A Q&A with: Karen Gilodo, YPT Associate Artistic Director, Education & Christopher Duthie, YPT Apprentice Resident Artist Educator (2015/16) and Playwright

Christopher: How does YPT respond to young audiences exhibiting “disruptive” or somewhat loud behaviour/talking in the audience while there are performers onstage?

Karen: What we’ve realized over a long period is that most of the time kids who are talking or being “disruptive” are talking about the play. They’re saying things like, “What’s going to happen?” There is some real engagement there and they’re talking about it with one another. Recognizing that this is what’s happening most of the time, we don’t police it.

Christopher: And how do you prepare the cast for when this occurs?

Karen: We say to the cast: “If you think that there are students who are being intentionally disruptive and it is getting in the way of your performance, let it happen. If you can handle it, and you can work through it, let it happen. Let’s give the kids the benefit of the doubt and move on. But, if you know that they’re really trying to get to you in some way and it’s working, then we have a couple of ways to approach it. First, tell your Assistant Stage Manager backstage. They will get a message to the Front of House Manager who can tell an usher who will go and say, ‘Please stop. It’s disruptive.’ If that happens and it doesn’t work, and you finish the show feeling that it needs to be addressed, we ask you to let one of us – the facilitators – know.”

We’ll then address the whole audience before we start the Q&A [after the play] and say, “Who here has ever been in a play before? Raise your hand. Keep your hands up if you’ve ever had to do a presentation in front of a class. Keep your hands up if you’ve ever done a speech in front of your school…”. By the end, everyone has their hands up. We say, “So you know that it takes a lot of concentration and courage to be up in front of people. It’s exactly the same for our actors. When the people in the audience are disruptive, it can really hurt their performance and change the show for the rest of the audience.” We say, “We’re happy to do a Q&A. We would love to get your feedback, but we won’t go any further unless everybody understands and respects that.” And then, you know, we ask a pretty informal question, such as, “Are we good to continue?” And they say, “Yeah!” and that’s it.

I think we’ve had to do that three times in the nine years that I’ve worked here. It’s really been very minimal. We have had some actors…um…“decide” that they are going to school the kids who were talking and that is not okay with us, although their intentions are totally good. They feel their professionalism is being questioned or mocked or not respected. It can be very frustrating and upsetting for actors, but the minute you identify people in the crowd who have been talking, they’re humiliated and the only thing they learn is that they don’t belong here, and we just don’t want that.  

Christopher: Interesting.

Audience Shot

Photo by Jenna Muirhead-Gould.

Talking to the cast before the run can be tricky because so many actors who work here have done TYA [Theatre for Young Audiences] in lots of places, and they really feel like, ‘I know this stuff. Why are you telling me this?’ We recognize that and we usually say, “We know you’ve done a million Q&As. You’ve been touring this show for however many months, but we do have this approach that we feel really works for our audience.” Beyond the practical logistics of letting us [the Q&A facilitators] repeat questions from kids, letting us choose who asks questions so we’re getting kids from lots of different areas in the audience, we also talk about how sarcasm doesn’t land with kids, and how kids will ask questions in ways they maybe didn’t intend. We reframe their questions so that theyir dignity is always in tact, because it takes a lot of courage. This may sound like stuff that most actors would know, but when they have just come out of a show, their head may not be in “teacher mode” and we, the facilitators, are totally in a teaching mode.

Christopher: Actors as a breed can be quite reactive, and it can be hard immediately after a show to shut that down.

Karen: Totally! Because you’ve been playing with the audience in a particular way that’s been fun and then all of a sudden it just doesn’t quite work, you know? I get that 100%.

Christopher: When you’ve had actors try to school audience members, would you talk to the actors afterwards?

Karen: Yes, and Allen MacInnis [YPT’s Artistic Director] will talk to the actors too. It isn’t like, “You are in trouble with YPT!” It’s really a reinforcement of the reasons behind why that’s not our approach and that it’s not just us being precious. Although, I think we are pretty precious about the Q&As (laughing). I wholeheartedly accept that. But in our experience, we know this kind of approach makes audiences feel welcome and comfortable. Isolating certain kids by pointing them out never achieves what you want it to.

