Entertaining children is not easy. (See my last post). After a full weekend of performing as FizzWizzPop I’m usually exhausted come Monday. My weekend ended with a challenging party. Emotionally for the family and for me as a performer. Normally, I don’t get an opportunity to speak about this.
I am lucky to have worked with and perform regularly for children of all abilities. Including some that are dealing with life limiting illnesses. For 3 years I performed with Belfast’s children’s theatre company, Cahoots NI in a show called “Magic Menu.” This was a performance designed to visit children at their bedsides in hospitals as a form of respite. Through this project I also regularly entertained groups whom visited the Belfast Children’s Hospice.
The upmost care went into learning how to interact with staff, families and of course, creating and performing a show that was both suitable and entertaining for these wonderfully brave children.
Performing in this situation is a privilege but sometimes it can be emotionally hard. Your job is primarily to entertain with magic however, this audience are dealing daily with a huge struggle that effects everyone emotionally. Particularly when you are invited to perform in their personal spaces. Homes, wards, bedrooms are safe havens for these children.
Working in an environment like this you have to become an expert of controlling emotion. Focusing solely on the show, your performance and the magic. This can be tricky. Especially during your show when you see an adult tearing up, a child crying in pain, or when a doctor needs to get in to treat a child during a trick. There can be many interruptions. You can just throw performance flow out the window.
Then there’s the knowledge that some children will get better and some will not. This can be emotionally difficult to get your head around.
I approach this by performing in the moment with that family and child. I try to engage them as much or as little as I can. This show is all about the child and the family you have came to visit. Use your performance to get everyone involved entertaining them whilst you are there.
***It’s worth noting that there should be no set time limit for this type of show.***
A visit of this kind can last 5 or 30 minutes. Over time you will become better at judging this. My advice, don’t set a time limit. Every situation you walk into is different. Every child is different. If you manage to interact with a child and family for 10 minutes and the atmosphere lightens you have done something wonderful.
This is a concept that took me a while to get my head around. I used to think if I didn’t perform for a set amount of time that I had failed the family. I soon realised that visits like these are not about me, it is all about them.
***This might surprise you but you don’t have to perform the whole time you are there.***
Just being there changes the atmosphere. The family you are visiting want to make sure you are ok. Being there brings the focus to you for a change and this is part of the relief too. Just sitting with the child or spending time with their siblings. Having a cup of tea and a conversation with the family can also become part of the visit and the respite.
In terms of a show, how to approach creating a show for a visit like this one?
I started by using songs that everyone knows and can attempt to sing. Singing a song in the beginning and at the end is a nice way to bring everyone together.
Visual is key
Visual tricks are great. Get everyone involved by using more than one person to hold props. If everyone is part of a jigsaw that finally pieces together at the end of your effect you have used magic to make a connection with everyone In the room. I do this in my show with a colouring-in trick. I make loads of coloured handkerchiefs appear and give them to everyone to hold. Then we use the magic word together and the picture is coloured in.
Finding ways to bring an audience together really works in this environment. If you think about it, when something sad, bad or scary happens to someone close to us we tend to gather and support one another. The effect above exploits this and unites everyone together displaying a families strength working as a team.
Playing with the senses
Textures, colours and music are great too for these audiences. Some children may have very little interaction verbally due to their condition, or with everything they have been through. Designing tricks in your show that make them instinctively react is an idea to play with. I always think the more visual, musical and sensory you can make this type of show the better. I use lots of gentle theatrical music, lights (Rocco’s d’lites are so magical in this setting). Also material, silks and sponges for them to touch are great conversation starters.
Do you need to change?
I don’t change my show or character – I’m still me – but I am more sensitive to the situation I’m in. I lower my voice, I pace myself and I engage a lot with eye contact. It’s always good to begin gentle and work up from there.
I have visited homes of sick children performing Bish, Bash, Bosh (the not so dangerous version of Smash and Stab). I have witnessed in living rooms. children yelling at me not to smack a cup and save the egg. Be brave and play the environment. The child will guide you.
When you enter a home, ward or hospice, there may be some strange rituals you will have to do before performing. These are in place to protect the patient.
Sanitising hands before entering – for infection purposes. It is good to do this before entering and leaving. In hospitals and hospices it is the norm, but some parents might ask you to do this before you enter their home. Be aware of it and don’t make it a thing.
The venue you are visiting could be dealing with an airborne infection. Be prepared to be asked to wear rubber gloves and an apron whilst you work.
Visits can be cancelled suddenly too. Being flexible is key. Offering to reschedule dates and times means the child will still get to spend time with you.
Following rituals of the household – Removing shoes upon entering a home (worth noting make sure you have appropriate socks on underneath your shoes). Tying your hair back or something that might appear odd. As you are entering the family home, make the visit easier on you and the family and comply where possible.
***Performing anywhere you can***
You might not be able to perform beside a child or even hand props to the child to hold. I have performed in the doorway of a side ward to a child before and still managed to get them smiling. I suppose what I’m trying to say in all the situations above is be flexible and open to change. The performance spaces you will be working in are weird and if you are aware of this it can add to your performance.
Kindness is key…
Be kind to yourself after these visits. This work is tiring by nature. If you know that you are performing one of these visits (I would recommend scheduling two maximum per day), give yourself time. Space to sit, breath or go have a cup of tea. It’s vital you break visits up so that emotionally it does not get on top of you. Don’t plan mad evenings after visits. Chill out after, watch some t.v and relax. It is important that you counter this physical and emotionally draining performance – albeit so rewarding – with some down time for you.
This is not an easy topic to talk about, however one I feel worth writing about. I wish to share my knowledge and hope you find use of it. My goal is to help equip you to work and play with these wonderfully heroic families. They are dealing with things we all pray we never have to face. Magic has helped me bring joy and wonder to so many lives including my own. I hope it does for you too.
If you wish to find out more tips of mine, check out my book Becoming FizzWizzPop as a companion to making an creating your own entertaining magic show for children.