Have you ever gone to a movie or a stage play and fanaticized that you could have performed as good as the actor in the performance? Have you ever fanaticized what being a director of a play would be like?
If the answer is yes to either question or you have another theatrical itch to scratch, then you can understand what I’m about to share with you. Yes, I have had these feelings too. So much so, that I started acting when I was about eight-years old. We performed first in a friend’s basement with a sheet for a curtain and no script. We even had the nerve to charge admission. From there it continued through high school and college, and on.
The thrill grew as I aged until one night I had the opportunity to direct the play ”Gypsy.” It was the story of Gypsy Rose Lee the famous burlesque queen. What I didn’t realize when I said “yes” to the request was that only a few ambitious amateurs had tried to direct this play because it had eighteen scene changes. Have you ever tried to convince a nice, pretty young woman to be a stripper on stage? To make matters worse, the local theater group had assigned an architect, with a big ego, to design the sets. She designed each set out of 2 x 4’s and plywood. It was beautiful, but it was damn near impossible to move for set changes.
We had to scrub the sets in the third act and did the rest of the play in front of the reds (the name of the second set of curtains behind the main curtains). The architect was heart- broken. I think she cried for hours. Had she designed the scenes to be built with 1 x 2’s and canvass, we could have used them all, but the delays between scene- changes were intolerable.
After acting in over fifteen plays, as either the lead player or as a major supporting charter role (more of the second as I grew older), I was cast as “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. It was a tough role with many controversial subjects.
As it turned out, a director of the Children Theater was in the audience for both plays, “Gypsy” and “Cat.” She apparently liked what she saw because the day after the close of the second show, she called and asked if I would be interested in working as an Associate Director in her Children summer program. I leaped into the breach and said “yes”. I had worked with children in Gypsy and they were delightful.
That was the beginning of an eleven year association with the owner and director of the Milwaukee Children’s School. Frankly, the job was tough, but one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever been exposed to. The ages were between eight and fourteen, and the most talented group I’d ever have the pleasure to work with. Children have few hang-ups and will take direction easily. Adults are much more protective of their persona, and are not so willing to let go and to try something new.
Each year we would have over 50 children attend our school and try out for parts in our annual play. The plays we did were Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Annie, Wizard of Oz, and Oliver. For the more adult subjects we would cast adults to play the more controversial character roles. In Oliver, I actually got the chance to play Fagan, the old pickpocket trainer, of Charles Dickens’ orphan children thieves.
We would cast two sets of principals. One set would fill in as chorus members, when the other cast was performing. The casts would reverse their positions when it was their night to perform.
There were two ten-year- old children whose performances were so outstanding they blew my socks off. The first, a beautiful dancer, danced the butterfly dance as she ascended from a cocoon, in Alice in Wonderland, and the next year played an absolutely charming “Cinderella”. The other star played a fun and funny “Annie” and in the next year’s show, she played the “Scarecrow” in Wizard of Oz, with a performance that even Ray Bolger would have envied. The second student went on to travel with “Up with People” and perform all over Europe and the USA. It is a proud feeling when a student excels and you feel that you had something to contribute to their success.
I wanted to relay my experiences with Children’s Theater to possibly interest some of my readers to risk a bit, and try to get involved in Children’s Theater. You can contribute in many ways, music, character development, scene design and staging, scenery painting, stage management, ticket sales, or just for moral support. You will never regret the experience, and don’t forget: “by your students will you be taught.”
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