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Tips: Performing for child
& Family audiences

By Kevin M Reese

Performing for child and family audiences is not easy.  Anybody who tells you that it is, is very dangerous to children's theatre.   Most actors spend years and years training to  performing for adult audiences, but usually "fall into" performing for kids.   The attitude is generally:  "I'll do children's theatre while I'm waiting for my big break in REAL theatre."   Very rarely will you find an actor who has serious training in performing for children.

See also: A Letter to the Players
(a Pep Talk from the Playwright)


PERFORMING FOR KIDS.  When we perform for kids, what we are doing is gently holding their imaginations in the cup of our hands. We tell them: "Trust me. Let your imagination come for a ride with MY imagination and I promise you I’ll take you on a wonderful trip. We’ll have fun and I’ll show you some wonderful things you may not have seen before and tell you some wonderful things you may not have heard before. All you have to do is trust me– I promise I won’t let you down." Then we proceed to perform for them and more importantly, we proceed to PLAY with them. Not FOR them or TO them or LIKE them– but WITH them. Soon everything is going well: we’re having fun, the kids are having fun, the adults are having fun. We’re being very good stewards with their imaginations. But then something goes wrong. An actor loses concentration, gets tripped up by a response from the kids, drops character (a felony in children’s theatre!), or any of a number of things that can shatter their willing suspension of disbelief. And you know what happens? We lose them! It’s like we open up our hands and let their precious imagination fall flat on the floor and we say "Ha-ha, fooled you!" It will take at least ten minutes of flawless performance to get them back into the groove of the show (that is, IF they decide to give you a second chance– sometimes they don’t). Even then, they may only observe the show and not trust you enough to let themselves become caught up in the magic again. We are in the business of nurturing these precious imaginations. They are the theatre-goers of the future. They are the CEOs, the teachers, the actors of tomorrow. We must help them learn the importance of their imagination.

MUSIC.   The music in my shows is not difficult. When there is harmony, it's usually just simple two-part harmony. Most of the female songs are comfortable in soprano as well as alto voices. Likewise, the men's songs can be sung by tenors or baritones. The songs are, for the most part, "short, sweet, and to the point." Rarely does one of my songs last over 90 seconds. Since I was also one of the performers in many of my scripts, I knew what torture it was (for me as well as the kids) to be singing a song to a group of kids and have it go on, and on, and on....

PADDING FOR MUSIC.    Sometimes during a scene, characters may need to PAD (ad lib) until their song begins.  This may be due to a number of things.  It is probably more common when a Performance Soundtrack recording is used instead of a live accompanist.  It is a wise actor who has a good 15-30 seconds of adlib material ready for each song s/he is onstage for-- regardless of whether s/he is in the song or not.

MUSIC TEMPOS & MICROPHONES.  The quicker, the better. Ideally the tempos will be quick and lively, but not too fast that the actors can't enunciate the words well to the kids. Regarding microphones, remind your actors that microphones do not add energy to their voices--microphones merely amplify what is there. They need to use the projection, intensity, energy, and diction they would use were they not using microphones. Actors tend to get lazy if they know they'll have microphones to rely on.

RATE OF SPEECH.   I saw a recent study that said the average adult speaks at a rate of almost 170 words per minute. But the average 5- to 7-year-old processes speech at a rate of only 120 words per minute.  The average high-schooler processes speech at a rate of about 140 to 145 words per minute, .  If an audience is unresponsive, what an actor may call bordom, inattentiveness or even (shudder!) ADD, may actually just be the result of an actor talking too fast.  I can personally attest to the validity of these findings.  For years I have had the ability to get kids-- rooms full of kids or just a couple kids in a group) to talk with me, listen to me and be amused by me.  Aside from the caring grin on my face, I slow my delivery rate for them.

