who are going to read these books to children… So you have to give the parents something.” For her, that takes the form of subtle in-jokes in illustrations, like Bates Motel appearing in her fabulously titled children’s book Where Do Balloons Go: An Uplifting Mystery. Jamie Lee Curtis and her adult readers get to smile at this reference to her mother’s famous appearance in Psycho, while, as she notes, “the kids don’t have a clue.”

Theatre for young audiences, too, should strive to work on both the adult and child level. In the world of theatre, as in children’s literature, engaging the adults in the audience is equally as important, if not more so, even though they aren’t the ones actively engaged in telling the story themselves. On the one hand, it is a simple gesture of respect. Just as we must respect the intelligence of young audience members by not pandering or talking down to them, we must also respect the fact that our young audiences do not go off to the theater alone. They are with parents, teachers, and other adults who have deemed live theatre an important part of their kids’ cultural lives. We should be celebrating these adults, rewarding them with an entertaining experience that they can engage in, rather than be making them bored for an hour or so.

If we want everyone in the audience to clap, we need to give everyone in the audience something to believe in.

Moreover, while their capacity for imagination and their willingness to believe make children ideal audience members in one regard, we must acknowledge that they are novice audience members in many others. Like everything in life, being an active and engaged audience member is something we learn. Children can learn this by seeing adults who model engaged behavior, meaning it is critical that adults in the audience be engaged. Rather than focus on hushing children for negative behavior, adults can model positive audience behavior, but only if the performance welcomes them to do so by giving them something they enjoy. If we want everyone in the audience to clap, we need to give everyone in the audience something to believe in.

But it moves beyond the applause-motive of the performer. If children’s theatre is to stand out among the other, often more accessible modes of children’s entertainment, it must capitalize on its community aspect. The entire audience, regardless of age, must form a collective and engaged community, one that can discuss the play together with enthusiasm, one that can unpack any moral messages that may have snuck in together, and one that can continue to support and participate in the development of artistic communities. Only if children and parents together see the value of theatre in the community will theatre in the community grow and thrive.

Kids and a Cow Puppet (Source: State Library of New South Wales/Flickr)

Source: State Library of New South Wales/Flickr

All Children, Except One, Grow Up: Opportunities for the Theatre Community

When Lewis and Sendak note the adult world’s dismissal of works for young audiences, both invoke Peter Pan. Lewis remarks on the hostility of the modern critical world to works of fantasy targeted at young readers, what he says critics call “Peter Pantheism.” Sendak, meanwhile, hopes for a time “when people [don’t] think of children’s books as a minor art form, a little Peterpanville.”

Both, it seems, are preoccupied with J. M. Barrie’s opening line: “All children, except one, grow up.” For children’s theatre to be successful, it must take these opening words to heart, acknowledging that its audience members will grow up, that many of them already have. By respecting and working with both the children and adults in the audience, children’s theatre artists can guide growing audience members as they move from believing in fairies to believing in the magic of live performance. As theaters grow increasingly focused on drawing audiences, they would do well to remember that it is easier to help audiences move from one form of belief to the other than it is to become a believer anew.

If we want the theaters, the audiences, the applause to continue, we must cultivate our communities of believers from a young age. As long as they believe, they will clap their hands.


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