WHY WORKING WITH CHILDREN IN THE THEATER MATTERS
Working with children is like doing drugs. You can become addicted. Caution should be
exercised. Not everyone should do it. Best to hang on loosely and enjoy the experience.
This spring “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs,” played at Pillsbury House Theatre as part of their Chicago Avenue Project. The Chicago Avenue Project, CAP, brought eight neighborhood kids and a bunch of professional playwrights, directors and actors together to create and perform in their own plays. All performances are free and open the public. Cookies and milk are served after the show. Gabe, my eight year-old scene partner, was making his debut performance in CAP.
REHEARSAL: ANOTHER WORD FOR PATIENCE
When you’re eight you go to school for eight hours to learn new things and make new discoveries about the world, yourself, and the people around you. Then you come to rehearsal and now you’re using your brain a whole bunch more! Doing things you wouldn’t normally do, like reading words aloud from a sheet of paper with lines written on them, having to say the words a certain way in a certain order all the while having to move your body to specific places in a space.
Rehearsal with young actors is an exercise in patience. At times, the rehearsal process will be frustrating and unproductive. Convincing an eight year-old to do more work after an already long day was like giving the cashier a twenty and asking for a hundred dollar bill. There were good days where potential was overshadowed by brilliance. Then bad days filled with phrases like “I don’t wanna,” “I hate this,” “I don’t wanna do the play.”
Ask any artist and they’ll reassure you: yep, those are things artists say. Artists are moody and emotional and irrational and inspiring and creative and can take your breath away without trying or intending. During a rehearsal that was sliding from productive to difficult our director reiterated to Gabe how great the scene is when you’re acting. Gabe replied, “I wasn’t acting. I was being.” He’s eight and just simplified one of Sanford Meisner’s most quoted quotes. Whether he knows it or not, Gabe is an incredibly insightful artist.
PERFORMANCE: ANOTHER WORD FOR FEELING ALIVE
Despite participating in “Bye Bye Liver: The Twin Cities Drinking Play” I’ve never performed intoxicated; yet, sometimes onstage with an inexperienced cast that’s how it feels. You’re not entirely sure where you’re at on the page or what’s happening next. So just remember the basics: connect, project, help the story move along, have fun and just make the scene enjoyable for the audience.
Before our first performance my costar and I stood backstage seconds before the lights were set to go up and he kept saying to me “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” A contagious intense panic rising in his voice. Pushing him along to our entrance in the dark, I couldn’t help feel the fear surrounding this moment. What would happen? What would the show look like? Would we get through it? Would he say his lines? Would I say all of mine?
I was scared too. I couldn’t be scared though I’m the adult in the scene. I’ve been there and done it before. I was supposed to be the rock. A beacon of inspiration offering hope and courage without question or hesitation. None of my insecurities mattered though because my hands were resting on the shoulders of a very young, inexperienced, scared young man about to perform in front of peers and elders. Yet, I imagined our fears as intertwined.
When you’re sharing the stage with someone that’s never had a line, let alone a series of lines, the following could happen to you: your scene partner becomes gripped by the sudden reality that they are standing in front of 200 people with 400 eyeballs and all of them are staring. The young actor stands and wonders why they’re staring and looks at their adult scene partner staring in just the same way and for a nanosecond they wonder if this is just another version of the same nightmare they’ve been having since they agreed to participate.
The adult actor’s mouth begins moving and you hear some semblance of a line your character was supposed to say when you realize you made a mistake. There are lines that need to be said and they are your lines and that is why everyone is waiting on you. That is why everyone is staring. That is why all the blood has rushed to every vital organ in your body, for protection. It’s fight or flight time, but the exits are blocked by moms with video cameras and grandparents with walkers so you know you have to say what the people need to hear: the next line.
The lights came up and we made our entrance. The audience laughed at the playwright’s jokes, and the young actor’s protagonist captured the adult actor’s antagonist and the lights went out and the audience cheered and applauded and we bowed and fear abated and relief washed over each of us.
WHY WORK WITH CHILDREN?
Sitting in the lobby together after the show enjoying milk and cookies I asked Gabe, “You know what you did?” He shook his head no. “You conquered your fear. You got over your stage fright!”
Gabe took a second and then a tidal wave of pride and accomplishment splashed across his face. He sat a bit taller with a smile so wide it looked like it was wrapping around his skull. Finally the weight of the world was off his shoulders. That was also the same moment when I realized what CAP was all about. It wasn’t about the on-stage stuff or the audience. It was about the very real stuff that happens off-stage in the hearts and minds of those young participants.
The Chicago Avenue Project attempts to help kids by empowering them to realize their own potential. To appreciate themselves. To take risks. To be proud of what they’ve accomplished. To be able to stand in front of the audience with gratitude and pride and acknowledge that they’ve done great work. You can see on their beaming faces thank you for accepting me as I am. Thank you for encouraging me to be myself with all of you. Thank you for holding me up. Thank you for celebrating my success.
Working with children is a transformative experience. You’re forced to be on your best behavior in thought, word, and deed to set a good example for the sponge-like minds of your castmates. You get to teach and learn simultaneously and on a grander scale, I think that helps make the world a nicer place to play pretend.
Participating in the Chicago Avenue Project for me — and the kids involved — was a huge highlight of 2012!
MICHAEL VENSKE is an expert mistake maker whose faith and enthusiasm cause him to leap without looking. One such jump landed him in China where he’s currently teaching kindness, compassion, and the fine art of physical comedy.
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