Every Saturday afternoon this summer, I got to sit on a hard wooden bench in a non-air-conditioned windowfront with the lovely hot sunshine pouring down onto me, trying to ignore the tickling pink feathers of the increasingly bedraggled boa around my neck. (You don’t want to know about the poor pink evening dress clinging to my back in a sticky sweat.) As the mic tape pulled the tiny hairs around my hairline and the beads of perspiration created a small pond at my feet, I smiled and told the next ringlet-headed ballerina burying her head in her mother’s leg, “I love your dress! Is pink your favorite color?!”
These were the autograph sessions that followed the children’s show I was in. It was wonderful to be performing, and thankfully the theatre was (usually) air-conditioned. But I’ll be honest: I dreaded the autograph sessions.
I discovered this with my last children’s show, too. The other cast members couldn’t believe I didn’t love greeting the children after the show, taking pictures and signing my (character’s) autograph. “They’re soooo cute!” they cried. And sure, some of the children were adorable, while plenty were inconsiderate, disobedient, and obnoxious. You win some, you lose some.
The problem was – I ran out of things to say. You’re seeing anywhere between 30 and 70 little kids, mostly girls dressed in a riot of pink, tutus, and/or glitter, in hopefully no more than 30 minutes. You’ve got to keep them interested as the line slows down, you’ve got to hurry them along when the line moves up, and the whole time, you’re improvising a lively though usually one-sided discussion in your happiest tone of voice, hoping that your fellow cast members haven’t already asked the same questions.
“Did you have fun today?” “Did you like the show?” “What was your favorite part/character?” “What’s your name?” Occasionally you can pull out “Are you a princess?” (when they’re wearing a crown) and its cousin, “Are you a ballerina?” (when they’re wearing a tutu), but those are rare.
And that’s really about it. You want to make a personal connection with this child immediately but be sure the conversation is two to three sentences long – max. And every child can hear what you’ve said to the ones in front of them. So if you repeat yourself…they realize you’re not genuine.
Because seriously, who’s more discerning than a child? They can sniff out a weak spot in a parent’s discipline strategy instantaneously – I remember figuring out which questions to ask my mom, rather than my dad, when I was about six. As my husband can attest, kids are really difficult to do magic for, because, except when it comes to making things appear and disappear, they guess how you must have done the trick pretty quickly; willing suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing yet.
So my solution was usually to find something they were wearing that I could comment on. “What a pretty dress!” “I love all the colors you’re wearing!” “Oh, you must love the color purple!” “Your hair is so long and beautiful!” “Great shoes!” And yes, every sentence I said was legally required to have an exclamation point.*
*Ok, maybe not legally. It has been awhile since I looked at that contract.
But you see, I was really uncomfortable with this quick fix. Sure, it created a short conversation that made the child feel special for that moment, and it meant I probably wouldn’t have repeated any of my cast-mates, spoiling the magic of theatre for these innocent kids. But didn’t it also teach a little girl that her worth is in her clothes and how she looks?
At one point, I debated with myself – should I instead focus on pointing out how beautiful the girl herself is, rather than her clothes? But that didn’t seem to help things – for one thing, it gave me fewer sentence options. And for another, it simply drove home the message even more directly that a girl’s worth is tied to her beauty. It wouldn’t matter if I told a particularly homely girl how lovely she was – at that age, it would just cement the idea that the only thing that mattered at all was her looks. Not a solution.
Does anyone have any ideas? It’s easy to get in a rut when it’s your job and it becomes routine. I could use some inspiration from you for next time! Please share your thoughts, reactions, or suggestions in the comments. I’d love to be a force for good in the long-term minds of those sweet children.