Why don't we teach humour in schools? In some ways I think humour is one of the most important commodities around. If you make the receptionist laugh you’re much more likely to talk to his or her boss. The best advertising campaigns i can think of all were really funny. Humour stays with you . You remember funny things for a long time. I know I’m constantly trying to preserve my funniest memories because i don't want to loose them. Don't you just hate it when you come up against some one who just has no sense of humour? I don't remember a single lesson in school, even drama that talked about the awesome power of humour.
No one seems to be writing anymore. Especially sketch comedy. I remember the days of Monty Python. Brillant timeless scripts. Or Comic strip presents with the likes of Ben Elton and Rick Mayall, or Little Britain. Genuinely funny stuff. One of my goals over the next few years is to get kids to write. I think in years to come anyone who can generate content will prosper. Anyone who can make something that doesn't already exist on the net will have something of value.
I’m starting with comedy. Im thinking a Saturday night live sort of a feel. When I was living in London a few years ago I did a thing called News Review upstairs of the canal cafe. We met for a few hours a day and rehearsed scripts that independent writers had contributed. It was always based around something that had happened in the news. We prided ourselves on “shockingly bad taste” that’s what someone said about it in a review. We would perform from Thursday though to Sunday and the content was constantly changing. I remember I always just barely knew my words. There was a constant terror that I was going to forget what would come next. The audience were so on your side and everything was so hit and miss. It was exhilarating. And brilliant training for an actor.
Scripts were sent in. If the writers script made it into the show they were paid for the script (beer money) and often the actors would contribute scripts as well. We would spend the day workshopping the ideas in the scripts. It was usually a synergy of ideas that made the script work. It was never one person’s thing. We always built on each others ideas. That happens a lot at EK. I bring in a really simple joke. The human cannon ball got fired….from his job… Then we would flesh out the characters. A boss and a human cannon ball. Then the human cannon ball gets a personality. She rolls everywhere she goes. When she arrives she rolls forward. When she leaves she rolls backwards. The reason she is fired from her job develops. Eating too much and is too heavy for the gun. All of these contributions from different kids. The skit develops a life. There is a something now where there was just an idea before.
So Im kicking around an idea for a comedy club for teens. I would have loved something like this when i was a kid. Kids are encouraged to bring in ideas and together we can flesh them out. It could an idea about politicians taking helicopter rides to parties for example. Obviously Im going to have to be careful with keeping the content suitable. Every few weeks or so we can have a little soiree with parents and friends etc. It would just be so great to see a seed like that grow. It would be so great to empower teens to do that sort of thing. Watch this space :)
i believe whole heartedly that there is so much opportunity around at the moment. I look around me and see people with incredible life experience, incredible talent and no where to go. I'm reminded of a documentary I saw about Russian pianists that could never leave the country. They couldn't make enough out of performing In Russia and they couldn't leave, so they taught and then their best students couldn't make enough money performing, so they taught, and so on and so on. The best talent taught. Their students had no where to go so they taught and their protégés were absolute freaks. It was like a little pressure cooker. Eventually the Berlin Wall came down and later communism fell and there was an explosion of Eastern European and Russian talent that infiltrated the Western world. And it shook the Opera world. Suddenly Covent Garden could employ world class singers for next to nix. All over the place wages fell. That’s the Readers digest version
I was talking to a singer today who sang at Covent Garden who told me about that very thing. He noticed that the work was disappearing for singers in London and all over Europe due to an explosion of singers from Russia, East Germany, Hungary etc. I digress. I personally over the arc of my tiny career can see so many amazingly talented people wasted. I think there is opportunity in harnessing the talent of those people who have achieved incredible things. There are people all around us who have incredible amounts of knowledge and experience and are just wasted. I think teaching should be built in to every profession. Every footballer should teach . every singer should teach. every what ever should teach to refine their skills and to pass it on to the next generation.
Last night I was in a restaurant and a local guest came up to our table and showed my daughter a magic trick. It was really some random person. Honestly who does that? Which one of us would think “ I know. Im just going to walk up to that table of strangers, interrupt their conversation and show them a really crappy trick. It really was a bad trick.