Christopher: …For young people being in a theatre, sometimes it’s about communion with the people you’re in the audience with more than it’s about what is happening on stage.

Karen: Yes.

Christopher: Maybe it’s not the most respectful way of thinking about theatre, but it is a part of the experience. We want audiences to go to theatre and to enjoy being with each other. That’s what we say we want. We want communion. We want people to come together and yet there are ways of looking at theatre that are still very much about: “You go, you be quiet, you watch what’s happening onstage, and then you leave.” And that goes against what we actually say we want.

Karen: I think what helps us think about that experience is that when people come to YPT we’re not an extension of their school. It’s special. It’s different. So there is a heightened interest in being here. You’re going to see kids from other schools, and how does that affect your whole experience? I mean, we want them to watch the play. We want them to like it. We want them to be engaged in it. That their fondest memory from childhood might be that they came with their best friend and they laughed their faces off because someone had a huge moustache…well it’s not what we were going for (both laughing) but we can’t control that, you know? And, I would rather they have that experience than the experience of being told to sit down and be quiet and watch the play and you better like it and you better clap at the end to show your respect for it. If it’s not earned applause then take it or leave it, right?

We want them to value being on field trips, value being on the bus, value taking the TTC somewhere, and when you’re out of school, I don’t necessarily think you can impose school rules in a community setting. We had a teacher come here once and ask the front of house manager to tell her students to take off their hats, and she said, “We don’t have that rule here. I respect you might have that rule in your classroom, but, with all due respect, this isn’t your classroom.”

Christopher: Right.

Karen: So it’s important to us that it’s not school when they come here, that it’s something other than that.

Ensemble scene from YPT's The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz, YPT, 2016. L-R: Amy Matysio, Nathan Carroll, Justin Bott, David Coomber, Vanessa Sears, Matthew G. Brown, Alan Hibbert and Jamie McRoberts. Set Design by David Boechler, Costume Design by Robin Fisher, Lighting Design by Louise Guinand, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Christopher: Well then this is a good follow up to my next question because my experience as an actor touring to schools in particular is that sometimes you come out onstage and they are completely unresponsive because they have been scared into behaving. In some schools they’re sitting on their hands, or they’re not talking – looking straight ahead. They get all excited coming into the gym and seeing the set, and then someone will come out and say, “No laughing. No talking. No this, no that…” I understand what they’re trying to do, but it just works against the experience of seeing a play. So, have you ever had issues with that or have you ever had to address that with a teacher or with a class or school?

Karen: I don’t know that we’ve ever had to address it, because sometimes we don’t know what’s happening until we’re in the show and it’s deadly. [You can tell when] kids have been told what the etiquette is and that they’re going to reap some serious repercussions if they don’t follow those rules. Then it’s just a hard show for the actors. [The actors] work really, really hard, but they’re really working against something and it’s just a shame. The intentions from the teachers are admirable. They want their kids to represent their school well and I think they think that by imposing that kind of etiquette the kids will get the most out of the play. I remember reading an article – I think it was in The New Yorker – about observing two teachers teaching a kindergarten class. The teachers read a story and in one class every time kids moved out of their space in the circle they were told, “Please go back and sit on your bum in the circle.” And in the other class, kids could be on their bellies, they could like sit a little bit closer to the teacher, etc. You would think that it’s the kids who are moving around and not really paying that much attention who might not get as much from the story. However, their comprehension was better than the kids who were constantly being policed by their teachers for their behaviour. I mean, it’s not a scientific study, but I think letting kids be themselves allows them to actually get the experience more than if they’re thinking, ‘I have to sit quietly and not talk and not react and if I do I’ll get in trouble.’

Christopher: Yeah.

Karen: We were watching The Wizard of Oz the other day, and there was a girl who stood up the whole time and bounced through the whole thing, except for during the Jitterbug because the Jitterbug is scary. She was holding onto her Mum for that part, but that’s how she watched the play. That’s how she engaged with it, and I just thought what a shame it would be if an usher came and said, “Sit down quietly”, you know? She was really in it and loving her life.