Handling a Difficult Situation

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Handling a Difficult Situation

Postby Chris » 25 Sep 2006, 14:30

One of the Questions to our previous Punch Booth Message Board read:

I'm sure all performers have encountered this problem before-how did you handle it? I was just starting my P&J show for about 30 three-to-six year olds at a birthday party when for some inexplicable reason they all thought it would be great fun to yell "boo" at Mr.Punch. Not the "scare you" kind of boo, but the "your act stinks" boo.Well I knew they were just being rowdy and not making a comment on show quality since I had just started. So I waited but they didn't stop. So I had Punch leave the stage and I looked around the edge of the stage for a sympathetic adult. Alas none were watching the show or else thought nothing was amiss.So I came out as myself and politely explained to the children (making sure that the few adults within earshot heard me) that to boo meant that you don't like what's going on and that you want it to stop. And that of course they didn't want the show to stop.And that they should enjoy themselves but to please be good audience members and listen to what the puppets had to say.Well, no sooner did Punch enter the stage than it all started again. It was no use-it was a game for them now.I just plowed through the rest of the show as best I could so I could collect my fee. But it was a terrible experience.

This was one reply which may be useful:

The first question you should be asking is not how to handle such an incident, but why did that incident happen. Only when you know that can you take steps to avoid that particular thing happening again. Now I wasn't there, and the children are gone, so I can't help you on that score - but it is something to keep in mind.

My next observation is to point out that you are being paid to entertain and keep the attention of the kids. Now your first thought was to "look around for a sympathetic adult". What are they supposed to do? You are the one with the confidence to stand up in front of a roomful of kids, you are the one with the gaily coloured props and fascinating puppets - so if you can't regain control, what chance has some other adult?

The only time you can reasonably expect such help is if you have a single naughty or spoilt or over excited child who is ruining it for the rest. Since you can't devote your attention to this one child, then it is reasonable to ask for him to be subdued, sat-on or strangled by someone else.

But apart from it being unreasonable to ask someone else to do your job for you, it is also bad tactics. If someone else has to establish discipline for you, then it diminishes your own authority even further.

Now I always like to do something in front of the booth, a warm up before the show to establish a dialogue between me and the kids. I get the kids into the pattern of doing what I ask, and answering my questions, and in subtle ways I am establishing my authority. Consequently when I go into the booth, and the kids, even when engrossed in the characters of the show, are still subliminally aware that it is me talking for the puppets. This is important for two reasons - even though no longer visible my control is still there, and secondly, the very young children who find the puppets a trifle scary are reassured because they too, at the back of their minds, know that it is really me telling a story.

So your job is to establish your own authority, reassure the kids who may be wary, and also make yourself liked. The kids should be eager to please you if you have hit the right note with them. So really all you have to do is clearly let them know what you expect.

Try and anticipate problems. For example, children standing up can be a nuisance. One reason they stand up is because they can't see very well, and the reason is probably that they are sitting too close.

Make sure, before you start, that they are sitting far enough back so that they will see most of the puppet above the playboard.

One of the reasons kids shout at puppets aggressively is because they are afraid (hence the term "shouting at the devil"). Thus anything to allay their fears is good. With little ones I usually say something like. "In case you haven't all seen Mr. Punch, well he's got big red nose, and a silly squeaky voice - oh he's very funny. I expect you'll laugh. Would you like to see him?"

(Note you are getting them to ask you to show them Mr. Punch)

"Well I'm afraid he won't come down here and play with you on the floor - oh no - well you are so very big, and he's only about this size - you seem like giants to him - but he'll probably come and sit up here (indicating playboard) and talk to us. Shall we see if he will? Well you'll have to call him ......

....etc.... oh I'd better go and see if I can find him. You keep watching here, and if you se him say "Hello Mr. Punch" and then I'll know he's upstairs. I'm going to look downstairs."

And I go into the booth, having done quite a lot already. Some kids have no idea what to expect; they've heard of Mr. Punch and his big stick - and some imagine the puppets are going to come out of the booth. So I've established that they are puppets, smaller than the children, and that they are going to keep within the confines of the booth. I've also planted the idea that Punch is funny rather than frightening. I've also got the kids to say they want to see him, and got them calling for him. I've started off with the kids playing by my rules.

And once the show starts you have to watch for danger signals, be prepared to alter the show to cope with particular situations, anticipate problems before they develop. Its called experience. And every show is different - and requires a slightly differing approach.

Now lets look at your problem on this particular day. Since the incident started just as soon as the show started (and I doubt if it would had you done the sort of preamble I suggest) then I think I too would have dropped Punch and come out front of the booth. But I wouldn't have "politely explained to the children that to boo meant that you don't like what's going on and that you want it to stop. And that of course they didn't want the show to stop. And that they should enjoy themselves but to please be good audience members and listen to what the puppets had to say." To three year olds? All quite meaningless! To six year olds? A challenge!

"Did you see Mr Punch? Has he gone? I wonder why he's gone - did you frighten him? Oh I'd better go and see what's wrong - excuse me."

(I go behind booth and have a one sided conversation with Punch)

"What - of course they like you - oh don't be silly Mr. Punch - they're very nice really - they must have been having a joke with you. They were only having fun. I'll go ask them."

"Boys and girls, Mr. Punch said you don't like him and you don't want to see his story. He is a silly. He says you were all shouting "Boo". Is that true? ... Oh I see ... well I told him you were only having a bit of fun. .... Yes, I thought so. I suppose you really do want to see the whole story?

Well, I know, we'd better all be very polite to Mr. Punch. This time when he comes upstairs lets all say "good afternoon Mr Punch" Lets make sure we can all remember - I'll count three - and you all say "Good Afternoon Mr. Punch" 1 -2-3 ....marvellous - I'll go and tell him to come upstairs because you really do want to see him."

I go behind again, have another muttered conversation - "Yes they do, now go on,stop being silly, go upstairs"

Punch appears, kids say Good afternoon, Punch repeats, bowing, and bags his head on the stage - kids laugh and we are away.

So you see what we've done - we haven't challenged the kids - we've acknowledged that we understand there was no malice in their fun - but that its Mr. Punch being a bit sulky. We persuade the kids that we need to placate him.

Had the incident happened further into the show, then I would have taken Punch down, but wouldn't have gone out myself. I'd have shoved up Judy, or the Clown - and have stopped the chanting by:
1. The surprise of the new character and
2. By asking the kids a direct question.

"Hello, what kind of puppets are you?"

"Oh you're not puppets? Are you real?"

"I see - so are you human beans? - Really - well I like Baked Beans but I've never tasted Human Beans. Are you nice?"

And having distracted them from their chanting and got a dialogue going, I would then ask where Punch was etc - go downstairs - come back and explain he's sulking because he thinks they don't want to see the rest of the show - but they do don't they? And so on as before.

And one or two rules for survival with kids:

Don't challenge kids.

Don't tell them not to do something. Rather tell them what to do. "Sit down" is better than "Don't Stand Up."

Don't argue with a child unless it is a contrived argument that you are going to lose and turn to a laugh.

If you do need to be stern and reprimand a child do so, but then immediately soften the atmosphere by making a joke.

If you are losing control snap out: "Fold your arms, cross your legs, cross your noses.... Oh, sorry you can't do that can you?"

If you are losing it, ask a direct question.

If you want more you'll have to read the book.

Last edited by Chris on 26 Sep 2006, 18:47, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby CharlesTaylor » 26 Sep 2006, 03:47

Chris, These are very useful directions. The same methods are used in my teaching experience. How easy to transfer them to the show. But of course you've probably done this so many times it's natural to you.

Thank you,
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