PACE I remember seeing a magazine ad in the 70s for Maxell. It showed a guy sitting in an easy chair, gripping onto the arm rest. He was listening to a speaker set in front of him and the force of the sound coming from the speaker had the effect of a giant fan--his hair was blowing back and he was hanging on for dear life. He was experiencing the music! That's kind of the way I see my scripts being done. Keep the pace quick and crisp (but not TOO fast-- see note above), let all the elements of the production get to the kids and let them experience the show. They don't need time to ponder or rationalize or reflect while their watching--they can do that on their way home. It's the director's job to know if the pace is becoming too fast. I often tell the actors of the original productions to think of it as a radio play when it comes to pace. If there are many dramatic pauses, the kids will get bored (and there's really nothing in my plays deep enough to warrant the kids having to think that much). This isn't Ibsen.  Actors should act during the lines, not between them. If they have to pause for some reason, make sure it is justified and filled with action—and only if it adds to the plot. It's not a good idea to have bits just for the sake of having bits; they should either further the plot or enhance characterization. Pace is probably the most important thing a director can impose on his/her actors. I'm not only referring to the lines—but also blocking. Directors should make sure the blocking is lively, but MOTIVATED. Some change in blocking (a cross, a turn, etc) should take place every 2 or 3 sentences or the pace will seem slow to children. Actors should butt their line right behind their cue line, and continue with the established pace of the scene. It should almost have the feel of a "speed run." They should not slow down the scene's pace for the benefit of their own line reading. Nothing will get the kids coughing, fidgeting, or visiting with their neighbors faster than a slow pace.

STYLE.   Don't be afraid to be silly and use slapstick humor.  Children love slapstick (adults really do, too, but they don't like to admit it). Slapstick consists of one-liners and puns, physical humor (falls, bumps, slaps, etc), and situational incongruities (working up to a sneeze and then hiccupping, crying loudly and stopping abruptly to say something, etc). Hopefully, the director knows what is funny to children and uses that as a guide when picking and choosing. If the actors are afraid to be silly, you're in trouble. Many times actors who are trained for adult theatre and not for children's theatre will resist letting their hair down enough to play with the kids. They worry too much about how they will be perceived by the adults in the audience. The reality is, the adults in the audience will hold the actor in higher regard if s/he can relate will with the kids and give them one heck of a show. The actor must realize there is a BIG difference between theatre for adults and for kids. The style used in plays by KMR Scripts is a cross between Carol Burnett and Captain Kangaroo (two of my biggest influences). Most of the plays deal with traditional children's literature (well-known fairy tales). Our mission is not to affect social change or impart morals (except those that are inherent to the fairy tale's story line), it is for entertainment. Hopefully, the children will be so turned on by what they see that they will look forward to seeing another play—even a more serious or sophisticated one. The actors need to know how to pause for laughter and audience participation without slowing down the pace of the scene.  It's not as easy as it seems.

NON-CONVENTIONAL CASTING.  We love it!  Do it when you can.  KMR Scripts' shows could conceivably be done by all male or all female casts. That would reinforce to the kids that when you're using your imagination, you can be anything you want: man, woman, animal, or even a rock. The only problem we can foresee with alternative casting is where the result would be a political/social statement that isn't dealt with in the original story.  Kevin M Reese doesn't  want to be involved in that with children's theatre. His shows are for family entertainment-- not social change.

GIVING AND TAKING FOCUS.  During the time an actor is in the sight of the audience, he or she is ALWAYS either giving, taking, or sharing focus. The skilled actor can help the director guide the audience's attention to where it's supposed to be by being aware of where the audience's focus should be and helping to guide them there. This is even more essential when the pace is as quick as that in a children's play. There is so much for the kids to look at, it is easy for them to get distracted.

EXPLETIVES.  When performing in participatory theatre, where you never know what the kids in the audience will say next, actors will often find it necessary to ad lib a reaction to what the audience says.  Be careful the expletives your actors use . Even with perfect diction and projection, "Jeez" may come across as "Jesus."  "Dang" may come out as a southern version of "Damn." "Shoot" may come out as "Sh*t." When, because of diction or projection, an audience member believes they heard a "bad word", no amount of persuasion from you after the show can convince them otherwise (besides, by that time, the performance has gone down the drain for them anyway).  Some that we've found to be pretty safe:  Golly!  Jiminy Christmas!  Gee Whiz!  Oh, no!