Then I showed my daughter an equally bad magic trick and dared her to go back up to the man and do the trick for him. My daughter loved the trick I could see that she really wanted to show the man but fear was holding her back. I am terrified of magic. I've had to do it a few time in shows and what not. I always think “no one’s going to believe this. Of course it’s a latex bottle that squashes down. I could understand why my daughter was scared to do the trick. After much cajoling she did it. She went back up to him and showed him the coin trick. Of course he pretended to be bewildered. Afterwards I could see the relief on her face. She said “wo. that was scary”
Scary yes but exhilarating too. I think those little moments can be really big in life. Getting over that fear barrier can be a really big step. I remember being about 8 years old and there was a taking turns singing game in class. It was my turn. the class sang to me and it was my turn to sing solo. I was paralysed with fear. I couldn't sing and I missed my go. I kicked myself all week. We played the same game in class a week later and when it was my turn I summoned the courage from somewhere and sang. It really was a pivotal moment for me. Possibly life changing. What a relief. You couldn't shut me up after that
One of my favourite drama lessons is to explain status to kids. Ie the King has the highest status and the peasant has the lowest. I often explain it using the metaphor of the hotel. the hotel owner is at the top of the tree, there’s the general manager under the owner theres the head of staff, right down to the apprentice washing dishes in the kitchen. As Im taking about this i give out playing cards and blutack. I ask the kids not to look at the card and stick the bullock on the back of the card and stick the card to their head so only everyone else can see the card you have. Then I tell the group that if you have a King, you are the highest status person in the room and if you have an ace you are the lowest (this isn't my invention by the way I have adapted it from somewhere else)
I ask the students to stand up and walk around the room with the playing cards stuck to their heads and watch how people treat you and treat others according the the status emblazoned on their foreheads. Then after a couple of minutes of mirth I ask the participants to form a line- the King at one end and the ace at the other and everyone else chronologically inbetween. Then ill ask various kids what number they think they might be and why. There’s always much gold in the responses. “He would even talk to me” “ she bowed when she met me” “She asked me to clean her shoes.”
The group learn pretty quickly where they stand and the line is usually pretty accurate. When i say look at your card there is a collective “Ohhhhhhhh!”. Its fun to choose one person usually wearing one of the extreme cards say a king and have that person walk into the room as if for the first time. You can teach so much from this. You would never touch someone of that status, never woo and yell. You would be reverent, careful, you wouldn't make too much noise. Status is an important part of teaching drama and really hard to teach. But that exercise is really powerful.
My daughter said to me yesterday, there are so many activities out there, isn’t it strange that we choose do an activity like singing or dance or drama…. I guess it is but we are always going to do something. In another sense, why not. If you were a kid again what activity would you choose?
It secretly amazes me when we form a circle at the start of an Extraordinary Kids session and I look around the hall and see 35 kids who choose to come week after week. They must be getting something out of it. I’m always taken over by a tremendous sense of gratitude. I think “ this couldn’t happen without you and you and you….” Its also a little bit like a snow ball the more kids the better the atmosphere. There seems to be a sort of critical mass to make the classes really great. I see that as around 12 - 16 kids. Thats why we cap the classes at 16. When we first started if the classes were too small we would sometimes combine them.
In the drama skits i make sure the kids get an equal go. But lately I have been putting kids in the background of scenes as extras. so they get to shine in a scene and be an extra in another. I have started, where ever i can to put every kid in the group into the scene. its a really fun challenge. we may have a busy office skit. easy have 12 busy workers that all at some stage say “hi boss”
If there’s a pirate scene put the whole group on the boat. A monks retreat - have a bunch of meditators. Its amazing how bodies can create scenery. a human set! But its also so uplifting to see how willing kids are to be part of the set and how much they will volunteer great ideas. There are also such valuable stage craft lessons to be learned here.
I said to this kid who as an office worker in the background chose to get herself electrocuted to stop up staging. I said “Sally your up staging “ she came further downstage and kept convulsing in the most distracting manner possible. “ Sally you’re upstaging still. she came even further forward until she was standing infont to the kid delivering the punchline still convulsing. at that point it struck me and i was doubled over laughing. and when i finally gathered myself i had to explain that upstaging means to draw unwanted attention to your self in a scene and it doesn't mean that you are standing too far upstage.
I had assumed she knew what upstaging meant . Why should she automatically know that ? and isn't it reasonable that in an office you would get electrocuted? She was having fun. And as i asked in my last blog entry are ever really conscious of what we learn….
Who is the best teacher you have ever had? What constitutes great teaching.?The best teacher i ever had taught me so much about my craft but also how to live my life better. He had a sort of irreverence toward authority. the best teacher i ever had encouraged me to leave school! I wasn’t doing very well in school in fact i was failing. He said “ You’re wasting your time. You should do something more constructive. Something that is going to lead you to where you want to go. He taught me how to play to my strengths and that was possibly the greatest gift i ever received from any one.
I never set out to be a teacher. I didn’t realise that my best teachers were in fact teachers. How often are we conscious of what we learn? I thought a teacher was some one to be feared, like my grade 3 teacher who slapped my bare legs for putting my book that she was marking in her stamp pad.
Now that I am a teacher I am reminded of the best ones. “ i sound like Dave right now….” is constantly in the back of my mind when i’m trying to make someone feel welcome or push someone out of their comfort zone. I remember asking him whether he believed in an after life and he said "I believe in the interconnectedness of all things, If I make a connection you, then a part of me stays with you and lives on it that way. How true.
Stanislavski and Snakes .
