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Directing Kids

Mike Lawson • January 2023Musical Theater • January 15, 2023

Directing kids (actors under sixteen) is an art that differs from directing an adult cast.  You are a teacher in addition to a director. You may have some kids who are naturals and need very little coaching and others who need to have the basics of stagecraft constantly reiterated.  Here are some suggestions:

Audition carefully – What you see at the audition will for the most part be what you get as a final performance.  Every actor improves as he or she gets more experience and good direction, but because a performance is a high-pressure event, they may revert to any bad habits they showed at the audition, for instance, speaking softly, or not making eye contact with fellow actors.

Prepare thoroughly – Kids don’t have a lot of patience. You need to know before a rehearsal where you want everyone to stand and how you want them to say the lines. You can’t be making these decisions on the fly.  If the kids feel you aren’t sure about a scene, they won’t bother to remember where you told them to stand, when to enter, and such.

Constantly reinforce basic rules of acting – You will have to tell kids many times to “cheat out,” to stand straight, to use gestures with their lines, to look at and listen to the other actors, to use appropriate emotional expression with their lines, to react to what’s happening on stage, and most importantly to speak loudly, slowly, and clearly. 

Don’t be afraid to say, “Do it this way” – With adult actors, directors generally let the actor make their own “choice” as to how to interpret a character. And sometimes kids can be very ingenious about their character interpretations. The good news is they don’t take it personally if you tell them, “This is how I want you to say this line.” Usually it is necessary to give each actor quite a bit of input as to how their character should be played. For the first couple of rehearsals, let them experiment with their character. After that, start working with each actor to improve their characterizations.

Teach them how to memorize lines – Kids need to be taught how to memorize lines. Tell them to get a parent, sibling, or friend to help them to work on lines every day, even on days when they have a show.  First, read over all your lines. Then have your helper read the two or three lines before your line, and then you say the line. If you can’t remember it, they should give you the first couple of words. If you still can’t remember the line, they should read the line, and you then repeat it.

Teach your actors how to “cover” – It is inevitable that kids will forget lines during a performance.  All the actors need to learn how to “cover” for one another by either saying the other actor’s line if that makes sense or by skipping over the missed line and going to their line, assuming the missed line was their cue. Encourage them to cover during rehearsals, but then go back and do the same scene correctly.

Director’s notes – It’s good to give your cast director’s notes after a rehearsal, but make sure that for every critical remark there is also a complimentary remark, even if it’s “You guys were a lot better this week than last week.” Make sure your cast knows you are trying to teach them how to be better actors, and they should see it as a helpful hint, not a put-down. Also, speak one on one with actors for whom you have a very personal critique, like “Jamie, you are hitting a lot of wrong notes.” And again, back that up with a compliment.

One thing a director always has to balance is what will make the best show versus the feelings of the actors. If you have to cut a line or a song from the show, try to make it as easy on the affected actors as possible with an apology and a kind explanation of why the cut is necessary.

Casting – In one area, a director should try not to consider feelings, and that is the casting. Before casting the show, remind the auditioners there are many things to be considered when casting – height, gender, age, vocal range, acting style, etc. – and that every show is different. Just because they weren’t right for a big role in this show doesn’t mean they won’t be perfect for the next show. Then cast the show strictly on who is the best person for that role. 

It can be very challenging for a first-time director, but also very rewarding, especially when your fledglings grow up to be wonderful adult actors.

Mary Gray is the director of Easton Children’s Theatre, publisher of SpotlightMusicals.com, and author of the blog, YouthTheatreTips.com

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