Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Notes from the Field (VI)


“I’m soooooo sorry,” the mother of a six year old in my audience says. Her eyes begging for forgiveness, her head bowed in shame. “He just always gets like this!”

I shake the offered hand, and tell her, “Your son didn’t do anything I haven’t seen before.”

“Really?” she utters incredulously.

“Really,” I reply. And I mean it.

One of the joys/challenges of being a live performer is that I see the audience every bit as much as they see me. The dad in the back row on the cell phone – hi there, sir! The seven year old who keeps forgetting to cover her mouth, when she lets loose a juicy, mucousy cough – where’s my Purell? And the baby on the lap of a mom in the back, who’s either laughing or pooping – coochie-coo!! I kind of hate to admit it, but sometimes, the show I see from my angle, is a heck of a lot funnier, and more interesting than what the public is getting from me! And while every audience and every child is different – there are definitely patterns.

In folktales, there are specific character types know as archetypes: the Hero, the Villain, the Sage, and others. Though the details differ from story to story, the roles these people (or animals) play in the tales are remarkably similar. The Hero in one folktale might have to overcome an ogre, while in another he is charged with finding magical fruit. Different circumstances to be sure, but he always has an obstacle to overcome, and usually a young maiden to find/save/wed. And just as often, as I describe an archetypical trickster or silly for my audience, my viewing public is enacting, in very real time, some classic archetypes of their own. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce the “Mimic”, the “Know it All”, the “I’m Over It”, the “Performer”, the “Talker”, and last, but certainly not least, the “Nose Picker”.

The “Mimic”: I have to admit that the first time I witnessed this behavior, it freaked me out! There I was, going about my business, telling some story or the other in typical “Julie physical style” when all of a sudden, I saw at least a dozen little bodies mimicking my every move. Eyes wide, and absolutely silent, they were so absorbed by the story, I don’t even think they realized they were moving! Their focus was absolute, and they looked, I thought, a bit like marionettes. I raised my arms, they raised their arms. I scratched my head, they scratched their heads. They weren’t trying to pull focus, or get attention, they were just completely inside the story! After getting over the shock, I felt a little power crazy!! What if I could control other people this way? If I told a story to a bank teller, and mimed handing out money – would they copy my actions, and give me a fist full of dollars? Alas, the people at my bank know me by name, and just shook their heads, and laughed, saying, “Oh, that Julie!”

The “Know-It-All”: This is the child who, even before the story has begun, loudly announces to everyone, “Oh, I know this one!!” During every open-ended question, their hand is raised, and their face set in the smug smile of righteousness. If someone else answers the question first, the “Know-It-All” isn’t fazed. “I was going to say that” or “That was my second guess” are their quick come backs. Some people dislike the “Know-It-All” – not me! I adore (and wish I had more of) their self confidence and love of knowledge.

And the “Know-It-All” is often that sub-species known as the “Shusher”. Because the “Know-It-All” wants to hear the story BADLY – if only to prove they do in fact know it all, they give me their full attention – and they demand everyone does as well. I’ve seen “Know-It-Alls” stare down a noisy audience member with the expertise of a teacher, librarian, and preacher all rolled into one.

The “I’m Over It”: Okay, maybe like a mother, I’m not supposed to have favorites. But I do, and this group is it. I LOVE the “I’m Over Its”!! Their surly faces, slumped postures, constantly rolling eyes. “Bring it, lady,” their expressions tell me. And I love to oblige. See, I’m like that old song that says, “I’m a rebel, and I’m just no good.” If you tell me I can’t do something, I will work with every ounce of my 5’2” frame to prove you wrong. Choose to dare, double dare, or triple dare me, and watch out!

Every time I stand before a group of “I’m Over Its”, I feel my inner obstinate three year old stomp her feet, and dig her heels in. I become like the character, Effie, in “Dreamgirls”, who sings, “I’m staying! I’m staying! And you’re gonna love me!!!!!” These “I’m Over Its” make me dig deep, and bring out my A+++++ game (forgive all the sports analogies, but sometimes that’s the only way things can be said!) They make me keep working on my repertoire so that I have material that is intense, juicy, and special enough to dazzle them. I’m always pretty focused on my audience, but with the “I’m Over Its”, I am forced to really crawl under their skin, to find what moves, provokes, or tickles them. They humble me, because they always seem to appear after I’ve had several crowds of “Mimics”, just adoring my every move. And there is no greater payoff then when an “I’m Over It” sits up a little straighter, smiles a shy smile or, raises a hand to ask a question. “I’m Over Its” are tough, no doubt about it, but they are TOTALLY worth it.

