Attentive Two Year Olds, Loud Parents, Broken Props and Lots of Lessons

I always find it interesting how much parental involvement, or lack thereof, affects the behavior and responses of the audiences for whom I perform. For example, at one recent library program I did there was a very tiny crowd —  only two families. The first family consisted of a 7 year old with her mother, while the second family was a mother with her 2-year old daughter. As someone doing interactive storytelling, where I rely on the audience members to become characters in the story, having tiny crowds can be my worst nightmare, especially if the members of said crowds are shy or extremely young (which seemed to be the case on this day!)

However, with some encouragement from mom and the librarian, the 7 year old was up and willing to take on a role in the story. I allowed the 2 year old and her mom to play some simple instruments during a musical part of the story, and later they both came up to take on one of the character roles together as well. The program was 45 minutes long — well beyond what most people would say is a 2 year old’s attention span. And yet, that 2 year old was more attentive and well-behaved than some of the older audiences I’ve worked with. Why? Probably because her mother was there to help keep her engaged and guide her in appropriate audience behavior and how to participate.

Now contrast that to another library program I did earlier that same day. I was telling the same story; however, this time I was presenting for a small group of after-school kids and not one parent was in the room. This crowd was also quite attentive; however, at one point, one of the boys taking on a role in the story purposely pulled at one of my props (a bunch of stuffed chile peppers), breaking one off.  Now, there are a lot of peppers on the bunch, so the loss of one probably isn’t a huge deal, and that one that was lost could probably be re-sewn to the bunch, but that’s not the point. The point is that the child, who was certainly old enough to know what he was doing, deliberately broke it.

In that moment, I felt it necessary to pause from the story and to explain to the young boy that what he had done was unacceptable, as he had broken a prop that I must use every time I present the story. Why had he done this? I don’t know —  perhaps because he thought he could get away with it. Would he have done the same thing had his parent(s) been in the room? I doubt it.

Later on, during the same program, with only five minutes left to go in my presentation, a mother opened the door and called out  across the room that it was time for her three children to leave. The poor kids were fixated on the show and did not immediately heed her call, which led to another loud interruption by the mom. “‘I said, ‘It’s time to go! Now hurry up!’

The children reluctantly pulled themselves away from the performance and walked toward the door. The librarian hopped up too and grabbed the cookies that she was planning to pass out at the program’s conclusion. She stood just outside the door and allowed the children to take some as they left! Of course, you can probably imagine what this did to the attention level of the other children in the room. Suddenly, they became preoccupied with getting a cookie of their own and their ability to focus diminished exponentially!

This experience was frustrating on a number of levels. I wondered why the mother had needed to call across the room for her children. Why couldn’t she have quietly entered, approached them and told them it was time to go? Or better yet, why couldn’t she have discreetly asked the librarian how much time was left in the program? (Even asking me directly would have been less distracting than her chosen course of action!) Perhaps if she’d known there were only five minutes remaining, she would have been willing to give her children the chance to see the ending and she could have avoided making a scene. Regardless, this mother certainly did not model good audience behavior for her children.

Recently, I was sharing these experiences with a librarian, Amy, who works in an urban community. She was contrasting her experiences working with children in urban vs. suburban settings, and I found her insights to be quite interesting. She shared how in an urban setting, most often, the children do not know (have not been taught) appropriate audience behavior. The parents rarely (if ever) attend the programs along with their children, and therefore, the children don’t know that they should clap at the end of a performance, not make noise during it, etc. Amy has had to teach them these things. And yet, these same children excel in problem solving, taking initiative and making friends.

In contrast, her findings in the suburban setting were that children knew how to exhibit appropriate audience behavior, having been taught from a young age by their parents who attended nearly every program she hosted! However, these children were not good at solving problems, taking initiative and making friends. Why? Perhaps because they were so closely tied to mom and dad that they were afraid to do anything on their own. Thus, for these children, Amy had to focus on activities that would encourage the children to make new friends and solve problems on their own.

It’s very easy to negatively judge a model of parenting that is different from the one by which you were raised or are raising your children. That’s why I appreciated Amy’s insights which show that there can be advantages on both sides, if you pay attention. It seems that by and large we live in a culture and time where parents are either too close or too far removed from their children. But I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Being engaged and involved in a child’s life so that they have the security of knowing that they are safe; and yet, avoiding the temptation to micro-manage which prevents them from learning how to think and act independently. What a tough balance!

What I do know is that as I perform for diverse crowds, I’m going to be attentive to what Amy has described. One audience type is not “better” than the other; they are simply different, with different needs. These different audiences may require different things from me, the performer, and I want to do my best to be sensitive to that. To teach where teaching is needed, to challenge where a challenge is needed, and everything in between!

