Observations of a School Performer

Children watching TOT in Greensboro library.jpg

By Drew Allison of Grey Seal Puppets 

As a puppeteer who does a lot of performances in schools, I’ve noticed distinct changes over the last ten years in the atmosphere associated with elementary school audiences. 

There are the obvious, disturbing, new-normal practices of background checks, fingerprinting, driver’s license name tag stickers, and being buzzed into the office. 

But I’ve also noticed less perceptible changes as well. 

 Drew Allison. Photo by Debbie Page. 

Drew Allison. Photo by Debbie Page. 

This is a quirky one, but a certain one. School assemblies are less of a “happening” now than in the past. There are many attributable reasons for this, but the fact remains that often the office front line has no idea I’m coming, custodians rarely set up chairs for teachers, teachers often don’t open associated Study Guides and the obligatory pre-show fly-by from a school administrator is often a super brief, out-of-breath handshake as they hurry on to the next task that they’re late for in their overstuffed days. 

Teachers have traded in the practice of sometimes grading papers during a performance to sometimes being on their phones or other devices. I understand the pressure and duress teachers are under. However, our performances are often the first real theatre experience that students are a part of. As an adult, being on a device is not the right theatre etiquette message to send to your students. 

There have been changes in the students themselves as well. Most noticeably for me is the practice of verbalizing what they are seeing.  Often, I’ll find points in a performance that in the past were quiet, listening moments have now morphed into the audience murmuring scene descriptions with unrestricted glee. A product of being flooded by so much visual content coming from a device in their hands, maybe? I’m not sure.

On a more positive note, students’ perception and understanding of stories and theatre techniques has sharpened.  Younger students have a comprehension and attention now that I did not see in the past. 

Sometimes I stand onstage and look out at the faces of my audience and wonder if they wonder if they’re going to be attacked today, if they’re going to be shot today. I wonder if they wonder if I’m going to attack them. These are thoughts I never imagined having. 

These are just a handful of the changes I have seen. But perhaps these can be a catalyst for discussion. If you perform in schools, have you seen similar things? Different ones? Or am I off-base with these observations?