By Ken Bradbury
I’ve directed a few hundred plays over the years and most of these casts have been adults and teenagers. Once upon a time I did a few children’s theater things, but those children now have children and grandchildren of their own and my memory of the process has long since melted away. But this summer I thought I’d do the Lone Ranger bit and “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear … ” In short, I’m now directing a theatre project with young actors who range all the way from my chin to my shin. Kids’ theater at the Playhouse on the Square.
Among the things I’d once learned but had since forgotten:
Concentration is a Relative Term. Last week we were at the point in a rehearsal when a young man was to jump up and say a single line. That’s all he had to do … jump up, say it, sit down. The time came, his cue was given, and he sat there. And sat. I said (and I use fake names here to protect our opening night), “Ricky? Ricky, that’s your cue.” Ricky sat in rapt fascination looking at a bug make its way across the stage. I could only assume that Ricky came from a very sterile household and that this was the first bug he’d ever seen in his life. Finally, he said, “Huh?” “Your line, Ricky. She just gave you your cue.” Ricky checked in with the bug once more then stood and said his line. I sat there thinking … if a roach can distract him like that, what’s an audience of a hundred people going to do? Or worse, a hundred people with bugs.
Memory Works in Inverse Order. I firmly believe that we’re born with perfect memories then our recall begins to decay from about age 12 onward. More than once I’ve had a quietly stern conversation with a youngster about his or her not learning the lines I’ve required. If I were speaking to an adult they would go home, work on their script, then return a couple nights later with everything memorized. When I have the same conversation with a 12-year-old boy, he nods his head, goes and sits in a corner for five minutes and he’s got it letter perfect.
Movement’s a Must. If you ask a 50-year-old actor to sit in a chair during a particular scene, she’ll flash you a relieved and grateful smile then have a seat. If you ask a fifth-grade boy to sit or in fact to do anything that requires he hold still, you’re a fool. Unless you shoot him it won’t work, and mothers are generally opposed to this method. Fifth-graders are not built to sit still; lie still, stand still or be still so if you’re the director, you’d might as well give them a great deal of movement to do or you’ll both go crazy during rehearsals.
When We Say We Gotta Pee and We Ain’t Kidding Around. Enough said.
Think You’re an Acting Coach? Who Cares? I’ve long held that everyone is born an actor and some of us keep the skill. If you direct children’s theater it is not your job to teach them how to act. They already know that. Your main task is one of control, not instruction. If during the course of the evening you can keep everything from getting broken, keep the amount of shed blood to a minimum, and avoid complaints from the apartment above you … then it’s you who deserves the Oscar.
Creative Correction. I’ve found that phrases like, “Okay, listen up!” “Settle down!” and “I need your attention!” roll off a young actor like water from the proverbial duck’s back. They’ve heard these admonitions for years from their parents and teachers, but when you say, “Jason, if you don’t shut up I’m going to kick your butt so high that you’ll have to unzip your pants to stick out your tongue!” it somehow gets Jason’s attention. He’s not sure what you just said, but it fascinates him long enough to get through the next scene.
Selective Memory. A ten-year-old actor can and will memorize five pages of script without blinking an eye, but if she or he has to get a simple message like, “Tomorrow’s rehearsal time is changed,” home to Mom and Dad, forget. Too much to memorize.
Prepare to Become a Clown. I’ve found that every time I take the stage to demonstrate a line or dance or song it suddenly becomes hilarious to my young cast. No matter how serious I try to be they think it’s hysterical.
Keep Calm and Carry On. I must keep reminding myself that no one has more fun than an adolescent given an opportunity to perform and if I don’t join in them, latch onto their joy, then I’m missing the best part of the experience. Whether you enjoy live theater or not, this fact alone should be enough to cause you to buy a ticket.