What Happens When Children Perform (or, How Highly to Value...Nothing)
It's hot, and they've been here all day. The groups of young performers in the seats before me is tired, either frozen or fidgeting, desperate for the chance to book it home. But one of my most challenging girls has her hand raised, and her mouth pulled into a taut grimace, staring at me. My next move matters, and this child does not engage lightly, and technically we have five more minutes of class, and we are staying until this child is satisfied or else the clock runs out of seconds to be had.
"What if we break our leg, though?" she asks when I call on her.
I look at her quizzically. "On stage, you mean?"
"Yes. During the performance. What happens if we break our leg?"
Obviously my first thought is to try and shrug this comment off. Nobody just straight up breaks their leg onstage and these kids are blocked to walk on, jump up and down a few times, pose, and walk off. If somebody breaks a leg it is a culmination of extreme and ridiculous circumstances on par with the sinking of the Titanic.
But this girl is not actually asking if she's going to break her leg. She's asking if she can trust me, the cast, the audience, and the crew to come to her aid if a disaster goes down and she is stuck onstage being a character and not being allowed to react as herself, because it's against the rules of theatre. Unlike the rest of my sweaty, red-faced, half-sleeping sweethearts, this child is interacting with theory, and it's critical that she be commended for that.
When children perform, they are practicing pattern recognition, organizational skills, and impulse control on a level which is far beyond standard for their age. Consider that the five year old who is sitting onstage in a line may look slightly bored while someone else sings, but she still a) remembered where to sit and when, b) set aside her all-consuming feud with the child next to her to walk onstage and pretend to be friends, c) could probably, after some thought, tell you where they are in the story and what they'll be doing next, and d) may be staring at the sparkly shoes of the woman in the front row, but is not going over to play with them. The goal of live theatre with children is not perfect performances; the goal is improved life skills, and that child who is doing nothing onstage is doing a LOT more than I do most days before coffee, so she deserves every last round of applause she gets.
Dig even deeper, though, and you will find a whole new challenge for the young performers age group, which is the difficulties of navigating a new set of social rules and parameters when they really have barely learned (or, in some cases, are still learning) the old ones. For example:
AT HOME: Pick up those things and put them away, I don't care whose they are or who dropped them there, just get them off the floor. (Intended takeaway: We take responsibility for our spaces and we are helpful in creating an organized home.)
AT SCHOOL: Pick up those things and give them to me, because they don't belong to you and I will make sure they get back to the person to whom they belong. (Intended takeaway: I, as your teacher, am trustworthy and in charge. Send problems and issues through me so that they can be cataloged and correctly filed.)
AT THE THEATRE: Leave those things there. Do not touch other people's things, even if they are on the floor. You never know what is set there on purpose and what isn't. (Intended takeaway: As we create this world together, you need to not only be solid with your word and deed, but trust other people to be solid with their word and deed, because this is a fake world and we all need to be on the same page in order to create it.)
An adult of sound mind can have a hard time clearly differentiating between these things: a child is far more likely to get confused, cry, misunderstand, feel like they got "called out" or "in trouble" for being corrected, and then eventually skulk off and decide that theatre is not for them. And when they don't, they deserve some thunderous applause for that, too.
Performance requires bravery, and we need more brave little people in our world. People who think and act, but also people who think and purposefully wait. The message of "take what you want" can be tempered with "when the time is right," and theatre arts creates children who can do so many things at once that it may look like nothing at all to the observer, and that's a magical thing for a busy child. We, as parents, can work on learning it, too.
To finish the story: I told my challenging little tight-lipped girl that "if you break your leg, smile. I will be right offstage and I will run on and I will swoop you off and we will go to the hospital and we will fix your leg."
Her eyes got wide. "You would swoop me off in the middle of the show???"
I nodded. "Yes. But what's your job?"
She thought for a moment. "Smile," she said. "They don't know the script. Maybe I can stop and sit down, they wouldn't know in the audience. Maybe I could even limp off to you if you were in the vom, because then they wouldn't ever even know the way they would if you swooped me off."
Relief. She gets it. "You're right," I said. "What a good idea you have. See? You thought of everything."