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Thursday, 21 August 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 33: Children's Theatre

Back when I was in high school, we would sometimes be visited by a theatre group called Bell Shakespeare. They were a group of people (most often four of them) who would re-enact Shakespeare plays and help demystify them for students who were studying them. Being a typical teenager, I reacted to these visits with scepticism and nonchalance. But that was really only on the surface. Deep down, I really looked up to those guys. They were older, but still youthful. They were attractive. They were cool. They spent their days touring around with each other and entertaining people while I spent my days getting bullied and doing reports on things I didn't understand. I kind of wanted to be those kids.

After one such show, the actors held a Q&A with the students. My friend put up his hand and asked this question - "How did you guys come together?" The actors looked at each other and said
"Well, there was a director looking for people to do the production and he brought us all together." That just made me jealous. I wished a director would find me...

See, I'd wanted to be an actor for most of my early childhood, but adult thinking got the best of me. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but at some point in early high school, I thought to myself
"Well, yes, being an actor would be nice, but I have to grow up and get myself a normal job."
So I left my drama and music subjects behind and started taking up tourism and geography. After high school finished, I entered into a Certificate of Tourism and trained to become a travel agent. But halfway through I realised two things -
  1. I found this subject infuriatingly boring.
  2. Why shouldn't I chase that dream of being in showbiz? So many people live half-lives because they think they're making the sensible choices, I shouldn't be one of them.
So I began to try and catch up on valuable time lost. I started to do all these things like doing stand-up and looking for acting work. That eventually segued into my work on radio. I started a podcast and a blog (not this one, I used to have another one). But my lack of experience or knowledge of where to go for opportunities has meant I've made very slow progress, especially in acting. I slowly started to lose my passion for for it.

Then last month I met Laura - a friendly, affectionate, talented girl who would give the shirt off her back to a stranger if they needed it. After talking on Facebook for a while, she revealed that she tours with a children's theatre group, kind of like Hi-5.

'Laura,' I said. 'Of all the things you've told me you do, I find that by far the coolest.'
'Lol, really?' she replied.
'Yeah! I'd love to do something like that.'
Laura didn't even hesitate.
'Well you should audition! Our director Shane is looking for more males for the group.'

Well it was as easy as that. Suddenly I was excited about the prospect of performing again. And I love kids - people constantly tell me I'm great with them. Laura helped me drum up a CV and I sent it off to Shane.

Over the next few days I got reports from Laura on where Shane was at with the CV. He was considering just bringing me in without an audition. Not because my CV blew him away - it was quite short and weak compared to that of the others. Rather, he needed someone to jump into some Adelaide shows coming up in two weeks. He decided that as long as I gave him enough energy and confidence, I should be fine. I got the call saying I was in and I went to the first rehearsal on Wednesday.

Shane was a flamboyant, middle-aged man who knew how to get stuff done. There were three other actors named Simon, Laura (a different one) and Hebe. Simon was also a bit flamboyant and clearly had a lot of experience in the business. Laura was a bit of an alpha, she just seemed to command attention when she talked. And Hebe (pronounced Hee-bee) was skinny and pale with a faint British lilt in her voice.

Our assignment was to perform a show about Dr Seuss. We were to be given three classic Dr Seuss stories and act them out to make up an hour-long show. We'd be performing between one and three shows each day for five days. That didn't seem too hard...

Well, as it turned out, it wasn't that easy either. That night at rehearsal I felt out of my depth as we ran lines and everyone added in movements here and there, while I followed around half a step behind. I wouldn't say it discouraged me... I had the attitude of "Well, I'll just have to fix it." But it had to do it fast - the performance was 10 days away.

I went home and studied my lines, and that Sunday we had rehearsal number two. That went much better. I was the only one reciting my lines without a script and I was able to keep up with the actions a lot better. It was a good thing too - I later found out that I was lucky to even make it to the second rehearsal.

'He called me saying he should have auditioned you first. You were so quiet,' Laura told me over the phone. When I'm unsure of myself I tend to keep my mouth shut. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Looks like that may not have been the best option this time.

'He was going to drop you. I told him to give you a chance, I've seen how confident you are on stage.' Looks like Laura had come through for me again. Throughout the remaining rehearsals, I could clearly tell Shane's opinion of me was improving. He would speak more nicely to me and tell me about future projects he was thinking of working on. I was repaying the faith they both placed in me.

On the last night of rehearsal, disaster struck. Laura had to be admitted to hospital with health issues. One of Shane's other actors had to step in, a girl named Charlotte. Charlotte was pretty and giggly and she sure could act. She stepped into Laura's role with ease, and while she'd only gotten the script that day, I somehow had full confidence she could learn all her lines by tomorrow.