The “Performer”: This is a group I COMPLETELY understand because, well, I’m one of them. You see, I love the arts. I adore them!! For my birthday this year, I saw a dance concert, and a musical show on the same day. Seeing creativity of any kind fuels mine – and that’s the problem. Because as I sit there watching dancers, singers, clowns, storytellers, mimes, sword swallowers, even there’s always about 80% of me (sometimes more) that wants to hop up on that stage, and join whoever it is that is currently performing. Now, I have learned to control my impulse to shove the ballerina out of the way, and take her place in “Swan Lake”, but a six year old “Performer” hasn’t mastered that quite yet. And so, unlike the “Mimic” who will silently sit in their seat, and copy my moves, the “Performer” uses every opportunity to insert himself into my performance. If I make a sound effect, the “Performer” will do it louder – over, and over again. If I do a character walk or pratfall, the “Performer” will concoct something that looks like a move from Cirque De Soleil, and perform that maneuver as many times as they can, sometimes crying out, “Watch me! Watch me!” – as if we all weren’t already!

While I will admit a “Performer” (or on a rare occasion – multiple “Performers” that feed off one another) can make my job a smidge difficult, they have also taught me one of life’s great lessons – how to let go! The nature of storytelling is all about the NOW. Telling this particular tale, to this particular group, and taking in the atmosphere and circumstances of this particular venue. When a “Performer” is in the house, I must let go of my plans, and see how it all plays out. Sometimes, the “Performer” quiets down to a slightly more vocal “Mimic”, and sometimes I land up with a partner for the day. Oh well, it’s always good to share. And maybe I’m mentoring a future storyteller!

The “Talker”: “Hi! My name is Rosalie. I’m seven years old, and for my birthday I got a Wii, and had a party. Do you like my dress? I have another one just like it in orange…” Well hello there, “Talker”!

While the “Performer” and the “Know it All” may interrupt the performance any chance they get, they are, for the most part, thoroughly engaged in the tale. The “Talker” on the other hand – not so much! The “Talker” does not mean any disrespect, and in fact, it is only because they like you (and your tales) that they feel the NEED to tell you EVERY detail of their lives. But given any opportunity the “Talker” will ignore the story, the other people in the audience, and very often their own parents, to inform you about their puppy, or turtle, or favorite flavor of ice cream.

Me: (During the telling of one of my favorite stories, “How Frog Lost His Tail”) Frog stopped laughing, looked up and saw…(I pause for dramatic effect, and to allow the kids to chime in, if they want to)

Little Boy: The watering bowl is gone?

Little Girl: The Sky God?

The “Talker”: The Monkey – I saw a monkey once at the zoo, and it was picking something off the other monkeys head, and then eating it, and I said, “EEW!” I wouldn’t want somebody picking something off of my head, and I wouldn’t pick…

And on and on and on!! It’s hard to get upset with a “Talker”, because they are always so darn cute, and the looks on their faces are the very definition of “earnestness”. I try to keep their absolute NEED to speak in mind, while I’m performing for inspiration. And, I hope, as long as I NEED to tell stories, I will. And when I don’t – I won’t!

The “Nose Picker”: What can you say about the children who are so oblivious to what we adults call “socially appreciate behavior”, that when their little noses itch, they plunge those fingers in there, and scratch away? I suppose you could say, ‘STOP! That’s not what polite ladies and gentlemen do!” But while, I totally agree that nose picking is something that’s best done in the privacy of one’s own home – you won’t ever see me telling my listening public not to do it during my performances.

Because, somehow, when I look out at that little “Nose Picker”, and all the other “types” of children I’ve written about here, I am reminded of a time in my life when I didn’t have so many rules! When, if I felt deeply moved or touched by a performance, it would spur me into action, like a “Mimic” or a “Performer”. Or if I wasn’t sure about something, I’d acknowledge it like the “I’m Over It”, instead of just slapping on my “Everything’s Okay” face. A time when I wasn’t too guarded, too afraid that my opinion would meet with opposition to express it, like a “Know It All” or a “Talker”. A magical time in life, when I was so absorbed in every moment, that I wouldn’t notice if I was picking my nose in public. That special time in life known as childhood. That’s the show I see from where I stand. And, oh, what a show it is!!

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