The role the audience plays in the storytelling experience is often overlooked when preparing a story. The experienced storyteller knows how important it is to tune in to the audience and adapt the story for them, and to appeal to multiple age levels. During my 14 years as a storyteller for family audiences, I have made the following observations regarding audience reactions.
Audiences respond (and therefore enjoy themselves more) when they sit grouped close together, near the performance area. It’s also a fact that people like to hover near the exit, where they feel safe, away from the stage. Call it human nature. So how do you encourage your audience to sit up front, in the "reaction zone" when the innate tendency is to do otherwise? Here are a few key points.
Before the audience arrives:
* Choose your performance space carefully. Positioning yourself in the room away from the entrance enables latecomers and those ’just passing by’ the opportunity to sneak in without disrupting others. Sometimes this means, for example, setting up in the corner of the room and placing your audience on the diagonal.
* No center aisle. It works much better to address an audience that is positioned directly in front of you. If your attention is not divided between two halves of the room, everyone will feel included when you speak. Leave room for an aisle, if needed, around the perimeter of the room.
* Leave room for children to sit up front on the floor. Children are more apt to respond when they are seated on the floor and not confined in chairs. This also helps eliminate the noisy distraction of children fidgeting with their chairs. Use tape or a brightly colored clothesline to differentiate between "stage" and audience.
* No carpet squares. Kids seated on carpet squares put up invisible walls around themselves and are less likely to react than those who sit shoulder to shoulder. Touching each other is okay, and it enhances the communal nature of the storytelling "adventure".
* Leave room in the back so extra chairs can be added as necessary. It is much, much easier to add chairs than it is to get people to move forward to fill empty ones.
* Arrange chairs to face the performance area. Teachers and day care providers are especially guilty of positioning their chairs to face their young charges. Instead, place chairs around the perimeter to face 3/4 front - thereby enabling adults to keep one eye on their students and one eye on the show.
* Put the most comfy chairs up front Give your first arrivals an incentive to sit up front. Others will be inclined to follow suit whether they get a comfy chair or not.
* Keep sight lines in mind Check your audience’s sight lines when placing chairs. Stagger chairs so that the one behind peeks through the gap.
Before the story begins:
* Welcome your audience. Greet them as they arrive. Put them at ease by asking them specific questions. With younger children you can start with silly questions such as "Does anyone here have a name?" With any age you can ask, "Is anyone reading any good books?" This gives you the opportunity to find out what stories they like and recommend others that are related.
* Ask them to sit up front. As children arrive, ask them to tell you their name. Then direct them to a spot right up front that you were saving for them. (Any child who has trouble telling you their name is probably better off sitting next to mom or dad.) With adults, simply welcome them and mention it’s best to fill the front seats first.
* Ask them to move away from the door. Keep the area by the door clear for late arrivals by having your audience scoot over. Tell them it’s so no one will cross in front of them and they will appreciate your thoughtfulness. In jest, you can also mention that their scooting is how you keep the floor clean.
Problems and Solutions:
* Kids sitting in chairs, empty floor Make a silly game of getting them to move to the floor. One way is to tell them that the chairs are only for those people who make their meals and drive them places. (Parents really appreciate this). You can extend the game by accusing an adult of fibbing about his or her age. Another way is to ask everyone who is under 12 to raise their hand. Then proceed to hold a race to see who can be the first one to make it to the front. The catch is they have to stay there.
* Gap between kids on floor and adults in chairs The empty space causes the adults to shift into a non-participatory mode. Avoid starting the story until they move their chairs forward. Ask the kids to get out their invisible ropes and lasso anyone sitting in a chair. Then have them pull the "lassoed" adults forward. Parents will be forced to play along.
* Late Arrivals Make a habit of starting on time. Soon your chronic latecomers will realize the program will go on without them and will adjust accordingly. If over 30% of your audience is notoriously late, adjust your program time to start 15 minutes later.
During the story - minimizing disturbances:
* Unsolicited feedback If it is remotely related to the story, give it a nod of recognition. Better yet, give the speaker full credit and acknowledgement for their brilliance.
* Distracting child Divert the audience’s attention elsewhere. Move or look away from the distraction. As soon as the disturbing behavior has subsided be sure to briefly turn your attention to the child.
* Varying pitch, tone and pace Hold your audience’s attention by being unpredictable. Speak softly at times, take unexpected pauses, and sometimes speak directly to one person.
By following these simple guidelines and suggestions, you will find that you will have fewer problems with audience members being distracted-or distracting-and everyone, including you, will find your storytelling engagements to be more enjoyable.