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Careers Clinic: How can our scare show work for kids?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Over the past two summers, a few actor friends and I have connected through doing walkabout parts at historic sites, scare acting and other such work.

In the spirit of being entrepreneurial, we decided to form a theatre company offering scare themed shows in our local area, which is not well served with this kind of event. We were delighted to have an expression of interest back immediately, but rather than the full-on zombie fests we are used to, a local venue wants to commission a ‘family- friendly’ Halloween experience as a trial.

We’re well up for doing it and there’s a promise of Christmas work if it goes well. While we don’t want to traumatise the kids, we don’t want to be too bland either, not only because it might lose us further work, but also because ultimately, as actors, we want to make work that is genuinely memorable.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Interactive shows are definitely becoming increasingly popular and can be unforgettable when done well, but doing them justice is a challenge whatever the audience age. You have existing experience with scare shows, so I am assuming you already know that, even in adult shows, just jumping out and shouting gets tedious very quickly. In a family show it will either upset the customers, or bore them – possibly an even more dispiriting experience for any spectral actors involved.

I am reminded of a perennial debate on comedy courses: whether it is possible for a ‘blue’ comic to still be funny when they can only work with ‘clean’ material. In fact, attend enough comedy shows, and you will quickly discover that the real divide isn’t between ‘adult’ or ‘family’ comedy but between material and delivery that work for a specific audience, and shows that don’t. The same applies to the scary end of the market. Ultimately, it is not blood and guts or lack of them that give a show its frisson, but quality of acting, lighting, script and direction.

The Woman in Black is a good example of getting that mix right without overt gore, although I am definitely not recommending that one as a child’s first theatrical trip.

A more family-friendly example would be the Dinosaur World Live show I discovered over the summer and which is still on tour. An interactive show aimed at audiences as young as three years old, it uses puppets and other tech effects rather than big-budget animatronics to invite audiences into a prehistoric world. A key requirement to keeping the balance of excitement and enchantment in this kind of experience is to use a ‘pied piper’ figure to guide the audience safely through.

In the Dinosaur show, that character is the explorer Miranda, played by Elizabeth Mary Williams, who has a lot of experience with interactive shows having worked with Madame Tussauds and Les Enfants Terribles. She told me: “A common misconception about this kind of show is that since it is ‘for children’ adults won’t enjoy it. The best shows I’ve seen in the last year have been designed for family audiences. Adult theatre could learn a lot: these shows know their audience, their responsibility and their scope.”

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Company stage manager Tom Gamble is equally enthusiastic: “For many children, these shows might be the first time they ever set foot in a theatre. That can also be the case for many parents. That’s how important they can be for the future of our industry.”

In that spirit, both guests shared some advice on laying your own fears to rest: “Do your research; learn who already produces this kind of entertainment well. Get in contact, ask them for a cup of tea and some advice.”

As the intrepid dinosaur explorer adds, and I heartily agree: “The worst they can do is say no, or not reply. What’s changed by that? Nothing.”

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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