I went to a small French private school in Calgary from the age of 4 to 15. We saw a lot of theatre. Every year in the spring, we spent several days at the Calgary Children’s Festival where we would go to two or three shows a day. We had regular visits from touring French and English theatre companies as well, most memorably Quest Theatre (which I would go on to perform with in Snow Angel as a part of YPT’s 2014/2015 Season). Many of them left a vivid impression on me, and are probably a big part of the reason I chose to pursue a career or a life in the theatre – whatever you call it.
I have been told I have a good memory, and I can still tell you the names of some of the plays I saw during these field trips or school visits. I remember details about what unfolded in front of me while I sat among my friends, enraptured by it all. However, one of the shows I remember most vividly is the same show for which I have the vaguest recollection of what was actually happening onstage.
One afternoon, when my Mum got home from work she told my sister and I that we had to eat an early dinner because we were going back to school to see a performance in the gym. Evening events at the school were rare. Evening performances were even more rare. This may have been the only time time it ever happened. I hadn’t heard anything about it.
“It’s a storytelling thing,” my sister said. “Some French guy.”
When we walked through the school’s main entrance, I was pleased to find my two best friends sitting in the hallway outside the gym. Their parents had wanted them to see “the storytelling thing”, but weren’t able to make it themselves. My friends had been at school since early that morning and were glowing with restlessness.
We were in Grade 4 and liked to think of ourselves as rebels. Our teachers had outlawed us ever sitting together. We were too easily distracted by joking and giggling. We weren’t mean-spirited (at least we weren’t on purpose.) We never got into any serious trouble. We loved the rush of misbehaving, but were terrified of the consequences. Still, we thought we were pretty cool.
The gym had been split in half with a squeaky wooden dividing wall and was filled with rows of classroom chairs. They were all clustered around a makeshift stage with a stool, a microphone stand and an old suitcase at the centre. My Mum and sister found seats near some family friends in the front row. She waved at me to join them, but I was already set up in one of the back rows with my friends. I pleaded with her to let me stay where I was, and she relented. It’s not like I was a little kid. I was almost 10.
The lights went out and the audience went silent. My friends and I buzzed with the thrill of our independence. Out of nowhere, a giant head appeared in the middle of the room. There was something on it. Something big, blonde and twisty.
“Moustache! Moustache!” my friend sputtered.
We had never seen one like it. It was a genuine handlebar moustache roughly the size of a banana. It twitched and vibrated with every word of the storyteller’s earnest and impassioned speech.
Well, right there we were gone. We tried to stifle it, but pretty soon we were giggling uncontrollably. My friends both had seriously contagious laughs, and we were in convulsions for the entire show. I don’t remember anything about the moustache’s story. I don’t think I heard or understood any of it then. I was so incapacitated by laughter.
I have flashed back to that night often when I have been onstage in front of a young audience. Once at YPT, during the run of my moustache-less play, n00b, I saw two boys in the front row crack up on my first line.
“They are gone,” I thought. I then spent the next 5 minutes of the show stressing about how to get them back, until I had to remind myself there were another 300 kids in the audience that needed some consideration as well.
I thought about the night of the moustache during a hard student matinee of A Christmas Carol at Theatre Calgary a while back. The actors were all tired and ready for a holiday. We were at the mid-point of a long run of 8 show weeks when we stepped onstage to meet a rowdy high school-aged crowd who were probably counting down the days until school let out. It seemed like they did not want to be there. They were loud, talky and antagonistic from the start, and we all got mad. The vibe backstage went rotten, poisonous, and at curtain call (even though they cheered like every other audience of tweens and teenagers we had during the run) our bows were curt and disingenuous. We felt ridiculed and disrespected, and it was hard to be grateful.
As an actor on stage, it can be hard to not see gigglers in the front row as anything but an insult or an obstacle to the performance and experience of a show. I like to think that there is a way of acknowledging them or unruly pockets of the crowd (without scolding or shaming), opening them up and channelling their energy into the greater experience of the play. Depending on the show and the gigglers though, that may just be wishful thinking.
However an actor chooses to react, I think it’s important to remember that while a play is about what is happening on stage, it is also about what is happening in the audience. Young audiences are chock full of dynamics – teacher/student relationships, student/student relationships, class politics – all amplified by the excitement of being outside the classroom.
There is a thrill to being in an audience as a kid. There’s an intimacy with the people around you, and I strongly believe that while a play is an opportunity for performers to commune with an audience, it is also an opportunity for audience members to commune with each other. That is one of the joys of being in an audience: the togetherness that we don’t get binge watching TV shows on Netflix alone. I feel horrible saying that I spent all of the moustachioed storyteller’s show laughing uncontrollably with my friends, but I would be lying if I told you it wasn’t a really good time.
The other thing that is important to remember is that the gigglers, the talkers, the more rambunctious of young audience members pay a price. It may be as simple as missing out on the benefits of a more engaged experience of the play, or maybe they will receive the wrath of one of their teachers or frustrated friends. Maybe they will wind up onstage performing for similarly unruly audience members one day. Or maybe they will pay the way I did: by peeing my pants in that hot gymnasium and then having to ride home in the back of a family friends’ minivan with their three lovely daughters all staring at me puzzled as to how I could wet my pants laughing at the storyteller.
“How could you have wet your pants?“ they kept asking. “His story wasn’t even that funny.”