REHEARSALS.  I was recently involved with a production one of my shows. The theatre had done a number of children's shows before and had developed the BAD habit of under-rehearsing. The actors barely got their lines down by the opening performance. They prided themselves on being able to "get by." I surmised that their attitude was either:  "We've worked together in a million kids shows, we'll help each other get through it."  or   "it's only Children's Theatre." I also surmise that the actors don't get a lot of work elsewhere (was that catty of me?). They forget that the purpose of rehearsal is not only for the actor to become intimate with his/her character-- but also for the other actors to become intimate with each other's characters. How do they know how to act and react if they haven't rehearsed the show enough to know what each other will do? Plus, adding in all the audience participation, there's too much for the actor to deal with during this show. Please don't skimp; sufficient rehearsal is crucial. And Please have someone there to keep tabs on the music. Actors NEED someone specifically listening to their songs, telling them where they need improvement. The Rehearsal Soundtrack provided by KMR Scripts is nice, but it can't do the job of a Music Director.  


WHY USE IT? The audience participation is good for checking retention and reinforcement, so don't plow through it. Unless consistency is reached, the kids will think they are being teased or will otherwise get out of the habit of answering back at the actors. No one can predict what a given group of children will come up with if you "give them the reigns." Actually listen to their responses--you may be impressed. During the rehearsal process, other places for responses may be found, but we must keep in mind that there is a fine line between just enough and too much response. Too much will destroy the show's pace. This script is to give you an idea of what direction to take the audience. It's like a map: It shows you where we want to take them, but exactly how we get there is up to you. Also, a good director will play "the audience" during rehearsals and yell out plausible (and seemingly UN-plausible) responses to the actors' solicitation for participation.  Once the actors are in front of a few hundred kids, they will kiss their director's feet if s/he did an adequate job of preparing them for the performance.  You cannot be too prepared for audience interaction.  If you underestimate the imaginations of the kids, I promise you will be crucified onstage.

GETTING THE RESPONSE YOU NEED In shows offered by KMR Scripts, many times the solicitation for the audience response "(aud resp)" is scripted. Sometimes it is not. If it is not, it's usually because there is more than one appropriate way to solicit the response and the actor is given control of finding the best way for that particular audience. (How they responded to a previous question may dictate how they'll respond, or maybe they're a particularly rowdy group and the actor may need to damper the response a little)

1. PRESHOW. Sets up that the show is a special kind of show and that there'll be times when the actors will ask them questions.
2. BE CONSISTENT. If you blow off (especially early on in the play) any of the kids' opportunities to respond, they'll get out of the habit of responding. Be patient, let them know you really want to hear what they have to say.
3. BE SPECIFIC. Do you want them to respond or are you asking another character or delivering a rhetorical question? (use of eye contact, focus, body position will help here) Are you looking for a specific response? (guide them to what you need) Do you want them to repeat after you? ("Let's tell him to get lost. Say: Hasta la vista, baby!")
4. BE STRONG. Control the audience, don't let them take control of the scene. Don't let them get away with an inappropriate response (whether it's harmful or just incorrect).
5. TRUST THE SCRIPT. If the script says "(aud resp)," there's a reason for it.

