Working With Children In Theater Matters

Chicago Avenue Project, Pillsbury House Theatre, Minneapolis, 2012.
Chicago Avenue Project, Pillsbury House Theatre, Minneapolis, 2012.

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 ride.

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 — brings 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.

My eight year-old scene partner, Gabe, was making his debut performance in CAP.

Think back to being an eight-year-old. You go to school all day to learn new things about the world, yourself, and the people around you. Then you go home and try to let your brain rest with coloring books, video games, playing outside.

Not if you’re a young actor though. After school you come to rehearsal and use your brain a whole bunch more!

You have to do things you wouldn’t normally do like read sentences aloud — loudly — from a script. You have to say the words a certain way and in a certain order. And if that’s not enough, you’ve got to use your body to move at specific times to specific places in a space that only exists on paper.

Rehearsal with young actors is an exercise in patience. At times, the rehearsal process will be frustrating and unproductive. On bad days you’ll hear phrases like “I don’t wanna,” “I hate this,” “I don’t wanna do the play!” On good days you’ll run the script a few times without a single complaint and leave thinking, “This kid’s a brilliant powerhouse!”

Remember though children and artists have a lot in common. They’re both moody and emotional and irrational and inspiring and creative and can take your breath away without trying.

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!

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 in the scene or what’s happening next.

Remember the basics: connect, project, move the story along, have fun, make the scene enjoyable.

On the night of our first performance my costar and I stood backstage seconds before the lights were set to go up.

With a contagious panic rising in his voice Gabe kept saying, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

Moving him toward our entrance in the dark the fear surrounding this moment was palpable. Gabe didn’t know it, but his nightmare intertwined with mine. Will we get through it? Will Gabe say his lines? Will I say mine? None of my insecurities mattered though because I was the adult with experience and very aware that my hands were resting on the shoulders of an inexperienced boy who was scared to death to perform in front of a live audience.

Michael Venske in CAP
Like most things in life, it’s never as bad as you fear.

The lights came up and we made our entrance. The audience laughed at the playwright’s jokes. The young actor was the hero in the story. He resolved the conflict and saved the day. The lights went out. The audience cheered. We bowed and fear abated.

Sitting in the lobby together after the show enjoying milk and cookies I asked Gabe, “You know what you did?” He shook his head.

“You conquered your fear. You got over your stage fright!”

Gabe took a moment to consider this fact. Then a wave of pride and accomplishment washed 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.

And that’s the moment I realized what CAP was all about.

Cast, director & playwright for the Chicago Avenue Project, Pillsbury House Theatre, Minneapolis, 2012.
Cast, director & playwright for the Chicago Avenue Project, Pillsbury House Theatre, Minneapolis, 2012.

It wasn’t about the on-stage acting stuff or the parents in 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.

And you can see it on their beaming faces thank you for accepting me as I am. Thank you for encouraging me. 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 cast mates. And on a grander scale, I think it helps make the world a nicer place to play pretend.