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I had no idea a theatrical experiment would turn into one of the most rewarding experiences of my career
Three years ago I had this notion to show up at a theatre and create a show on the spot. Well, more accurately, I thought Show Up was a great title for a show. It literally told people what to do. That title and the idea of showing up resonated with me. It seemed like a novel idea; it also seemed ridiculous and impossible. So I did it.
Nothing about creating a new show makes sense. Artists never know if the work we are making will eventually be enjoyed by others, or if it will draw an audience, or if it will speak to them. We never know how much it will cost to develop the show, where it will play or what critics will say about it, assuming it even gets reviewed. Yet we persevere. And through many months (sometimes years) and many moments of self-doubt, we create a show. And it was time for me to create another one—at least according to the pesky voices in my head.
So in 2017, I showed up at a tiny downtown theatre and asked the smattering of audience members to provide prompts for an improvised performance. I asked questions like, "Who has a bad romance story?" "Who has a messed-up family story?" "A bad job?" "A life-changing moment?" Then I made up a 45-minute solo show based on the audience's experiences. It was fun, but there was no there there. It just felt like a party trick.
My director, Michole Biancosino, and I workshopped it some more, but it soon became clear that the title Show Up wasn't a call to action for the audience; it referred to my own fears of showing up due to my often crippling social anxiety and depression. We incorporated these mental health themes into the fabric of the piece, and soon it became something more. It was relatable; it had a message. It was a vehicle for me to be honest and vulnerable about my own issues, while inspiring hope and laughs in others with similar challenges.
After performing Show Up in the U.S. and the U.K. for a few years, I was offered some foundation funding to go into New York City public schools to teach kids how to write their own solo shows. Being an independent artist who was rarely offered grants (okay, never), I thought long and hard about the opportunity. I had done some teaching in the public school system in my early NYC days and, quite frankly, I didn't think I was cut out for it anymore. But the offer planted a seed. What if I adapted Show Up into a children's show? That way, kids could learn about creating their own art by watching art being created in front of their eyes. And almost overnight, the concept for the family-friendly version, Show Up, Kids!, was born.
Now, I knew I couldn't do a solo show spoof for 3- to 10-year olds about their tragic life experiences and mental health struggles. That wouldn't be fun for them… or their parents… or me. But Michole and I thought we could create a show that encouraged kids to show up, even when they doubted themselves. I crowdsourced on social media, asking parents what kinds of things kids liked to talk about and got lots of responses, including "things that scare them," "superhero powers they wish they had," "gross things," "famous people they want to meet," "dream pets" and "ways they want to change the world." Those were some pretty crazy topics to base a story on.
We kept the idea of improvising a show but changed the setup: At Show Up, Kids!, the fictional star Sally the Silly Song Singer would not show up. So, there I'd be, just a friend who'd agreed to help with props and costumes who was suddenly tasked with putting on an entertaining show. Like the grown-up version, I'd get suggestions from the kids, but in this junior edition, I'd be subtly teaching them how theatre is made, how stories work, and that doing something is more rewarding than just thinking about it.
I don't have kids. And other than a few shows with TheaterWorksUSA and a year at Gymboree teaching 3-month olds how to crawl up a colorful foam plank, I didn't have much experience with children. I did know that I liked them and that they liked me. And I wanted to work with them, so we workshopped the idea. Luckily, Michole has three kids under the age of 10, so they became our preview audience. After offering some very insightful tips such as, "There should be more wigs!" they gave this new show their stamp of approval.
In 2018, Show Up, Kids! was booked at The Kraine Theater for three months. That led to 24 performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, another run in New York, a stint in Hollywood, plus dozens of one-offs, parties, festivals and benefits.
When I first had the notion to make up a show on the spot, I wasn't sure it was possible, and I wasn't sure anyone would care. I certainly didn't think that, three years later, I would be making a positive impact on kids and how they create and dream and think. To date, more than 2,000 kids and their adults have shown up and provided approximately 12,000 story elements that they've watched come to life in front of their eyes.
Showing up isn't always easy, but I encourage you to give it a try. Go to that party. Call that old friend. Visit that neighbor. Take that vacation you've been dreaming about. Get tickets to a show you normally wouldn't see. You may be surprised how showing up can change your life.
Peter Michael Marino is a NYC-based writer, producer, performer, director and teacher whose work has been seen on five continents. His solo shows include Show Up, Show Up, Kids! and Desperately Seeking the Exit, which chronicled the making and unmaking of his West End Blondie musical Desperately Seeking Susan. Pete has also voiced hundreds of commercials and was a cast member of Stomp for five years.
Top image: Peter Michael Marino in Show Up, Kids. Photo by Mikiodo.