1. You must!
2. The Pre-Show routine available from KMR Scripts Director's Script of each show is highly recommended to get the kids into the frame of mind for audience participation. It imparts theatre etiquette and let's the kids (and adults) know how valuable their participation is to the show. Your show can certainly be done successfully without the Pre-Show, but it only takes 3-5 minutes and adds so much to the theatrical experience for the kids.
3. Trick: When all the kids in the audience are all yelling at the same time, act as if you hear the response you're after. They can only hear their own and their immediate neighbor's voices and won't know you're pulling a fast one.
4. Try to "lead" the kids to the response you're after. You'll save a lot of time. If your trying to get them to make animal sounds, it is preferable to say something along the lines of: "Look at all the wild animals! Let me hear your animal sounds. Let me hear the lions." . . . etc. Make it clear that you're assuming they will jump in without hesitation. If you say something like: "Are there any wild animals out there?", they may not understand that your mean they are the wild animals and they'll look around to see if any lions are sitting next to them. Of course you will invariably get a little jerk who just wants to be difficult and continually tries to sabotage the participation.
5. Do not let your actors get to where they attempt to rush through the audience participation sections to get them over with. The original productions were developed in front of thousands of kids and based on written evaluations by teachers/administrators. The audience participation sections were consistently among the kids' favorite parts of the shows. I personally would cast an actor who relates well with kids and is just OK as an actor over another actor who has better acting skills but can't relate to the kids. Kids will overlook bad acting before they'll overlook patronization.
6. You're safer to stick to the scripted audience participation and not add much more in other places. Too much interaction with the kids will drag your performance pace down. In the same vein, bypassing the participation sections in the script may leave the audience hanging.
7. Be very careful how you word your solicitations. Remember, the kids don't have scripts, and if you ask two or three questions in a row, how do they know which one (if any) they should respond to. When you want the kids to respond, the actor should make it VERY clear when and how they should do so. During rehearsals, the director can do the actors a huge service by playing devil's advocate--showing them how the kids might respond to the wording of their solicitations.
8. Actors can make particular use of their bodies to control the kids' responses. An actor delivering the line, "what should I do" facing the audience seems to be soliciting a response. However, delivering the same line facing another character or facing upstage seems to convey that s/he's not talking to the audience and they shouldn't respond.

REGAINING AUDIENCE CONTROL The audience should NEVER think the actors don't have complete control over them and their responses or you'll have ANARCHY. Letting the response go on (even three seconds) too long can destroy the pace of the scene. Here are ways to regain control: a  Look like you're getting ready to say something important. b  Begin talking (or mime gibberish). When they notice that they're missing something, they'll quiet down. c  Stop and give them a look of "Guys, you know better than this." Be careful of being condescending. d  (Last resort:) Hold your hands out to quiet them or put your finger to your lips, doing the "shh" gesture.  Resist the temptation to verbally tell them to be quiet. (You usually have to break character to do it, and it announces to the world that you've lost control.) e  Gagging a child is not an option.

(As Applies to KMR Scripts)

To Check Retention Whether it's something the kids already know, or something they've just been told, reiteration ("rule of threes") is the key to retention.

  • "Who should the pigs be careful of?" (The Big Bad Wolf)

  • "Kids, is smoking "cool?" (No)

Affirm Positive Behavior / Convict Negative Behavior Individual responsibility has become clouded by the school of thought that the perpetrator of bad behavior may be a victim and that individual success is really just (or should be) a result of team effort. We all know the difference between "right" and "wrong"-- Kids need to learn that it is OK to stand up for what is right and it's OK to condemn evil behavior.

  • "Should we tell the merchant to stop selling the wolf stuff that's bad for him?" (Yeah)

  • "I make more money if they smoke more cigarettes; isn't that good?" (No)

  • "Beauty's not even crying, but we are, Father, see? Aren't these real tears, kids?" (No)

  • "A fib is really a lie, and it's not nice to lie, is it kids?" (No)

Asking for Help Nothing makes a likeable character more likeable or gets the kids involved faster than to ask the audience for help.

  • "I need a place to live. Can I live with one of you guys?" (Yeah)

  • "I need to punish the kittens for lying, what should I do?" (Give them a time out)

  • "We can't get the phone to work, do you know what to do?" (Plug it in)

Empowerment by the "Pep Rally" Effect Usually a method of reiteration, this gets the kids caught up in the moment. A good way to wrap up a show, leaving the audience fired up.

  • "Are you gonna smoke?" (No!) "Take drugs?" (No!) "Drink alcohol?" (No!)

