Friday, October 10, 2008

Notes from the Field (XIII)

(and other really true things about birthday parties)

While I am generally not one to “toot my own horn, I have been known to quite easily tell anyone that I think I am brave. I’m unafraid of the new, the unfamiliar beckons me, and “feel the fear, but do it anyway” is a favorite mantra of mine. But, just like Superman collapses in the presence of kryptonite, there is a question that makes me shiver – “Do you do birthday parties?”

It’s sort of ironic that I, who make a HUGE deal every December 23rd (the proximity of my birthday to a certain holiday probably tells you why I do – one too many “this is your combination Christmas/Birthday present” packages sent me over the edge LONG ago!!), would be cowed by this type of celebration. But, I am, and I’ll tell you why.

At schools, libraries, museums, and festivals, there is an expectation, a code, if you will, about how a performance should proceed, and how an audience should (for lack of a better word) behave. When I stand in front of a group of children in a school – I’m a treat! I’m the “we’re missing math class cherry on the top of a sundae”. The students are on their best behaviors, because, if they’re not, one of the twenty or so teachers in the assembly hall, will yank them out of their seats, and back to fractions and multiplication (THANK YOU, TEACHERS!!!!). Also, I am loud enough, and rowdy enough, and involve them enough, to be a bit of anarchy in a structured school day. I still have to have my A-game to keep their attention, but at least the odds are stacked in my favor!!
The same is true in libraries – everybody knows they are entering the land of “SSSSH!!!!!!!!!!!!” – so the fact that for one hour, they can laugh, stomp, and clap loudly, feels quite decadent, and is worth focusing solely on. And storytelling festivals?? PLEASE – that’s an all expenses paid vacation in the locale of your choice!! The entire infrastructure is designed to highlight the main event – the telling of tales. Birthday parties, however, are a whole different beast (and I don’t choose that word for nothing).

Let’s just examine some of the sights, sounds, and events at an average party, shall we?
SUGAR!!!!!! And lots of it – cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and candy!!! What more do I need to say.
Those tootie noise maker things that uncoil like brightly colored snakes, and sound like an angry goose.

Decorations – piƱatas, pointy birthday hats (that nobody really wears), and assorted table doo-dads, that can also serve as projectiles.
Music – I love you, Hannah Montana, and High School Musical – really, I do! But not while I’m working!!!

PRESENTS!!!! Webkinz, American Girl Dolls, computer games, and anything else that comes in a big shiney box!! Try being more interesting than that!!!

SEE WHY I’M SCARED???????????????????????????????????? But, because I believe in the motto that has sold a gazillion sneakers – JUST DO IT (and, frankly, because a freelance storyteller is really not in a position to be picky about work, and still be able to feed her Diet Peach Snapple habit), I preserve. I do the OCCASIONAL birthday party – with the following strictly enforced rules.

RULE #1: NO ONE IS GOOD ENOUGH TO COMPETE WITH FOOD. The storyteller must be given an area free of any assorted birthday distractions. This includes, but is not limited to: balloons, those crepe paper table decoration things, pin the tail on the donkey, and, most especially FOOD. Because NO ONE, no one, and I do mean, no one, is good enough to compete with food. Let me break it down for you this way: Me: an average swimmer. A Chocolate Cupcake: Michael Phelps at the Olympics. Guess who’s gonna win???

RULE #: SIZE DOES MATTER. The number of children at said party must not exceed 15. Now, a lot of storytellers don’t like to do school assemblies – meaning big groups of children – sometimes up to 200 or so. I do. Coming from a musical theatre background, that size audience seems very natural to me. A school auditorium packed full of students, and TEACHERS is a controlled environment (remember the whole “I’m saving them from math class thing?) I have, literally, seen teachers fly down the aisle, and scoop up a kid from their seat so fast, they left behind a trail of dust. At a party, though, a large group can quickly become a mob. Gone are the teachers, and the convention of having to be “good”. And may I say, I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND!!! Parties are for play, and a certain amount of wildness!! But, I am all of 5’2”, and oh, so easy to pick up, and toss. I might be able to outrun 15 kids, if things get ugly – but 20 or 30??? No way!!!

RULE #3: THOSE UNDER 5 YEARS OLD, WILL BE CARDED. The week after my next door neighbor gave birth, she came to me, precious bundle in her arms, saying, “You’ll have to tell stories for his christening party – he’ll like that!” HUH?? I looked at her for a good long while, and then, trying not to sound as amazed as I was, said, “But he doesn’t know any words.” Now, I hope I don’t sound mean about this, but – infants are miracles, toddlers remind me of what discovery and play are all about. I LOVE both age groups – but they are TOO YOUNG for storytelling!! There are all sorts of “storytelling like “ things for that age group – storytimes at libraries, with those fun cardboard books (which are also excellent for teething!), circle time Mommy and Me fun – in everything from yoga to music – but actual real storytelling, I think, really can’t be done until a child is in the Pre-K age range. Particularly in a group. It is this humble storytellers opinion, that only then, does a child know enough words, and most importantly, have the attention span to last for even 20 minutes of storytelling. Now, I am extremely animated and playful, and I can certainly keep a two year old entertained, but would it be storytelling?? No!

RULE #4: LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE. At other venues, most of my performances are somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. Not at a party. As I said before, parties are for PLAY and FUN!!! And while I hope to add to that, I don’t want to be, and shouldn’t be all there is to the celebration. A half hour is long enough to entertain my audience, and still leave time for that awesome birthday cake (which, of course, was hidden during my performance, because of rule #1!!)

And so, with these four rules, I’ve been able to leave birthday parties unscarred physically and emotionally, and with my head held high. Why just last week, I performed at one where the parents eagerly complied to my rules. In fact, they had two teenagers, who lived up the street, and sometimes babysat for the kids, helping out. They were a great audience, except one little girl, who was soooooooooooo taken with the teenager, she paid very little attention to me. HMMM…maybe it’s time for RULE #5?????


The following list includes my public performances only. No school or private performances are listed here. Things change from time to time, so do be sure to check the schedule.

October 2008
10/3: Kearny Library, Kearny, NJ 4PM
10/15: New York Public Library (NYPL) Francis Martin Branch 4PM
10/18: Eastern Parkway Branch, Brooklyn, NY: 11AM
10/25: Ewing Library, NJ 2PM
10/26: Jersey City Museum 3PM

November 2008
11/4: New York Public Library (NYPL) Hamilton Grange Branch 4PM
11/5: Melrose Branch (NYPL) 4PM
11/15: Afro-American Historical Society Museum, NJ 12-2PM (performance and workshop)
11/18: Pacific Branch, Brooklyn, NY: 4PM
11/19: Belmont Branch (NYPL) 2PM
11/25: Tremont Branch (NYPL) 4PM

December 2008
12/6: State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ 10AM, 12PM
12/27: New York Public Library (NYPL) Children’s Center 3PM

January 2009
1/7: New York Public Library (NYPL) St. George Branch 4PM
1/23: NYPL Jerome Park Branch 3:30PM
1/27: NYPL Dongan Hills 4PM

February 2009
2/3: Hillside Library, Hillside, NJ 4PM
2/13: NYPL Morrisania 3:30PM
2/18: NYPL South Beach 2PM