Working With Kids and Those Who Don't

Tom Briggs

“Never work with animals or children.”  While W.C. Field’s quip has become a comic cliché, there are plenty of directors who live by those words of presumed wisdom.  I pontificated on the first subject in my column, “Sandy, Toto and Chowsie Walk into a Bar…”, so here I’ll address the second subject.  “I just don’t like kids, period.” is a common mantra among certain directors.  Some elaborate: “It’s too hard.  They don’t have the experience, they’re slow, they throw off the rehearsal schedule, they don’t have any technique or discipline, they’re unpredictable and their parents are a pain in the ass.”  

I came up through an extraordinary children’s theater company and can still remember the thrill of getting onstage for the first time with the grownups in a “real” play.  Watching the director work with the adults, and getting to work with them myself, was like having the details filled in between the lines of everything I had learned in children’s theater.  As a director, I cherish being able to afford young actors that exciting, transitional opportunity.  So it may be due to my own experience that I love working with kids, although I’ve always been predisposed to them in general.

There are certain expectations of actors.  They will be on time, they will learn their material, they will take direction, they will chime in if they have an idea, they will play nice with others. I have never had to bend any of those rules to accommodate a child.  My experience is that they bring a very specific and exhilarating energy to the proceedings if, admittedly, sometimes too much of it.  But we all know adults who can suck the oxygen out of the room, too.  

I treat kids just as I do everyone in the cast; it has never occurred to me, nor would I know how, to talk down to them. Actors at large are kind of like children in a big, extended family. Each one needs something different.  One needs stroking and constant reinforcement, while the other responds better to tough love, being told to get with the program.  Mercifully, there are those who don’t need much attention other than the occasional pat on the back and, “Good work.”  The process is the same whether dealing with young or seasoned actors.  

When I directed To Kill a Mockingbird, we had over 50 young actors audition for the three juvenile roles.  That was not a choice day.  Auditioning kids calls for lots of focused energy because if you choose the wrong ones, ouch.  They come fast and furiously and you need laser vision to know it when you see it.  The three I cast had all read the book, which in this instance isn’t that unusual as the book is still largely read in schools.  But no.  They read the book to prepare for the audition.  (I wonder how many of the adult actors took that extra step.)  The kids had developed defined thoughts about many aspects of the story and  ̶ my favorite part ̶ had lots of questions.  I worked with them a few times before the adults came in.  I wanted to make certain that they understood the context of the racially charged material, and I wanted to get a sense of who they were, as human beings and as actors.  I don’t consider this a concession to the young actors.  If I were to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I may well do a few days at the table with George and Martha before bringing in Nick and Honey.  

To Kill a Mockingbird Photos by Johan Persson

To Kill a Mockingbird Photos by Johan Persson

I anticipated my biggest challenge being those moments when the young actors are called upon to dig in emotionally.  I was surprised to discover that those were the moments the kids most treasured.  They were intuitive enough to know that an actor needs to access emotional reserves, and were eager to learn how to do that.  Of course they already had the right instincts and just needed permission and encouraging guidance to go there.  They were every bit as emotionally available as any one of the accomplished older actors.  Admittedly, I had three extraordinary young actors but even with lesser talent, getting kids to tell a story honestly is not a big stretch.

I must admit that the above comment about parents does carry some weight, but you can’t live without them.  They are an integral part of the process as the onus is on them to keep their children on-schedule.  It’s not the kid’s fault if they’re late for a costume fitting or photo shoot, let alone rehearsal.  You have to lay down the law to the parents just as you do to the rest of the company.  I meet with them and talk about being on time, why they are not allowed in rehearsals or backstage, and not coaching their kids at home.  Mostly, I’m trying to get a sense of who those people are, whether I can rely on them and if they’ll trust me.  Only a couple of times have I had to tell an interfering parent that they were jeopardizing their kid’s involvement in the production and in both cases, they backed off and shaped up.  I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to explain to a child that they are being replaced because their parents don’t know how to behave.

All of this having been said, I do understand that there are directors who simply don’t like kids, and fair enough.  However, I suspect some shy away from working with them because they’re a little intimidated by the prospect of getting a solid performance out of an unpredictable young actor who may not have experience and technique and discipline.  Of course we work with adult actors who may lack one or more of those virtues all the time.  “I don’t know how to work with children.” is a common refrain.  To which I reply, “If you know how to work with actors, just go with that.”  

So if you’re a director who’s waffling, I’d say give it a shot. You may find that a child will allow you to see the play through fresh eyes, and it may lead you to be more conscious of exactly how you work.  There are zillions of play and musicals out there with young characters.  Ready.  Set.  Go!  But stand warned: you might just get hooked.