Show day came and we did a practice performance in front of Shane's own class in the morning as a final dress rehearsal. It was shaky. A bit sluggish. The kids gave us pretty good feedback. They liked it, but there were some things we could improve. We left for our first school feeling apprehensive.

We were just scheduled to do the one school today. It was West Beach Primary School, a half-hour drive away. I was given the keys to Shane's car and we piled in with all our props in the back. We were trying to figure out how best to make improve the show. The thing we were most worried about was that in the second play (Horton Hears a Who), we had some kids from the school coming out to read for a bunch of the characters.

'What's the bet that we get to the school and they're like "Yeah, the kids haven't learned the lines"?' said Charlotte from the back seat.
'Ah, don't even joke about that.' Said Simon and Hebe.

We turned up and were immediately met by a teacher who said
'Hi guys, so where was that email you were meant to send with the scripts for the kids?'

Um, what? These things were meant to be sent out weeks ago and you haven't picked up a phone and checked in about it? We all had different opinions on how to handle it. I suggested we just give our own scripts to the kids and let them read it off there. There were ten kids involved, but they were lumped into four groups, so they could each grab a script from the four of us. In the end we got hold of a photocopier and produced a copy for everyone. Meanwhile, I was back at the school gym playing around with the kids that had turned up to see what was going on. While Simon and Hebe set up what props they could, I made the kids laugh and practised my slapstick. Then classes started to come in and the teachers told the kids to leave us alone. The kids and I simultaneously said "Awwwww..." before trudging off in our different directions.

Slowly the classes poured in and Charlotte was nowhere to be seen. We were starting to get lectured by more teachers. One teacher came behind the curtain and said in a stern voice
'Why are you guys running late? These are primary school kids you know, you can't keep them civil forever. You need to learn to get stuff organised.'
Oh dear, this wasn't going well. We put on our best fake smiles and said "Absolutely, we'll start as soon as Charlotte gets back with the scripts."

She eventually got back and gave us a dark look.
'That teacher was being so passive aggressive towards me. She was saying to the kids "Now, I'm REALLY sorry to make you do this, but we just weren't given enough time. The actors didn't send out the scripts."'

Well, never mind, let's just get the show on the road. But how would we start? The kids were making a lot of noise, would they stop talking once we came out? Charlotte had it sorted. She got us all to start clicking rhythmically and walk out onto the stage. The kids almost immediately fell silent and started clicking along with us. We had them straight away. We powered through our opening song and then launched into something we'd decided to do on the car ride over. We'd left all our props lying haphazardly around the stage and after we finished our song we made a big show of shouting "Wait, we're not set up yet!" and running around setting it all up with lots of slapstick. The kids loved it. We were off to a good start.

We segued into our first play, The Lorax. I played one of the two narrators, Simon played the Lorax and Charlotte played the Onceler. It went off almost without a hitch. A couple of hesitated lines here and there, but that's it.

Next came Horton. We got the kids on stage and let them play their parts. They were nervous and unprepared, so it threw us off a bit. They'd miss their lines, then we'd miss ours... but I'm probably being unfair. The audience still seemed on board. We finished of with Green Eggs and Ham and cheated by bringing copies of the books out with us and claiming we were symbolising how words on a page can be brought to life. I got a lot of joy out of hearing the kids join in. They followed along and shouted "Anywhere!" whenever we prompted them to. I loved it.

We finished off with another song which we could barely remember the words to and said goodbye. Oh how the kids loved it. A bunch of them came up to us and told us how great they thought we were. That teacher who'd visited us backstage came to see us again.
'That was great, the kids loved it. You all did a good job.' She was no less stern than before, but we'd clearly impressed her. That was the most satisfying part. We celebrated by driving to Glenelg and having a pub meal for lunch. Everyone else got enormous schnitzels and burgers which were bigger than their heads. I got a Caesar salad. Yeah, I'm that guy.

We did still have a problem to sort out... The show was running short. We were meant to give them an hour, we could only seem to manage 45-50 minutes.

'Shane says we can tack on The Gruffalo to the end of the performance,' said Charlotte, checking her phone.
'What? We have to learn another play by tomorrow?' I said.
'Oh don't worry, we'll make you the Gruffalo,' said Simon. 'He's got like five lines and they're easy.'
'Ok, if you're sure...'

I cancelled my plans to go to the comedy club and stayed home to learn my lines. Simon was right, there was nothing to it. I just had to wait backstage while Hebe, playing a mouse, got confronted by a fox, an owl and a snake. The mouse would scare them off by telling them about the Gruffalo and then chuckle to herself because there was no such thing. Then I'd come on in a bulky brown coat and pretend to be a gruffalo and hilarity would ensue.

