Why good actors should do youth theatre

17 Aug

 

 

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Naval gazing on the set of The Hundred Dresses.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to perform in a stage version of a well-known children’s classic, The Hundred Dresses. Most of the other roles are played by children. Technically and practically, this relegates the production to “Children’s Theatre” or “Theatre for Youth;” this particular company used the term Family Show*.

*For the purposes of this post, I use all these terms to mean shows with children as either audiences or actors.

I recently read an interesting, if academic, essay on HowlRound that argues for abolishing the division between “grown-up” and “kids” shows (if you read it, read the comments section too). I can get behind that theoretically but in practical real-world terms, I think most audiences appreciate the distinction, especially if they are bringing children viewers. But one particular phrase in the intro stuck out:

[Simone] examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

Deadening label indeed. It got me thinking about the subject from an adult actor’s perspective.

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The book version of The Hundred Dresses was written in the 1940s, and although it’s still popular with teachers I had never heard of it. The director, who I know from previous projects, asked me to come in and read for the part of the mother. At first I was shocked I was reading for mother roles. And then I was shocked that I was shocked–I mean, duh, I am a mother.

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Mom Face.

But anyway, had I seen the audition notice for the piece it’s not likely I would have come out. Being unfamiliar with the show is part of it, but the larger part would definitely have been the family tag.

But then I thought, why?

Of course many would say that it’s not worth it to do unpaid children’s theatre. I don’t think that’s the real issue. Many Atlanta actors both professional and non-professional attend Unified Auditions* It’s not uncommon to hear an actor complain after Unifieds that they only got callbacks from theme parks and kids theatres. These places pay. So there’s more to it than that.

* If you’re not an Atlantan, or an actor: Unifieds are a yearly general audition, aka cattle call, attended by many local and regional companies. Most are hoping for an audition invite from one of the big companies as most cast their seasons exclusively from Unifieds or personal recommendations.

I won’t attempt to explain this phenomenon–maybe it has to do with memories of our own youth theatre experiences (although I would argue that the majority of those are positive…why the hell else would you still be doing it as an adult otherwise?), or maybe it’s because daytime shows are par for the course in youth theatre, and day performing feels like a lower step on the totem pole (but then how do you explain the celebrities that clamor to do Shakespeare in the Park every summer?). Or maybe it’s simply that more kids=more noise. Whatever. I just want to point it out so I can refute it.

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I think most people–including actors–would argue that we have a responsibility to the next generation. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in showbiz who doesn’t think arts education is important. My question, frankly, is how do you think arts education comes about? It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t put little kids in a machine that spits out professional actors on the other end.

Yes, there’s theatre in schools (well, sometimes), and there’s acting classes for kids. But I would argue that live theatrical productions (and to some extent film as well) touches many more young lives, either igniting the initial spark of inspiration or giving them the tools needed to actually practice the craft.

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Two young actors in Lionheart Theatre’s Production of The Hundred Dresses, July 2015

It’s true that mediocre family theatre is a common phenomenon. A lot of folks are afraid of a potential black hole on their resume into which three months of a lackluster children’s production was sucked. When this happens (and I think it’s rarer than we imagine), I suspect it can be entirely chalked up to inexperience.

The vicious cycles goes: more experienced adult actors don’t audition for family shows because of the bad rap they have, and without experienced adults the kids don’t have a good support system, so you end up with mediocre performances. The same holds true for the rest of the production team–a lot of people experienced in one aspect of theatre cut their teeth on new roles (stage managing, directing, technical design, even writing) in youth theatre settings. I guess the argument is, it doesn’t matter because everyone’s parents are going to love the show regardless. Sometimes you get just a few too many newbies trying to juggle all the balls, and a few get dropped.

That’s all the more reason for professional theatre artists of all ilks to throw their shoulder into the work of producing quality children’s shows. The inexperience should be concentrated in one aspect of the production only–meaning if the kids are new to the stage, the director, technical crew, stage manager should not be at their first rodeo. And it’s very important to have experienced adult actors lay a foundation of support. There will be a little more hand-holding, yes. A little more chaos, definitely. But I think it’s 100% worth it when you think of it as an investment in the future of theatre.

And at the very least, it’s a low pressure situation–everyone’s parents are going to love the show regardless.

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