October 29, 2015

To Boo or Not to Boo?

Last weekend, I was the featured storyteller at a local Halloween parade. I took the job despite initial reservations, namely that a) the crowd would be very young children, and b) my scary story repertoire (I've got a good half dozen creepy tales) has never scared anyone, of any age. I thought about turning it down (Laura Packer has a great post on saying "no" to gigs over on her blog this week), but thought it would be a good chance to brush up on some tales I had not told in a while.

Upon accepting the gig, I learned that it would essentially be street performance: outdoors, on the sidewalk, with pedestrian and automobile traffic to contend with.

Inwardly, I smiled. Street performance is a challenge. I've done my share of outdoor street tellings, trying to draw in a crowd. It's hard work. But it's the kind of challenge I enjoy.

The site had a very good sound system, so my voice would be amplified. Great! There were haybales arranged out of the way of pedestrians, so that the audience would not be distracted. Great!

The event started, a good crowd had arrived, families with children between the ages of 0 and 7. A terrific musician started things off with a Halloween song. And then...

everyone left to parade down the street, to trick or treat at local businesses, and visit the fire truck and pumpkin patch down the road.

No one remained in the audience area but the sound guy and the volunteers staffing the info table.

My turn. Showtime!

The microphone helped. I drew out my introduction, to let people know something was happening, that a Halloween story was about to happen. And as I finally hit "Once... upon... a... time..." I managed to attract the attention of two parents with a toddler in their arms. They actually came and sat down.

By this time I had already launched into my version of the Red, Red Lips (here's Donna Washington's version)... which is a lot of fun, but it's not really appropriate for an 18-month old.

It's much better for 4 to 7 year olds. But I did not have those.

I aimed this one at the parents, and when, halfway through, I snagged the attention of some passing-by 8 and 9 year olds, I drew them in.

Ah, stopping pedestrians. Stop one, stop two, and soon people will break their stride, slow, turn their head to see what's going on. And soon: an audience.

A few more toddlers. I launched into a version of Betty Van Witsen's "Cheese, Peas, and Chocolate Pudding," adding some Halloween references into it. This is a much better story for little ones (and surprisingly good at luring more passersby).

As the afternoon went, on the crowd grew. Kids returned from their parading, and the musician and I traded 15 minute sets for the kids enjoying their candy as they sat on the hay bales.

And as I watched the kids, dressed as superheroes and princesses and animals, and as the musician and I sang songs and told stories about skeletons and brains and bats and spiders, I wondered why?

The kids are happy dressing in costume. They are delighted to get treats. Why, then, are we so insistent that Halloween is about scary, creepy things? It's a little early (developmentally speaking) to be introducing them to mortality, and death. Heck, why are we even teaching them to fear witches? (Full disclosure: when telling to children at Halloween, I only include stories where witches are helpful wise women. How could I not? All the little witches in my audience had taffeta and pink sequins and fabulous green and black couture)

Thankfully, just a few days later Pam Faro had an answer for me: Why Tell Ghost Stories?

For me, I really enjoyed this Halloween gig. It had a friendly family vibe. I skipped all my jump tales and helped the kids celebrate dressing up and learning about what makes things spooky. (I could get a solid ten minutes of material on this topic... in my fantasies I become a standup comic for second graders. Whenever I try to get my own kids to laugh, and fail, I let them know that my material would have 7 year olds falling out of their seats with laughter)