Fall is the season for Primary Sacrament Meeting presentations. The leaders, teachers and children get the chance to show the parents and ward members what they have learned in the previous months during Primary. In my many years of producing and watching different presentations, I feel I have seen and learned some tips to make them successful.
In previous years, the program was created by a team of writers in Salt Lake and simply handed to the ward leaders throughout the church. They in turn were to adopt and adapt the script as needed to fit their group. The scripts were written using a variety of staging techniques designed to showcase the children, the topics, and the songs, yet keep the pace moving along so that the audience would stay engaged. Little by little, the directions from Church headquarters have been simplified to just a few guidelines. The full responsibility for the presentation now lies squarely with the ward leaders.
From my travels and visitations, I have seen many touching and beautiful presentations, filled with stories of inspiration and testimony, exuberant renditions of the songs, and plenty of "cute factor" from the children. I have also seen presentations where it was obvious that the leaders had no real experience in understanding staging techniques. Even though the Primary Presentation is for a church meeting, it is nevertheless a SHOW. The congregation is an audience and wants to be able to understand and endure the proceedings without too much discomfort. By their coming, they expect to be fed spiritually and to learn something.
When I was a new Primary president, I was approached by a senior citizen. She asked me what day the Primary Presentation was. She wanted to know SO THAT SHE COULD MISS IT! Many older people in the congregation find that the children cannot deliver their lines in a way that the older people can understand, and the busy-ness of all the children on the stand causes too much commotion. They just don't get anything out of the program, so why come?
That exchange inspired me to make the best program possible in the best prepared way using all of my theatrical training. There are certain procedures that are tried and true. When used, these strategies can make a real difference in how smoothly the presentation goes, and how well the program is received.
1. TIMING - The presentation needs to fit within 40-45 minutes. If this means that there will not be solo parts for every child, so be it. Perhaps an entire class could be featured as a group to stand and do a choral reading or sing one of the songs or verses by themselves.
2. STAGE LIMITATIONS - Most chapels have very limited space to place the bodies of the children. The choir seats sometimes are hidden behind the organ and piano so that small children sitting there can not possibly be seen even when standing. Assess how many extra chairs can be placed on the podium to judge whether or not it is even possible to seat the entire Primary on the stand. Depending on the numbers of children, some classes may have to sit in the audience and come up only for certain parts of the program. I usually had the 4 and 5 year olds come up just for their featured section of the program and then again for the closing song with the entire Primary. Sometimes the side aisles or the front rows of the congregation need to be used to seat classes of taller children. When they sing, they can stand in front of the podium. Some buildings have risers for this purpose. You just do the best you can with your unique limitations.
3. FLOW - Minimize the movement of the participants so that the shuffle between parts does not use up much of the time and cause the audience to lose interest. Too often, the leaders just bring up every class, no matter the size, by group for each child to say a one-liner. The children usually drape themselves lazily over the modesty wall looking very bored or they excitedly wave to or make faces at their parents. This behavior is as disturbing as it is distracting to the audience. Better to have them come up in smaller waves, and NEVER stand against the modesty wall. If there is an opportunity to set up microphones in other locations on the stand, that can help manage the FLOW of participants, too.
4. VARIETY - Make use of the many techniques available to tell a story or convey an idea. Individual talks or testimonies, story-telling, 2-person conversation or question and answer, group presentation, choral reading or scripture recitation, and the list goes on. The key to good delivery is MEMORIZATION. Helping the children get their parts memorized so that they can look up, enunciate clearly and look pleasing is essential for making a great presentation. An engaging way to incorporate narration is to have one child asking questions in a sincere way and have the "narrator" introduce each new section with a leading answer to that child's question. This way the subject unfolds in a natural way that engages the audience in caring that the child gets his questions answered.
5. SINGING - Prepare! Prepare! Prepare! The songs used in the program should be memorized so that no big posters or visual aids need to be employed. It is distracting enough for the audience to have the song leader(s) out in their midst, let alone to have big posters obstructing their view!
6. SPECIAL MUSIC - Keep solos and features within the fabric of the presentation. I have attended programs where 10 different children took turns playing the prelude music, each in their own unpolished way, and others sang solo verses of songs or played accompaniment instruments poorly. This is not a recital or talent show, it is Sacrament Meeting where REVERENCE and WORSHIP are still the key elements of the meeting. An occasional solo or special accompaniment is only special if it is done well. Also, it is better to keep the playing of the prelude and interlude music to one experienced player who can set the proper tone. Simple extended introductions or postludes can also be skillfully employed as TRANSITIONS to cover movement.
7. ADULT HELPERS - Minimize the distraction that teachers and adult helpers are just by their size. The audience gets confused when there is a lot of adult movement. There certainly should be enough helpers strategically placed to maintain order, but their movements should be few.
These are tried and true strategies towards good programs. Hopefully your presentation will go well and keep your audience engaged. I would hate to have anyone come up to you and ask when the Primary Presentation was just so THEY COULD BE SURE TO MISS IT!