  • When a character succeeds at something, let the audience congratulate them by applause and "Yay!"

Plot Control Kids get a kick out of thinking they can have some control over the plot. It gives them some ownership of the production, and though the interactive atmosphere, it becomes "our" show instead of "the" show. Of course, the actors must have complete control over the audience reactions.


  • "Should I build my house of straw or wood?" (Wood)

  • "Kids, I have to hide! Where should I hide?" (Over here)

Utilization of Hand-Outs If the kids were given some kind of simple prop or other hand-out to be used at a particular time of the show, they not only get to participate in the show, but they have a souvenir as well. Even better if it can be turned into a crafts project before the show.


  • [Cinderella] Paper crowns that they wear during the ball

  • [City Mouse & Country Mouse] Color pages of a city or country house to hold up when the mice walk by.

  • [Buddy, the Magic Snowman] Hold up paper snowmen to hide Buddy when he's being chased by the cop.

  • [Three Little Kittens] a pair of paper mittens that they have when the kittens find their mittens.

  • [Little Red Riding Hood] Paper flowers that Little Red can pick that gets her lost in the forest.

Kids Onstage If you can find a way to get one or more of the kids in the audience onstage to become part of the show, every other kid in the audience will experience it vicariously. This is literally audience participation.


  • [City Mouse & Country Mouse] Child is used to be the mailperson and delivers the mail to Country Mouse.

  • [Wizard of Oz] child is the Wizard of Oz (explained to be very shy, so Glinda speaks for him/her)

  • [Cinderella] Child becomes Prince's footman, carrying the slipper to Cinderella's house.

Kids Becoming Part of Scenes Instead of just changing the scenery or announcing the change of scene in a line, include the kids in the scene--let them become part of the scenery, part of the show.


  • [City Mouse & Country Mouse] They become neighborhood houses as the mice walk by on the street.

  • [Beauty & Beast] They become statues, rose bushes, and a forest of trees when the merchant gets lost.

  • [Little Red Riding Hood] They become forest animals and flowers.

  • [Cinderella] They become guests at the Royal Ball (they even get to dance)

CONTROLLING AUDIENCE RESPONSES There are two main objectives for the actors as far as soliciting audience response is concerned:
1) Getting the kids to respond they way the show needs them to respond.
2) Getting the kids to be quiet after they respond so that the show can continue.

Specific Answer Responses - A specific answer is required in order for the plot to continue.


  • "Should I go check to see if she's alright?" (Yes)

  • "What should I do to teach them not to lie?" (Give them a time out)

  • "Let's tell him to get lost. Say: baby!" (Hasta la vista, baby)

  • "Wish me luck, kids." (Good luck)

Non-specific Answer Responses - No specific answer is required in order for the plot to continue.


  • "What kind of flowers/animals are you?" (daisies, roses, kitty, snake)

  • "How are you guys doing?" (Good, fine, etc)

LEVELS OF "GETTING IT" There’s no doubt that you can’t perform for kids in the same way you perform for adults and vise-versa. The performance style you would use to perform "Little Red Riding Hood" for an auditorium full of five-year olds is not the same you would use to perform "The Nerd" for a house full of fifty-year olds (though there are many similarities!). When you’re performing a show for an audience comprised of kids and adults, you’re adding another level of complexity.  I have found that, when a joke or bit is delivered to an audience made up of kids and adults, there are four levels of "getting it" a work.  When performing for child and family audiences we must make sure that there is something for everyone.

1  FOR KIDS ONLY. Adults don't get it.  Usually because they have forgotten what it's like to be a kid.
2  EVERYONE GETS IT. Children and adults understand the meaning in the same way.
3  MULTI-LEVEL. Children understand a simpler meaning than the adults, who oftentimes because of their maturity, get a different one. Sort of a double entendre.
4  FOR ADULTS ONLY.   Over the kids' heads. It's purely for the benefit of the adults. Don't let yourself make the mistake of thinking that adults have to have "adult" entertainment (by "adult" I do NOT mean X-rated) in order to enjoy themselves at a children's show.  I have found that most adults (at least those that would show up at a children's play with their child) would have fun just watching their kids having a good time at the theatre.  If the actors can provide a good show for their kids, the adults will come away satisfied too.  The best way to a parent's heart is through their child.  Now, this doesn't mean there can't be any bits or lines for the benefit of the adults in the audience, but we need to remember that the primary audience members are the kids.