The next day, we met early to put the play into practice. We had three schools to go to that day, not just one, so it was going to be tiring. The first one was Christian Brothers College, or CBC. The kids there were crazy with energy. We met the boys that would be reading the parts in Horton and they would lose focus and start chatting again straight away. That often doesn't concern me because I don't expected anything more from them. But Charlotte wasn't having any of that crap.

'Hey! Listening! Now, what do you do when you're acting? That's right, big loud voices... Come to the middle of the stage... Guys, listen! What do you use for listening? That's right, your ears...'
She had all those boys scared of her by the end of it. They competed to see who could follow her instructions the best. I was impressed.

The show was great. The louder kids seemed to be the ones that had the biggest reactions to jokes and questions. The actors still couldn't follow their lines and it threw us off again, but other than that I found it quite enjoyable. We got to The Gruffalo and the kids went mental over it, just like Simon promised me they would. We had our chat to the kids afterwards and I was starting to feel like that was the best part - seeing how much the kids had enjoyed it and how much they liked us made me smile a lot.

Next was the Lutheran College in Blackwood. I wasn't sure how this school would take it. This was a deeply religious school, I was expecting the kids to be trained not to show too much emotion or act too crazy. So how would they react to a bunch of people coming in, jumping onto the stage of their church and acting loud and hyper?

Turns out, not well. It happened exactly like I imagined it would - the kids filed in neatly and quietly. They watched our performance without talking or laughing once. Then they filed out. I found it creepy and weird, like we were being watched by the Children of the Corn. But again, the teachers came up and told us the kids loved it. They were just mesmerised apparently. I still left that one pretty disappointed.

The final school was St Therese, where Shane's daughter attends. Now that put the pressure on. She would be our hardest critic and would relay her feedback directly to Shane. When we got there, everyone knew exactly who we were. They knew Shane well and loved his work, so they were all very excited to see us come. The actors they picked for Horton were all grade sevens, and that proved to make a big difference. It made the whole thing run quite smoothly. It was our best performance to date. in terms of both smoothness and audience participation.

At the end of the show, we finished with a Q&A, just to fill in a few more minutes. Kids' hands shot up everywhere and we took turns picking some to answer. Most of them weren't questions, they were more comments like "I liked the show!" or "You guys are funny!" One kid put up her hand and asked
'What's your favourite play in the show?'
Simon answered first, he said The Gruffalo. Then Hebe piped up with Horton Hears a Who. Charlotte said hers was The Lorax. So I said Green Eggs and Ham, just to be funny.

Then another kid asked,
'Why were all those animals scared of the mouse?'
We had to hide our smiles as we explained what she'd just seen. I don't think we hid them very well. Then we had time for one final question. One little boy asked...

'How did you guys come together?'

I was silent on that one. I don't think they would have liked me to try and explain who Laura was. Simon took the wheel for us.

'Well, we all know a director named Shane Davidson...' The audience clapped at the sound of his name. 'He wrote this show and needed four actors to perform in it, so he found us.'

At that moment, I don't think I could go on. I'd just had a sudden, vivid flashback to those days I spent in my high school auditorium, looking down on those older kids in wonder and wishing I could be in their place. I had somehow managed to find myself on the other end, and it was exactly as fun and fulfilling as I imagined it would be. I couldn't keep the grin off my face as we waved goodbye to the kids and drove off, ready to perform again the next day.


  1. Damn... well acting sounds a lot harder than probably most of us realize. Ironically I was thinking about this subject today before I even read your blog. I always thought it would be fun to be on a program like Saturday Night Live... then I considered that they have to put together an hour and a half long show in a week's time. Seems kind of similar to what you were doing. I don't think I could handle it. Though I suppose the support you were getting from Laura and some of the people around you must help a lot.

    1. I get what you mean. I used to listen to a radio show called Get This, hosted by one of the best comedy teams in Australian radio history. They got all their material from current affairs and it still amazes me how they came up with 2 hours of content every weekday for it.

  2. The great thing about performing for children is that they give you honest feedback and won't praise anyone out of politeness. Congratulations on making a success of it.

    1. Yes, but they're also generally pretty easy to please.

  3. Wow! That is so awesome. I'm so glad you were able to do this.

    Always loved Dr. Seuss as a kid......and I still do.

    So true, children can be the harshest critics

    1. Man, he's the best. Oh the Places You'll Go may be my favourite book.

  4. I was quite shy when I was younger. I suppose I still kind of am. I always wanted the confidence to perform in front of people. I went through a phase of wanting to be an actor. Then I grew more interested in writing. Some day I'd like to write a play and watch other people act it out.

    1. That sounds like the perfect way to bring your skills together.


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