The story goes the great acting teacher Stanislavsky had an exercise that he would do with his students that was a great way to decipher a student’’s aptitude for acting. He would place a jumper on a chair and the student would walk up to the chair pick up the jumper. Under the jumper is a snake! The exercise only takes a couple of seconds but in Stanislavski's opinion you could tell in those few moments whether a pupil possessed the ability to be spontaneous and therefore could act.
I do this exercise at Ek. Not to test kids aptitude for acting but because it's absolutely hilarious. Every kid who walks up to the chair takes off the jumper and then sees ( or doesn't see ) the snake cracks me up. Not just me the whole room packs up. It reminds me of a game I used to love to play at dinner parties or where ever. A fake laugh competition. It sounds ridiculous i know but you sit with a small group and you take it in turns seeing who can do the most convincing fake laugh. When all eyes are on you it can be really hard to remember what a genuine unselfconscious laugh is. The more sincere attempt the funnier it is.
The snake exercise is really hard because you also have to have no prior knowledge of the snake. Walking up to a jumper knowing you are supposed to pretend to find a snake under it, that’s hard enough. To make that natural, to walk as if you have no prior knowledge of the snake. Then to genuinely sell that horrendous paralysing jolt of electricity that is the shock of seeing the snake is a tall order and utterly fascinating to watch.
I never get tired of it.
There's an old film, Pretty Woman. It was the film that made Julia Roberts a big star. I remember when it came out I was studying acting and one of my mentors used to talk about a moment in the film when she opens a box and there's a surprise inside. In his opinion you could see her ability in that 2 seconds of the film.
I did a commercial for Nintendo and they wouldn't show us the new product until we were in front of the rolling camera. They wanted to catch that genuine surprise and delight. I remember auditioning for well known Australian comedian for a comic act he had written and he said right walk along acting cool trip over a bit and then recover all the while trying to keep your dignity. That was the whole audition.
It’s amazing to me sometimes when you remember an actor in a film in a tiny role like Michael J Fox in an American President. That tiny role was the catalyst for the whole series “Spin City”. Sometimes you'll say “that girl is so good in that commercial” and you are talking about a 10 second performance. That’s why ( and I know I always bang on about this) Kids concerts needn’t be long.
We don't charge for the end of term concert. If you don't charge, chances are more people will come. More people creates a great atmosphere. If there's no charge, the room is filled with good will. We keep the concert short. that creates goodwill too :). If people come and enjoy themselves, they'll come back. Every term the turn out is bigger and bigger- siblings, grandparents, It's really cool.
Why to not charge for a concert
After the last little soirée a kid's mum said to me “ i really like how its even. You make sure everyone gets a turn. thats one of the building blocks of Ek one of the absolute fundamentals.
One of the reasons we started this venture is because we couldn’t stand concerts where that wasn’t the case. Its too early to say this kid is better than this kid. The main thing isn’t to produce a brilliant concert. I think our kids do that anyway but the main thing is that every kid who gives up their afternoon to join us gets something out of it.
Here every kid gets a chance. I make sure every kid gets a least a solo line. so some lines will be sung better and delivered better than others and thats ok. ( one line ) That may seem lame, but in a 20 minute concert / showing they deliver a line, they are part of a couple of songs and in a couple of dances. That’s a fair bit. It reminds me of when i started my career. you’ll find that if you are ever actually in a show you do a few small important things and thats all. but if your 5 year old comes out and says ‘ Did you hear about the giant with dihorea… it’s all over town!?” That’s huge. That’s huge for a little kid. the pay off when the audience laughs - how do you put a value on that?
So we just did the end of term concert
The film Into the Woods came out. Disney's wonderfully accessible offering. SO we chose some songs from Sondheim’s utterly beguiling musical. Primary school kids and I mean, run of the mill primary school kids tackiling something as difficult as Sondheim. You have to count. in your head, if you don't count,, your toast you would mis your entry . I say that but you also have beccy mouthing everything for you....
We did the prologue. Before we started Beccy introduced every character and off we went.
“I wish ...more than life ” We got most of it right.
The utterly rewarding part of it has been how much the kids engaged with it. They loved the music. I can’t get it out of my head. I,m so glad the term is over so I don’t have to hear “ Into The Woods “ for a while
I didn't discover Sondheim till I was at uni. The music is amazing but its more the music theatre people that enjoy it.
We recently, last few months, have introduced microphones into our microconcerts. What a head ache but in the end it pays off. But it is a trade off. Firstly kids love microphones. KIds LOVE microphones. As soon as the mics arrive they are excited.
The mics we use are the shure beta 58s, that's the chordless We have a few chorded mics too which we have used for the last couple of concerts.
We looked into an amp for a long time. I asked a few of my opera australia mates until I asked my friend Shanul who said "You've got to get an L1, man..."
