(Wow, Little Falls: Way to make a writer feel welcome! Brom Bones even gets his own section.)
Over the past month, I’ve been busy with Volume Five, school visits, and performances of “Sirens” with Red Wing’s Soapbox Players. (If you’re near Red Wing, you should really come to a show sometime. We perform in a gigantic barn! Seriously!!) The play is over, but the school visits will continue; it’s going to be a travel-crazy spring. While I’m here at my very own desk, I want to give one more huge round of thanks to the students, staff, and parents at Little Falls Middle School of Little Falls, Minnesota, Mounds Park Academy of St. Paul, and Ashbel Smith, Stephen F. Austin, and San Jacinto Elementary Schools in Baytown, Texas. It was a privilege meeting all of you.
I’ve been too busy to notice it happening, but somewhere within the last few months, I passed the magic number: The number of performances you need to give before you really know the material. Not counting writing workshops and bookstore signings and talks with adults, I have given somewhere around 100 presentations to young readers. Yup. 100-ish. And something I learned several years ago has proved itself to be true again.
While I was in college, I worked as an actress at a dinner theatre. Our shows were mostly classic comedies–lots of Neil Simon, lots of British farces–and from Wednesday to Sunday, we would put on 6 – 8 performances, with a show each evening, plus matinees on the weekends. Throughout the run, we would do 50 – 120 performances (the cast kept track by making hash marks on the back of the wooden set, so I know). I was used to the community theatre/school play model, where you rehearse for three months and then give four performances, which are over in a blur of adrenaline and Ben Nye face paint. 80 shows is different. 80 shows is actor boot camp. You learn a lot from 80 shows. 80 shows means you can polish and practice in front of a live audience, which is the only way you’ll really see what works…and what doesn’t. You learn how to adjust split-second timing to get a laugh where there wasn’t one before, or to create a pause long enough for a thought to seep in. You learn about inflection and expression and physicality. There’s nothing in the world that could substitute for the learning experience of 80 live shows.
When I’m making school visits, I’m kind of a writer/teacher/actor combo — and these are exactly the jobs that I’ve done, so I’m laughably lucky! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Speaking in front of big crowds of grown-ups still scares me to death. And getting up in front of an audience and just being myself, not some much cleverer and more interesting character, still makes me squirm a teeny bit on the inside. But after three years and dozens of school visits, I’m starting to think that I just might know what I’m doing.
So, here are the things that dinner theatre taught me about school visits:
– Every audience is different. Audiences may be quiet or hyper, reserved or full of questions, rolling on the floor or barely cracking a smile. You can give the same presentation to two different groups and have head-spinningly different reactions. That’s because it’s not all about you. A really small group is less likely to laugh aloud; a bigger group probably will. They might have had a day full of bad weather, or hard work, or multiple choice tests. They may have just eaten Beef Stroganoff in the cafeteria and now they can barely move, or they might have just gotten back from a field trip and they’re so electrified with excitement that they can hardly sit still. Maybe they’ve actually read your book, and they loved it and they’ve been waiting for you to come, and they treat you like you’re Marilyn Monroe stepping off the plane at an Army base. Or maybe they’ve just been plunked down in the library and told to behave themselves, with no idea who you are or why they’re supposed to care. Once again: It’s not all about you.
– Adjust to fit your crowd. So, because every crowd is different, you might have to do things differently. Think about your volume, because if the audience can’t hear you, everything else is a wash. Make sure you can speak loudly enough for your voice to fill the space, or that you’ve got a working microphone. If the microphone doesn’t work, set it aside, ask the kids to scoot closer, and project. Pay attention to your pacing. Keep it energetic, but not too fast to stifle laughs or other reactions. Depending on your audience’s age, adjust your habits to fit the crowd. Older kids might be less likely to laugh aloud, or to want to be the first to raise their hand with a question or comment, and younger kids may have shorter attention spans. Watch their reactions. Adjust accordingly.
– Scenery is important. Of course, a great performer can give a great show on a bare stage…but a little set dressing never hurts. If you use a slideshow or other images, you can accent your talk with mystery or information or humor. It gives visual learners something to focus on (and, really, we’re all visual learners, aren’t we?) and it will help keep your talk on track. In my own slideshow, I use embarrassing photos from my childhood, pictures of the places and people that provided me with inspiration, manuscript pages that show my revision process, and big, full-color images by my illustrator. I often hear gasps or giggles as I change the slides, so I’m pretty sure they’re working.
– Interact. The younger and livelier your audience, the more interaction is necessary. (This does not necessarily apply to dinner theatre, where most people will react with a look of frozen horror if someone onstage tries to draw them in to the action. At least they do in the Midwest.) Create multiple opportunities for comments, questions, and activities. Try to leave something fun for the very end, like a skit or a game or an especially funny reading. It’s your closing number. Go out with a bang.
– Eye contact is tricky. It’s also important. Make sure to look up into the crowd often, especially while reading. I like to move back and forth in front of the crowd rather than stand still, so that I can gaze out into more faces, making contact with a greater number of people. But I keep those looks brief and blurry. If you lock eyes with somebody–whether they’re laughing, yawning, or watching you open-mouthed with one finger up their nose–it can be pretty distracting. If direct eye contact makes you nervous, pick a spot just behind the crowd and focus on that. When I do musicals, I often sing straight to the exit sign at the back of the hall. (We have a long, romantic history, me and exit signs. Over the years, I’ve told exit signs that I would know when my love came along, and that if I loved it I would try to say all I wanted it to know, and that someone like it had found someone like me and suddenly nothing would ever be the same… (Bonus points to any musical theatre nerds who get all the references.)) Nobody will know you’re not making direct eye contact. Except for the exit sign. Which might try to follow you home.
And now, in completely un-dinner-theatre-related news:
Pour mes amis francais: Here’s a brand new review of the French translation of The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One: The Shadows (or as it’s called in France, “La Maison des Secrets: Les Lunettes Magiques”)! Check it out:http://un-souffle-sous-la-plume.over-blog.com/article-la-maison-des-secrets-t1-116078795.html
The schedule for this year’s “Endangered Authors” tour is nearly complete! I’ll post an update on my appearance calendar very soon…
And for the young pen connoisseur who I met at Mounds Park Academy: The beautiful fountain pen I was sent as a Cybils Award is a Lanier.