Being onstage can be intimidating, even for confident spectators. The quicker you can get them to relax, the more expressive, authentic and watchable they will become. Also, the more comfortable they appear, the easier it will be for you to find your next volunteer.
Orchestrate their arrival
Waiting for your selected volunteers to arrive onstage can ruin the energy and pace of an interactive presentation if you don’t plan for this dead time. This is especially true in large audiences. To limit this problem:
- develop standard lines to use as they negotiate their way to the stage;
- avoid selecting too many spectators stuck in the middle of long rows;
- play a short, high-energy music track as they walk up;
- select volunteers a few moments ahead of when you need them and carry on with the routine as you are waiting;
- if you are choosing multiple helpers at the same time, start picking them from the back of the crowd and work your way forward, so the overall wait is reduced.
Beware applause fatigue
Unless it has been exceptionally difficult to get someone to join you, I avoid setting the precedent of seeking applause as they come up to the stage. This can lead to fatigue in clapping if you use volunteers throughout the presentation. Let them save their applause for when the person returns to their seat as a hero.
Be a welcoming host
Think of how a good host treats their guests when they visit their home. Following the same social conventions is an excellent way of welcoming your volunteers to your professional home. Never underestimate the power of smiling and warm, open body language. Establish good eye contact with them as they come onstage. Sometimes, you can deliver a quick verbal assurance off-mic, or while the audience is getting settled again, that “you’re going to have a great time”.
For younger volunteers, this welcome may involve you crouching down on one knee to address them at a less intimidating height. If you watch veteran street performers work with these volunteers, you’ll see them taking time to encourage the child to wave to their parents in the crowd before they start the routine. Finding yourself suddenly in front of an audience is disorienting for anyone, but this sea of faces is particularly confusing for young children. By establishing the visual connection with their family, this helps to reassure the child so that they can relax enough to respond freely onstage. This simple, human action also looks adorably cute to the rest of the audience.
Like all effective hosts, give them your attention, show you are interested in them as a person and that you’ll be sensitive to their concerns. Offer lots of reassurance at the start of the routine to build their confidence.
“When you have a person up on the stage, that person should be a guest in your house.”
Billy McComb (magician)
Use their name
It helps to ask for their name as soon as they arrive on stage, unless you are working with them for a brief time or you’re using many volunteers at once. Try to use their name naturally throughout the routine. This often puts them at ease, as well as demonstrating your friendliness and confidence. It also allows you to exercise more precise control over them onstage. Remembering their name will get easier with experience.
It’s important to get the pronunciation of any names you use correct — people care about their name. Sometimes, though, you will struggle to pick up the name because of how it’s said or if it’s unfamiliar to you. Listen carefully when asking their name and don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat it if you are uncertain. I always blame my hearing rather than let the volunteer feel it is their fault. If I’m stuck, a subtle glance at a teacher or their friends will cue them to help me by calling it out.
A common technique in interactive performances for children is to have a stock supply of puns to deploy whenever a child tells you their name, e.g. “Luke? Well, I hope you …look… very carefully at this next demonstration.” This may work for your presenting character, but, for me, the risk of offending them from the start with a stock line is too high, so I avoid this technique.
Rarely, a teenage volunteer might give you a false name to get a laugh and to test you out. You can detect this ploy by the reaction of the crowd. However, if you are going to challenge it, you need to be certain they are trying it on, otherwise they can feel insulted. Sometimes they will give you their nickname, which may be slang or offensive. After looking at the teachers, trust your judgement to decide if you want to use this name.
“There’s nothing so sweet to anyone’s ear as the sound of one’s own name.”
Dale Carnegie (author)
Rein in your energy
To avoid overpowering them from the start, turn down the energy, pace and size of your performance slightly as they join you. This sensitivity is particularly important with nervous volunteers or helpers who take longer than you expect to complete a task. You must overtly demonstrate your patience and not rush in to take over from them as they find their feet.
Avoid physical contact
In general, it is good practice to avoid touching volunteers for several important reasons, including:
- if you attempt to move or position them physically, it can feel to the helper, or look to the audience, as if you are heartlessly treating them like a prop;
- you don’t know how that individual child will respond to touch because of a variety of factors, e.g. invading their personal space can make them feel uncomfortable; cultural norms; previous abuse they have experienced; some children with autism can have a touch sensitivity where any physical contact is painful for them;
- it reduces the risk of any observers misinterpreting your actions onstage with a child or an adult who is vulnerable.
So, instead, you need to develop your verbal instructions and find nonverbal ways of modelling what you need them to do.
Poorly delivered safeguarding training can leave educators with the cynical impression that it is only about “covering your back” rather than its true purpose — at all times, to act in the best interests of the child. Clearly, there are exceptions to the guidance to avoid physical contact when safety is at risk. For example, when a child is about to hurt themselves (e.g. if they slip); or their actions may injure others (e.g. they are about to endanger the group in a science demo and a verbal warning is insufficient); or when they require physical assistance (e.g. in a primary school demo, when children needed to stand on a low-height see saw, I would offer my arm for them to hold momentarily, if they wanted to, as they stabilised themselves).
Physical contact can also occur when it is initiated by the child or by accident. It is important in these situations not to react in a way that rejects the child or makes them think they have done something wrong. For instance, I have seen novice presenters recoil in horror when a toddler runs up and hugs their knees, but this is completely natural behaviour for a child of this age.
Position them on their marks
As your emotional amplifier, it is vital that everyone can see and hear your volunteer. However, your helper also needs to carry on a conversation with you and at the same time you need to be visible to the audience. It is not reasonable to expect assistants — especially children — to know where to stand to optimise these complex sight lines. So, you have to train them where to position themselves.
With two people onstage, the best arrangement is for the presenter and the volunteer to stand facing towards each other, but at 45 degrees to the audience. This allows you to engage both the audience and the volunteer in your eye contact and interaction. Too much discussion with the volunteer loses the group, and too much attention on the group makes your assistant feel vulnerable and ignored.
Young children will keep moving around and turning their backs to the audience. But once you’ve trained them where you want them to stand, you can correct this with just a gesture without having to stop what you were doing. Some presenters use small pieces of tape on the floor (marks) or footprint mats to keep their younger helpers positioned correctly. These keep their feet still like they were stuck with glue, but because I use volunteers at different positions on stage, I rely on describing and showing them where to stand. A standard line which has helped me is the conspiratorial stage whisper to a restless volunteer, “Psst … never turn your back on the audience … they’ll throw things at you.”
Consider interviewing them
Presenters often briefly interview their volunteers to help them relax and to introduce them if everyone doesn’t know each other. For instance, they might ask a child questions like, “How old are you?” (young children are proud of their age); “So, what’s your job then?”; “Do you like [topic of routine]?”
Their replies to these questions will also let you know how loudly they are going to speak. You may need to, sensitively, encourage them to speak up. Unless I am working with a large audience, I prefer not to use a hand-held mic for volunteers — I need my hands free for the demonstration and they often find mics intimidating and awkward to hold. The mic can also damage the spontaneity of their responses.
Whilst I appreciate the psychology of this warm-up strategy, it takes valuable time and can look staged and repetitive. So, I try to get into the activity without much preamble and then give them space when they are interacting with me for their personality to emerge.