The “Ram” Visits Early Childhood Resource Center

I started off the month of September with a half-hour version of the Mexican folktale “The Ram in the Chile Patch” for the Early Childhood Resource Center in Canton. Their theme for the month was “ants,” and since the hero of this particular folktale is una hormiga (the Spanish word for ant), I thought it would be a perfect fit. While the number of families in attendance was small, a group of early childhood educators who were receiving training in another part of the building stopped by for awhile to get a feel for how storytelling could be used in their classrooms and centers. Thus, the room ended up being quite full.


Most of the children in the crowd were quite shy, which of course meant that I had to turn to the parents. A reluctant father came up to take on the role of the ram in the story much to the delight of his wife and two young boys. But this father’s willingness to take on the role ended up giving his son the confidence to volunteer for the next role — that of the chicken! It was wonderful to see the way that they interacted “on stage” together, and a great reminder of how much more willing a child is to try something new once they have seen a trusted adult show them that it is both safe and fun!

Showing audience members the country of Mexico on my inflatable globe with a nice anthill in the background! 🙂

Early childhood educators look on in delight as the ram and the rooster prepare for battle! 🙂

Storytelling at the Hospital

Last week I had the awesome opportunity to perform at Metro Health Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. This was one of my first experiences performing in a hospital setting, and it was for a children’s outpatient clinic. The clinic was having a back to school party and looking for a new form of entertainment. They happened upon my bio on GigSalad and decided to give me a try.

When I spoke with the Child Life Specialist who was coordinating the event, she warned me that since it was an outpatient clinic, the children could be coming and going as they arrived then got called for their appointments. Since they’d never had a storyteller before, she decided to give me a 30 minute time slot, and I agreed to tell three shorter stories in the hopes that even if the children did get called out in the midst of the performance that each one would be able to see at least one complete story.

When I asked about age range, she said that it could be anywhere from early elementary students all the way up to teens — it just depended on who was scheduled at the clinic that day. Not knowing exactly who my audience would be, I decided to pack my “story bag” with a lot of different props and gauge which stories would be most appropriate on the spot. Being that I was going to be in a hospital setting, I had also asked ahead of time if the children would be allowed to wear the different costume pieces that I typically bring. For health reasons, I was asked to avoid this — so I chose stories in which more puppets and props were used instead of costumes.

Upon arrival, I had no idea what to expect, but I was led to a little room with about 15 chairs for audience members. Three sisters showed up. They were actually waiting for their mother who was having a pre-natal appointment. Shortly after that, two other girls arrived; then two more; then two boys, one accompanied by his grandmother in a mechanical wheelchair. A few staff members were on hand as well. The crowd turned out to be rather diverse, both in age and ethnic background. At first I wondered how hard it would be to win over the older children who made up the majority of the crowd, but in no time, they were drawn in and participating as eagerly as the younger ones. Honestly though, I’m not sure who was having more fun — me or the children — as I regaled them with tales of frogs, snakes, giraffes and crocodiles from the African continent as well as my favorite Nasruddin tale from Turkey! They were such a fantastic audience that I think I could have stayed telling stories all day!

One of the young boys was having such a great time that when he was called for his appointment his grandmother whispered to the nurse, “Oh please, can he stay just a little longer? He’s enjoying this so much!” In between stories, she told me that she was too! At the conclusion of the performance, one of the nurses popped in and told me, “That was so much fun! I kept peeking in every chance I got. I wanted to stay and watch and hear how the story ended, but I kept getting called back to work!”

Afterward, the children returned to the regular waiting room. Some of them had siblings that had declined to come to the performance because they felt that they were “too old” for storytelling. Their somewhat younger siblings put them in their place saying, “You missed it! It was so cool!” Hopefully next time, they’ll reconsider!

As C.S. Lewis once said, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Are you there yet? I’m sure glad I am.

(As an aside, the performance received such a wonderful response that it looks as though I’ll be going back for an inpatient event in the future! I can’t wait!)

Storytelling: No Stage Required

You may recall that over the past few months I have made a few posts about how teens still love (and need!) stories. So I couldn’t resist sharing two other little instances where this point was driven home for me again.

During my time in New York teaching at the TAM Conservatory, we made a trip into the city to see the Broadway show Newsies. The traffic was terrible, and what was supposed to be a 45 minute trip ended up taking closer to an hour and a half. I was sitting toward the front of the bus, trying to sleep, but I could still hear the chatter coming from the back of bus, including one of the teenage girls behind me who was moaning and complaining about how bored she was. Then all of a sudden I heard her say, “Lindsay, tell us a story! Please!

