A question I’ve often wrestled with as I’ve taken leave of the university setting and embarked on my own professional journey—first as social justice warrior and now here—is this: do children even belong in the theatre? I’ve seen plays ruined by children being on the stage. On the other hand, I’ve been moved by plays done by children. Taking such a broad question and giving a simple yes or no seems problematic, for there are several contexts in which children are involved in the theatre. There are children’s theaters that cater to an audience of school-age children on field trips and culturally acute parents with their little ones. There is the community or professional theatre—generally more geared to adult audiences— wherein a child may be contracted to play a child character for a musical or play (A Christmas Carol, Annie, Parade, Die Kindermörderin). Of course there is also educational theatre: present in grades K-12 and in the university setting.
I’d like to begin with educational theatre, as it is the most sheltered from criticism. Educational theatre is distinct from the first two cases of children in theatre in that children are largely in charge of making the play happen. In K-12 there is a teacher, either a music or drama teacher—perhaps there is even a technical director for larger high schools—to lead students in school productions of musicals, plays, and one-acts. (On a side note, if you ever find yourself in Austin in the late spring with nothing to do, see if the UIL State One-Act Play Competition is happening and drop in. You won’t be disappointed.) At the university level students are supported by the theatre faculty with even more of the work done by students. It can be amazing. Some of the best theatre I’ve ever seen was done by students, and in San Antonio, perhaps the best theatre is done by Trinity University. The educational theatre is the obvious example of when children should be encouraged to be on the stage. Educational theatre is a magical institution where one can witness the act of a human being finding his or her humanity. You can watch young people delve the depths of the shared human experience to portray emotions that they have never experienced. The cognitive advantages of a theatre education, indeed an arts education in general, are well documented and should not be ignored, and the craft’s survival hinges on young blood being first interested and then enamored by the stage.
Children’s theaters like the Magik Theatre in San Antonio focus on putting on fun and engaging shows for children. Their plays are usually simple stories with uplifting platitudes on topics familiar to kids. Some of their recent work includes The Magic Tree House, based on the best selling children’s series of the same name; Flat Stanley, about a kid who became flat and mailed himself around the world so he could explore the world around him; and Red, a pseudo-contemporary retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood Story. These plays often have music, dancing, and audience participation to help keep kids engaged. They are fun, light-hearted, and never challenging: accessible to children of all ages and backgrounds. Children’s theatre is essential to a thriving artistic community in that it is often a child’s first experience at the theatre. My first memory at the theatre was at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, TX during the late 1990’s. My elementary school took my class to see a production of The Three Little Pigs. I don’t remember much of that production except a woman in a pig costume talking to the audience from a pool of light down stage left, but it undoubtedly had a role in my decision to tryout for the annual 4th grade Christmas play when I was old enough. I don’t know if I can with good conscience give credit to that production of The Three Little Pigs at The Grand for giving me the theatre bug; however, it is easy to see how children’s theatre can capture the imagination. The same happens to adults every day all over the world in different contexts, after all. Children’s theatre gives us the opportunity to consider the child as the audience. If you’ve ever watched a contemporary child’s television show as an adult, or given in to nostalgia and watched TV or movies fro your own childhood, you may find yourself bored or upset or thinking, “how did I watch this way back when?” The stories are often over the top with particularly stilted or pointed dialogue. The same can be said of children’s theatre. If you find yourself at the Magik or a similar institution, relax and have fun.
The professional theatre’s dealing with children is and should be much different. W.C. Fields is often attributed the old show time adage, “Never work with children or animals.” Fields’ personal feeling aside, this trope has persisted not because people in show business hate children or animals (though some certainly do) or because we think animals or children would be bad on the stage (though some certainly are). No, the problem is that children and animals are often unpredictable, pulling focus and upstaging their adult counterparts at every turn. It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the stage; somehow, the mere presence of a child on the stage is enough to make audiences lose their minds, and the problem is only exasperated by the presence of animals (I’m looking at you Annie!). Last season’s production of Sweeney Todd at the Cameo Theatre is a gleaming example of the pitfalls that can occur of casting actual children. Act 2 begins of course with our young man Toby—at the Cameo played by a little boy or girl depending on the night—enticing Londoners into Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop with song. For any number of reasons, the Cameo was using recoded music for this production. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set up, except that children are unpredictable. Act 2 started no fewer than three times because—and this is simply a fact—Toby failed to make it to the stage by the time the recorded music got to the young actor’s cue to begin the song. Perhaps there was some backstage mishap. Perhaps there was nothing this child could do but to charm on the third try. Perhaps a live orchestra could have vamped successfully until the child was ready. Regardless, it was clear that mistakes were made and this production suffered for them.
Who made these mistakes? It is completely unfair to blame the children in these situations. They are young, unfocused, untrained. No, the blame lies with directors, producers, and casting agents who insist on casting children when a young—but adult—actor will do. There is a challenge for many actors in playing characters significantly older or younger than the actor. Perhaps it’s a matter of believability? If you play an older character as a young actor, it can potentially feel artificial and forced. If an older actor plays a young character, it can feel like a farce or worse, a caricature of mental illness. Yet, this is exactly the tactic taken when Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979 with Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, and then thirty-one year old actor Ken Jennings in the role of Tobey. I hardly think the Cameo fancies itself comparable to Broadway—it isn’t—so it must be time for it—and similar institutions— to stop placing children on the stage when an older, more experienced actor would be better. There are some plays that perhaps will not work if you don’t use a child: Matilda, or Little Eylof for example. For the rest, stick to the professionals or your theatre could suffer greatly despite the best of intentions.
I suppose the take away is this: children absolutely have a place in the theatre. That place is a sheltered, structured environment safe from the wrath of audiences and critics (e.g. me) alike, where they can learn and make mistakes and not have to be perfect in peace. Children should also be a highly valued audience, necessary for the indoctrination inspiration of the next generations of theatre artists. Children probably do not need to be in the theatre to fill roles when a trained actor can offer a more dramatically satisfying performance. Even better, choose to do a play without children. Though if you must have children, I recommend God of Carnage or A Doll’s House; the kids are great in those.