Breaking Character
(Carol Burnett Syndrome)

BREAKING CHARACTER When a child is watching a play, they are completely engrossed in what they are seeing and hearing.  The actors are basically guiding the young imaginations through a fantastic journey which the child willingly follows.  The only rule the child has for the performers is:  "I will believe as long as I think YOU do."  Children can overlook bad acting as long as the actor is believing what they are portraying.  As long as the actor is caught up in the imaginary world, the children can overlook immature acting skills.  They cannot, however, overlook an actor breaking character (see "Performing for Kids," above).  This is why I tell theatres I would much prefer an average actor who can relate to kids over a GREAT actor who can't relate to kids.

THE CAROL BURNETT SYNDROME [I shouldn't have to even mention this section, but I find it necessary due to the common practices of a particular "professional children's theatre" that performs a LOT of my shows every year.  I've stopped attending their performance because of this.  I've expressed my feelings about it numerous times to their Producer, but the situation continues-- I suppose she's afraid to rustle any feathers.  Many of their actors perform at a local "melodrama house" and have picked up some bad habits (for children's theatre-- I'm sure it works well in melodramas).] In my Playwright's Note in every script, I mention that the style used in my shows are a cross between Carol Burnett and Captain Kangaroo.  This is meant to convey that my early entertainment influences were Ms Burnett (unpredictable, zaniness, slapstick and episodic) and the Captain (endearing, caring, consistent, trustworthy), to give the reader a sense of my point of reference-- not that the preferred performance styles are the same (I guess maybe I should re-word that Note!).   The Carol Burnett show was great.  One of the many things they were famous for was that they had a habit of getting tickled by each other and laughing during the show.  This was funny to the TV audience because it made us think "Gee, they're so funny, they make each other laugh."  I believe the reason it was funny was that it played with the dramatic concepts of "The Fourth Wall" and "Willing Suspension of Disbelief."  This is only funny if the audience understands those two concepts to begin with.  Adults usually do, children usually don't have a firm grasp of the concepts yet-- that is why I believe it should not be done in plays for child audiences. I'm sure the adults in the audiences laugh when one of the actors "gets tickled."  If the actor tried it and the audience didn't laugh, I'm sure they would never try it again.  I am also sure that NONE of the kids in the audience are laughing when that happens (unless they are merely laughing because they see their parents laughing-- and don't want to be left out of the fun).  What the kids see is the story put on PAUSE while the adults who are supposed to be telling the story spend some selfish time together, enjoying an inside joke that only adults can comprehend. I see nothing wrong with providing things in a show exclusively for the entertainment of the adults in the audience-- as long as it is not detrimental to the entertainment of the kids.  We do, however, need to remember the purpose of our performance-- entertaining children.  Putting a reference to a TV show popular with adults in a line is no big deal (in fact, I encourage it!)-- but messing with a child's development of their Willing Suspension of Disbelief is a BIG deal to me.  And when an actor breaks character by laughing onstage, that is what is happening-- no matter how you try to sugarcoat it or justify it. When I was managing a touring children's theatre company, breaking character was an immediate $50.00 fine (about 1/4 of their weekly pay) -- no matter the situation.  Any theatre that condones their actors breaking character during a performance does not, in my opinion, have the best interests of the children in mind.

Need Help? Kevin M Reese is available to meet with your cast and staff to provide workshops on various aspects of performing for kids: controlling audience participation, differences between performing for kids and performing for adults, developing fun characters, etc.--or even critiquing a rehearsal. His fee is only $250.00 per day plus all travel expenses (he travels cheap!). Contact us for availability and topics.

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