Kids Onstage: What does it take?

“We will treat them like adult cast members, but take care of them like children.”

According to Casting Director Leslie Martinson, that’s the TheatreWorks motto for having kids onstage in a show—we set the same standards for rehearsal behavior as we do for our adult actors, while making sure we’re not asking too much of them or wearing them out. But then, the child actors we’ve worked with have all been very bright and talented children, what Leslie calls “old souls.”

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Kyra Miller and Jonah Broscow in “Rags” (Photo Kevin Berne)

The kids we work with rise to the occasion. Children’s theatre or youth theatre is often at least partly about socializing, about being with other kids. That’s not the case with a TW show. “We talk with the kids about how they may, you know, miss birthday parties for rehearsal,” says Leslie. “But if this is a kid who likes to be in a room full of grownups, who is curious about how professional theatre is made…that’s the appeal.”

There is only one child’s role in Rags: David Hershkowitz, who has come to America with his mother to try to find his father, and gets swept up in a life of hawking wares on the street and defending socialism. David is a weighty role in an already intricate musical, and actors Jonah Broscow and Nic Roy Garcia handle it with finesse, splitting the performances along a pre-determined schedule. “It’s imprudent to ask a child to go onstage eight shows a week,” says Leslie. “If they’re tired or not feeling well, you need to have coverage for that role.” In this case, we have Jonah and Nic as well as an understudy, Jake Miller, just to make sure we’re never left David-less.

All three boys were present through the entire rehearsal process, along with their studio teacher, which is a requirement by law, no matter what time of the year. The kids were tutored during rehearsal downtime, in a conference room in our administrative offices. A studio teacher is allowed to supervise up to ten kids total, of varying grade levels—in this case it was probably a relief that all three boys are about the same age.

What other special support staff is required with kids in the room? There’s also a child wrangler to help, well, wrangle the kids, for instance, during meal breaks. As far as other support, Leslie says, “It really takes the whole family to pull this off. Someone has to drive the kids to rehearsal and then to each performance. We have a ticket for that person for each performance, so they can watch the show if they want. The audition process with kids is basically the same as adults, except there is a lot more talking to the parents to make sure they understand what it will take.” We also remind the adult actors to please watch their language and stories in rehearsal and in the backstage areas…but we’ve never had a problem. The casts are gracious and welcoming, and the kids have a great and educational experience.

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Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid” (1921)

California has a state law called The Coogan Law, named after actor Jackie Coogan, who worked with Charlie Chaplin in several of his films in the 1920s. As a child star, he earned an estimated $3-4 million, but discovered at age 21 that his entire fortune had been squandered by his mother and his stepfather. The 1939 Coogan Law, or the California Child Actor’s Bill, requires that 15% of each child’s paycheck be put into a special account, where it can’t be touched by anyone until the child turns 21. (It’s one of the rare instances that a law written in the 30s is still applicable and helpful today!)

Is there anything else noteworthy about working with child actors? Leslie says, “Kids memorize things more quickly. It’s not unusual for a kid in a musical to have learned not just his or her part, but the whole score, and everyone’s parts.” If only that came so naturally for everyone!

To learn more about Rags, click here.

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