Is That a Woodpecker on Your Shoulder?
Or How to Get Good Performances Out of Young Actors
Some kids are natural-born actors. They speak naturally. They display natural facial expressions. They communicate natural emotions, and they portray natural characters. Naturally, kids with that kind of talent are few and far between.
Many kids need help to move beyond robotic recitation of their lines to realistic portrayals of their characters. Some young actors will never be Oscar material. (Hey, that’s part of what makes kids’ performances so cute.) However, you can work with most kids and at least get them from wooden to something not-so-wooden. Here are some tips for how to do that:
Don’t give up the script too soon.
If you’re performing readers theatre, you never have to give up the script. (See “Readers Theatre – The Shortcut to Dramatic Success.”) But if you’re doing conventional theatre, allow students to keep their scripts a while. If you push kids to memorize everything early on, they focus on getting the lines down instead of getting the lines to express something. Letting kids rely on their scripts and concentrating your rehearsals on developing good performances pays off in the end.
Motivate actors to think about motivation.
Some young actors think that just saying their lines is “acting.” They need your help to understand that their characters have feelings – and “acting” means showing those feelings to the audience. Asking leading questions is one of the best ways to get kids to consider what’s behind their characters’ words. Try questions like: “How do you think he’s feeling?” “What does she mean?” “Is he telling the truth?” “What’s she hoping for?”
Once an actor can articulate what his character is feeling, encourage him to show those feelings. A simple, “play-like” direction is usually effective and less threatening than pressure to “Act! Act!” Just say something like, “Play like you’re mad, too.” Or “Play like you’re lying.”
If you still can’t get good expression out of an actor, try echo reading. Sit down with the kid and tell him he’s your echo. Then say one of his lines the way you’d like for him to perform it and ask him to copy you exactly. Likely, he will repeat the line in the same robotic way as usual, but don’t be discouraged. Remind him that he’s to do the line exactly as you do it, and try again – and again if necessary. Once he improves on that line, continue the process with his next lines. Once an actor gets the idea, he can usually carry on by himself with just an occasional echo read for difficult lines.
Prepare for interruptions.
One of the most awkward and unnatural parts in a play is the poor interruption. It goes something like this:
Francine: I can’t help it! I didn’t even know about.
Jacob: (after an embarrassing pause) Don’t make excuses, Francine! I was there when you.
Francine: (after another embarrassing pause) Shut up already! You’re always on my.
If your play includes an interruption, have the involved actor write out what she thinks the character intends to say. Then when she performs the line, she can continue on until the next actor actually interrupts her or until the end of the line if he doesn’t.
Hold off on the extras.
Kids love costumes, props, set pieces, and the like, but they love them too much. Once a young actor has a towel turban or a bejeweled throne or even one little magic rock, he’s likely to be distracted from creating a quality performance. Hey, who needs good expression when you’re wearing a pig snout? Let your actors mime the extras until their performances are in pretty good shape. Then you can work in the other stuff without detracting from the acting. Saving the extras also has the added benefit of pepping things up if repeated rehearsals are getting old.
Perform for a fake audience.
Arrange for somebody to “drop by” during a rehearsal. Or do a dress rehearsal with a non-threatening audience like a group of little kids. Getting a taste of performing before an audience can energize lackluster actors. It finally clicks with them that they’ll be doing their thing in front of “real” people. And audience reactions during a play bring things into focus for the actors, making it clear what’s funny or surprising or scary. Audience comments afterwards can clarify what’s working or not working in a production – especially if you forewarn your fake audience to watch out for something in particular.
Accentuate the positive.
Performing is fun and exciting, but it’s also scary for kids. Negative comments and demands for perfection only make things scarier, but it’s easy to forget that under the stress of putting together a show. Just remember: you’ll get a better performance from young actors in a positive atmosphere where they feel comfortable. So praise anything you can, point out every little bit of progress you see, and relax. Your young actors will charm the socks off their audience!
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