By L1 he meant the Bose L1 which is basically a wooofer with a tall speaker. It comes apart and one person can easily carry it to and from a car.
What a godsend that was. It throws the sound around the room because it is comprised of small speakers at different angles. It s amazing. We use it for our corporate and private party gigs. see www.extraordinaryacts.com.au
THere's alot of management involved of course with kids and microphones. They have to be worded up on how expensive the equipment is and they love to tap them which is undesirable but uderstandable. But when they hear themselves they love it. You have to imagine a dot in the center of the top of the microphone and you need to sing into that. I'm always correcting the angle for kids. The mic needs to be at around a 45 degree angle to the body. the temptation is to hold it parallel and sing at the side of it. You often see the CEO do that too after a corporate gig. The other temptation is to shy away when your voice is suddenly the voice of god. I said to the kids " this is designed to make you louder. If you sing less on the mics or if you don't sing on the mic then it defeats the purpose.:)
By the time we are adults we have learned by osmosis a sense of stage craft. Most adults just have a sense that you need to include your audience. We just know that if you are delivering a small two handed dialogue to the audience that you turn out. You cheat it out so the audience catches what you are saying, they get your facial expressions etc. Its so funny working with kids especially the really little ones, they have absolutely no sense of what it means including and audience. I often find myself saying to kids “ that would have been perfect if we were making a film or an episode of a tv show bit this is different. My mantra seems to be “On stage you don’t always have to look at the person you are talking to.” The other thing little kids find really hard is delivering simple dialogue audibly. I forget that all of this stuff is so new to them. its just so new. Really hard to do. It takes an incredible amount of precision to make sure a sentence is clear to a room of people and to make sure you are facing in the right direction and to be able to have enthusiasm and energy and character on top of all that. its a really big ask! Its brings me back to the best way to teach is by letting them do. When i was at Uni I had a singing teacher who said the key is little and often. Once a term a 20 minute concert. I really think thats the best way to do it. Each kid will probably get ( I’m just talking about the little ones ) a couple of lines of dialogue. but that’s enough. Any more would be too much.
I find the best way to teach kids drama is by letting them do. If there's too much to read or remember it gets in the way. So often at kids performances it looks like an exercise in learning lines. I think it's got to be more about the craft of theatre. I think keep concerts short. A long kids concert isn't fun for any one. As a parent watching long concerts I used to joke that I would buy a pair of glasses with fake eyes inside the rims like Homer Simpson wears. That way I could get a couple of hours sleep while at the concert. Wonderful father I know.
My solution is to focus on sketch comedy. Usually we create them in class and develop them throughout the term. I have never laughed so much. It's amazing how much you can tinker with a skit that consists of only five or so lines. It's utterly humbling to see what kids come up with. Quite often where we start is lame to be kind and pretty funny at the end. The other great thing about making comedy your focus is that after every skit there is a payoff. That wonderful release when the audience gets hit with the punch line. The kids come off stage and know " that went really well. "
Sometimes the best way to create a skit is to start with a question and answer joke.
Joke : why did Cinderella get kicked off the soccer team?
A: because she always ran away from the ball!
(Cinderella enters singing a dream is a wish your heart makes )
Cinderella: yes coach.?
Coach: Cinderella!!!!!your off the soccer team!
Cinderella: But why coach?
Coach: You always run away from the ball.!
Now, two six year old kids could learn that pretty much immediately. The words are taken care of. From here you can really explore the craft of theatre. One of the simplest rules that I teach is that in the theatre and quite often in the real world we don't always look at the person we are talking to. Kids find that so difficult to do but it can really shut down the skit. This is an immidiate cause of closing off and backs to the audience. It can also be a real encourager for mumbling. Most of the time I explain it like this -be polite enough to include the audience in your conversation.
I try to keep props to an absolute minimum. It's really fun to work sround needing a prop. The fun can really be compounded when a kid miimes a balloon or arrives in a pretend car. No props really encourages stage craft.
Which brings me to costumes. One again absolute bare minimum. no parent wants to have to find a costume for s kid or worse have to make one. Then one kid arrives in a little red riding hood bought from eBay with a bloomers and a basket and another kid arrives in granddad jacket saying look at me I'm fagin.
When parents ask what to wear at the concert. Black.
We spend slot of time with on improv. There are thousands of games cirvlcle games and team building exercises that encourage cooperation and communication and working as a group.
Less is more.
One of the things I have learned in my career as a performer is that less is so often more. I think that is true in so many aspects of life. Even in the way that we have constructed extraordinary kids. Small classes more attention Small concerts equals more performances. No paraphernalia, no dance shoes, costumes, uniforms ect. How can we do more with less?
Someone said to me recently good directors don't seem to add much. They just take things away. It's so true with performing. If it doesn't serve the script take it away. First you need to ask everyone to just brain fart. get all ideas then take away what doesn't serve.