I sat up and perched on my knees so that I could see her, two rows behind me. Not only was she waiting in anticipation — so too was her seat-mate as well as the girls in the row in front of her and those in the row beside. I launched into a story from East Asia, and each of them sat there, spell-bound, staring at me, hanging on every word. Their facial expressions were not really any different than those of younger children for whom I have told the same story. A few of the girls actually had their mouths wide open as I told! And when I had finished it was as if they had completely forgotten their previous boredom.

On the long van-ride home from New York, a similar request came. This time from a 21-year old male. As we started on the seventh hour of our trip, he too asked for a story. This time I chose an African tale about why giraffe has a long neck. He and the other young adults loved it and couldn’t stop smiling and talking about what a great story it was.

A few years ago I attended a workshop where famed storyteller Baba Jabal Koram said something along the lines of, “You’re not a storyteller unless the kids on your block know you are.” I have never forgotten those words. I think what he meant is that it’s a wonderful thing to be a professional storyteller and earn your living that way, but being a storyteller is much more elemental than that. It’s something that flows naturally. It’s part of who we are. It means we have a story at the ready even in the most mundane of situations, not just when we’re standing on-stage in front of a large crowd. It means that a front porch stoop, a backyard barbeque, or in my case, a bus seat are all the stage you need.

Story listeners are everywhere; the only question is: Will you be ready when they say, “Tell us a story!”?

The Role of a Lifetime? Being YOURSELF!

Last week I traveled to New York to teach at the TAM Conservatory. This is an annual Arts Conservatory put on by the Eastern Territory of the Salvation Army. The Conservatory is for young people from 14-25 years of age and allows them to gain experience in such disciplines as drama, dance, acting for the camera, technical production, mime, video production and worship. In addition to a “major” area of study, students choose an “elective” area of interest, with options such as improvisation, script-writing, hip-hop dance, musical theatre, piano, play-back theatre or filming with a mobile device.

The schedule is demanding — starting at 8am each day and oftentimes going until 10pm or later — but the experience is also deeply rewarding. I am constantly blown away by the talent (and humility!) of the students and only wish that such an opportunity had been available to me at their age. The instructors are equally amazing, and sometimes I wish I could sneak away from my own teaching responsibilities to glean from them!

This was my fourth time teaching at the Conservatory, and each time I have come away with a deeper love of the arts and their ability to move us and speak to us on a deeper level. During the week, I enjoy the camaraderie of other Christian artists who are navigating the same waters as I am, those of being an artist and a person of faith, which can be a challenge at times. It is always refreshing for me to see how each artist uses their art form to speak hope into a broken world and does so in a way that is uniquely theirs.

One of the traps that many artists fall into, and one that I’ve been in myself at times, is that of comparison. Comparing oneself to other artists. This can be comparing one’s ability or even one’s level of success. Whatever it is, it’s not healthy. In recent years, I have come to embrace my own unique journey as an artist. I don’t do things the way that “Artist X” does, and that’s a good thing. This is not to say that I can’t learn from other artists — I certainly can and want to as much as possible. It is to say that I have to be true to myself and create the art that I feel I am uniquely made to create, instead of trying to be someone else.

Fittingly enough, the theme for our week was “The Role of a Lifetime: No Acting Please!” In addition to studying the different artistic disciplines, students (and instructors!) were invited to take an honest look at themselves and determine where they were being inauthentic in their lives. We were challenged to remove our “masks” and be our truest self — the self that God created and not the one that we have carefully constructed for the public.

I had the privilege of teaching a drama major class and with my group of four young women, we created a devised theatre piece called “Who Am I?” based on this theme. I had my group begin with a free-writing exercise where they wrote about themselves, answering such questions as, “Who am I? What do I love? What am I afraid of?” They could write as plainly or as poetically as they wanted.

From their writings, each member of the group choose four statements about themselves. These became the basis for our script. Together the students worked to create tableaus (frozen images) and living tableaus (moving images) of each other’s images. While I oversaw the process, I gave each student directorial rights over their own “story.” They were able to tell the others if the tableaus they had created had captured the essence of their words or not. If not, we allowed the writer to clarify their vision and began the process again. I was amazed by some of the discoveries we made along the way!

I loved watching the way the piece evolved and grew to reflect each human’s frantic search for identity in a world that sends us mixed messages about who we are and who we should be. I was proud of my students for their willingness to share from their hearts, believing that through their honesty others might have the courage to be honest with themselves as well. Certain “closed doors” or technical ideas that could not be realized ended up leading us to even greater creative choices, and this reaffirmed one of the things I most love about being a creative artist.

There is always risk involved when choosing to devise a script rather than start out with one, and this is the first time I had gone that route for TAM Conservatory. I am so glad that I took that creative leap and equally grateful that my students were willing to make it with me and to encourage me along the way. Most of all, I am thankful that over the years I have continued to learn the lesson to be myself, both in my every day life and in my work as an artist. Here’s to continued growth in that department for all of us!