Saturday, September 12, 2009

Day Two-Hundred Forty-Four: Friends are Friends, and Pals are Pals...'ll all get the reference come April.

Anyway, last night was our annual booking with St. Luke's UMC's PM Pals ministry. (Click the link and scroll down)

PM Pals is one of my favorite bookings every year. I'm not sure how we got started partnering with them, but I'm pretty sure the first time we performed for them was the year before I was in the touring office, which would have made this our fifth year working with them. PM Pals is a parent's-night-out type ministry for parents of children with special needs. They have one volunteer assigned to each child for an evening of playtime, snack time, live entertainment, and movie time/"winding-down time". In addition, there's an adult assigned to each sibling of the special-needs children, so that every child is getting special attention from an adult. It's a really great program, and I'm glad we can be a part of it.

We generally don't have much of a performance space at PM Pals; they put us in one of the classrooms with very little space between our performance area and the audience, which means a kid usually ends up on "stage" at some point. During my first performance at St Luke's (September of 2006, Bartholomew's Reading Adventure), a small child crawled on stage and stood proudly on top of one of our scenic cubes while Dr. Seuss and I were playing a scene a few feet away. We continued with the scene, but our eyes communicated to one another the sense of bemused helplessness with the situation. Fortunately, the kid's wrangler got them off the stage before we had to sit back on the cube, but that incident set the stage for what PM Pals performances would be like.

The next year, I was explaining to the cast behind our backdrop that this would be a highly unusual audience, that many of them would not be able to pay attention, and that they may suddenly burst out shouting or rushing the stage. At this moment, the door to the room opened, and in ran a two-year-old in a crash helmet, running for the drop with both arms extended and a giddy "YAAAAAAAAAA!"

Actions speak so much louder than words.

This year, we took The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. As always, the audience was a challenge: some of the kids toward the back were unable to pay attention; one child paid attention but was prone to loud bursts of laughter and comments every 45-seconds or so; one boy managed to sit still for the first half hour, but eventually started giggling and writhing on the floor before running across our "stage" and even backstage, where the volunteer finally managed to chase them down (during the show). For the most part, however, this was the most attentive audience we'd ever had at this event! One boy (whose hands were clamped tightly over his ears the whole show) was absolutely glued to the action every minute. The first two rows of children stayed with us the entire time. Even the little boy who said, disgustedly, "What? Is this for real??" when we introduced the concept of the Magic Circle.

Afterward, several of the program coordinators reiterated to us that having our group perform every season is the high point of their year. Our contact also told me that we were far more gracious with the nature of the audience than some of their guest performers have been. She mentioned one or two who had grown easily flustered by the constantly-moving, constantly-talking-and/or-yelling audience. That was kind of sad to me. I am always thrilled to bring these kids a great show, regardless of the challenge is presents. And yeah, I know that certain elements of our performance are compromised by the circumstances, but my thing with performance art is that the art is in more than the performance itself. I'll sacrifice a bit of our comfort and some of the spit-and-polish of the show to provide these kids with a live, theatrical experience that they're not likely to get anywhere else. And I know they enjoy it on whatever level they're able to comprehend, and that is all I ask. After all, most of these kids will never set foot in an actual theatre space; their parents wouldn't take them to a public performance, rightly so, because they wouldn't be capable of sitting still or quiet. It's such a fantastic experience to bring them something they may not be able to get anywhere else.

So that's my story about the St. Luke's P.M. Pals. I'm proud to partner with them every year. It's a great, creative experience for them, and I think it does our performers quite a bit of good as well. I know it's left its mark on me.