2015 Melbourne Comedy Festival: Playing to the Young
• Jon Bennett—It’s Rabbit Night!!!
• Yackandandah Players—Scaredy-Cat
Posted on 12 April 2015
This morning I was at a pathology centre having blood drawn for testing. When the nurse asked about my employment, I dutifully spoke about my comedy festival show in order to encourage another bum on my seats. She was a middle-aged woman who had never taken a writing course in her life, and the only performance experience she ever had was playing at theatre as a child. Now many people have begun in the arts from even more meagre origins than this. She told me her family had told her that she should write children’s books or plays. I groaned inside, but wasn’t going to gainsay her when she had a needle stuck into my arm.
Many artists groan inside when people make light of the amount of skill and effort that goes into becoming a good creator, and how much more goes into becoming a financially successful creator. Many people seem unable to grasp that being an actor, comedian, musician, or writer is in many ways no different than being an engineer, risk manager, or programmer. It takes years learning how to execute these jobs, and once you are employed then you have to put in at least 40 hours a week to get by. Even people who respect this much of the equation will put their toe in the water by starting with children’s media, thinking it is easier. It is not.
Children, unlike adults, will only laugh when they think something is funny…not just to be polite. Children are not an amorphous group. What is funny to the primary school children is not funny for the tween-agers, and definitely not the teenagers. If you go into this genre of art making, you either have to be intimately involved with and enjoy children, or have a passion for the style of art that is created for children—preferably both.
Until this year the comedy festival has only had 18+ listings or listings for kids (primary school children). Tween (10-13) to teenagers were only appealed to through the Class Clowns program. I have been listing my shows as 13+ and this year for the first time, my production is one of the first they put into a “family” show designation—which is precisely my target audience.
For the child audience you use a simpler story structure, but it has to demonstrate an understanding of the experiences and psychology of persons at this stage of development. A child’s concept of the world is different than yours. A child’s priorities are different than yours. When they laugh at a poo joke, it’s less likely to be out of transgressive humour and more to do with the effort they still have to put in to control bodily functions. You won’t find that angry edge.
Tweenagers will still enjoy playful, dynamic comedy, but they are already becoming aspirational. They want stories with empowered children or protagonists with whom they can identify. Plots can take a more complex turn.
Teenagers tend to experience humour deficit disorder. They want to be taken seriously and be respected. Straight stand-up will appeal to them more than anything that might make them feel or seem foolish. They are trying to establish themselves in the world. If something playful is highly popular with the university set, such as The Mighty Boosh or Adventure Time, they may let their guard down.
Family comedy is an exercise in socialisation. The comedy needs to be in reach of the children, with some of the trappings of childhood, but aimed smack dab at the adults. This is something I learned when I was a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and again when I was a judge for the Aurealis literary awards. The books may ostensibly be for kids, but it’s the adults who buy them and read them to their off-spring. You have to get them on-side first.
So mom and dad take their kids to a show. They laugh hard. Their primary school children will laugh because their parents are laughing, and will learn what their family finds funny. The tweenagers, who have already learned the family code of humour, will understand when to laugh on their own. The teenagers will look around to see if any other teenagers are laughing before allowing a grin to creep across their faces. I actually believe this sort of family and social bonding can be healthy, provided we give people something worth bonding over.
This festival I have seen two “children’s” shows. Both have people of real talent putting them together. One is struggling from mis-aimed marketing.
It’s Rabbit Night!!! (family edition)
Jon Bennett, the creator of It’s Rabbit Night!!!, is a consummate storyteller. I’ve seen people get utterly lost in his tales, such that they forget where they are. His are humorous and dramatic rip-roarers from his youth.
People have this weird idea that if a story is about a person of a certain age, it must be for a person of that age. To Kill a Mockingbird was written for and originally sold to an adult audience, but because the viewpoint character is a young girl, a story about racism and rape is now seen as for children. I have a feeling Bennett was convinced to do a children’s version of his show because of his subject matter. At least someone was smart enough to put the words “family edition” rather than “children’s edition” next to the title. However the promotional graphic that looks ironic for the adult version, gives the mistaken impression that it is for primary school children in the family version. Bennett’s humour is far too sophisticated for people that young.
He tells tales of the farm and the realities you find there. What he has to say is educational about life when you are forced to face genuine consequences, without the buffer of supermarkets and the media. I believe young people at some point do need to think about what it means to raise an animal for food. I would still recommend It’s Rabbit Night!!! (family edition), but bring your tweenagers to this.
Scaredy-Cat is a rollicking piece of comic theatre. Writer/director Brendan Hogan is clearly inspired by the film Moonrise Kingdom in this story about the Yackandandah Little Troopers. Hogan is a school principal and drama teacher. He also participates in community theatre, helping young people gain experience in performance. He knows his target audience and wisely created a story that is focussed on young people and performed by young people (even the adult parts).
I get annoyed with reviewers who are too soft on children’s media, because when something special comes around, it’s difficult to express how far ahead the particular work really is. I have only a few quibbles with Scaredy-Cat. The performance needs to be snappier. This show has already gone quite a distance beyond amateur panto. If you cut the story to sixty minutes and sped up the scene changes, you would have more professional polish. I would also spend time practising clearer enunciation with the kids. I know they aren’t professionals, and fortunately the plot makes it clear what they are probably saying, but it wasn’t always easy deciphering their lines.
Otherwise I would say, Scaredy-Cat is pure genius. Hogan has created a top-notch ensemble of young performers who each get their moment in the spotlight. They are playing caricatures, but they are loveable cartoon ones that deserve further outings in future productions. The story has a lovely sense of the absurd and derives its humour from understanding the quirks of childhood. This is the sort of thing I really wish ABC2 or ABC3 would produce for television. The Yackandandah Players deserve to be proud of their efforts.
Peace and kindness,