By Sarah Vander Schaaff
If your child was about to walk a tightrope in a circus act that demanded great dexterity and focus, would you yell and wave and try to get her attention, or would you let her concentrate on the task at hand?
Why, then, I wonder, do parents yell and wave and try to get their children’s attention when they step on stage to sing?
I’m about to outline five things parents do that sabotage their children’s growth in the realm of live performance. These tacit rules are in danger of being obliterated by parents who just can’t let go.
Am I fired up about this? You bettcha.
But I’m not getting on a soapbox to preach etiquette. I’m getting on it to preserve empathy, kindness, and respect for something our society has always needed: communal experience. And I would like to help parents understand that when their children step on stage, they have a moment of unique power. Well-intentioned but distracting behavior only reduces it.
Here is my list of bad behavior from parents, based on years of observation as a parent, director, teacher, and performer.
What parents do and why it’s wrong:
1. Parent waves exuberantly when child steps on stage until child waves back.
Maybe if your child is three, this is ok. But once they’ve reached the age when a teacher has used the word “rehearsal”, the child needs to learn how to build his or her own confidence on stage. This is true for assemblies and holiday shows as much as for the middle school play. Children need to practice the muscles of concentration, and focus, and of commitment to the material they are performing. Give your child, and the teacher who organized the performance, some respect: don’t wave. It’s also highly annoying to the parents sitting near you. Do you think they’re there because they don’t have someone they love standing on stage, too? They are just doing a better job of containing their pride.
2. Parent charges stage or aisle to get a better photo of his or her own child.
In doing so, you are most certainly blocking the view of a good number of people who are there to see their own kids, too. It’s rude. And the kids on stage notice it, taking them out of the moment and turning the performance into a photo shoot. Put the camera down and pay attention to the essence of what’s happening that can’t be photographed.
3. Parent texts or checks messages during the performance.
It’s not your child’s turn to speak or sing, so it’s a great time to read email, right? Think of the children who see rows of heads turned to their phones, aware that a good number of people are paying more attention to their phones than to the performance and their efforts. Think of the people near you, who have to see the glow and movement of your screen. We all have busy lives. We have to make the choice to be present. If you can’t, don’t come. We ask our children to keep their cell phones out of sight during class and school shows—if you can’t do it for an hour, how can we expect them to?
4. Parent talks.
You really aren’t whispering that quietly. We can hear you. And sometimes, even the folks on stage can hear you.
My final point relates to how we behave when we are audience member with our children at our sides.
5. Parent drags kid to show, but spends the entire time on phablet.
I was recently at an evening performance of Antony and Cleopatra at a well-regarded regional theatre. It was a school night. The woman in front of me had brought her son, who looked to be about nine. He slumped in his chair, tired and bored, while the mom looked at her “phablet” every minute or so. During one monologue, the mother listened to her voice mail.
In the dark theatre, with the set glimmering gold for Egypt and the drumbeat of a live percussionist emanating from the side, my “willing suspension of disbelief”, was pretty much destroyed by the bright green glow of her text messages.
The impact of her behavior, however, was not limited those strangers near her, it most directly affected her own son. I have little doubt that instead of remembering much of the play, he’ll remember what he mom taught him about how to be an audience member.
I asked many professional actors if they noticed cell phone screens from the stage. They do. As one Broadway veteran wrote me, “As an actor, we can perform through anything. The reason we don’t want cell phones going off or lighting up is that it’s distracting to other audience members.”
Most actors I asked expressed a similar sentiment. Which makes sense, given these professionals (unlike our children) have logged years of training and performing.
The department chair of one independent school’s art department told me, “I feel live performances are our last hope for appreciating true humanity in our current digital, photo-shopped version….”
But I’m probably preaching to the choir.
Photo credit: click here.
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