"Actors probably owe most of their skills to that devastatingly narcissistic "Look at me!' which keeps the majority of them still embroiled in an emotional adolescence."
That charming sentiment was expressed by the late British writer Dennis Potter in the intro to his TV play Blue Remembered Hills, in which he explored the dark side of childhood innocence during wartime. He also stipulated that all the roles in the play‹seven seven-year-olds‹be played by adults, so that the audience wouldn't be tempted to sentimentalize the notion of childhood.
Clive Chafer, the British-born actor and director who recently directed that play for Berkeley's TheatreFirst, says there's a lot of truth in what the apparently crotchety Potter wrote.
"For every actor, part of staying open and flexible is staying childlike in your acceptance of what comes your way," commented Chafer. "If you can be as open as a seven-year-old to the stimuli you're given by others, your response will be fuller. Improv work is based on saying yes to what comes your way, like children. So in some ways you're just asking actors to be actors. In New Age Speak, you're asking them to get in touch with their inner child, which many actors have not lost touch with."
His cast rehearsed by visiting Sunday school groups, classrooms, and playgrounds. Because children play differently when adults are around, the cast actually spied on the little buggers. "They're loose-limbed... not terribly coordinated, although some are showing signs of coordination," he said. "Some use their muscles well in throwing a ball, others don't. It's important to observe the exact age."
There are traps in playing children, though: "You've got to make your physicality pay off for the action and the character," said Chafer. "There's nothing gratuitous. The changes can be 180 degrees, but they have to be fully embodied and rooted in some action called for by the script. As soon as the actors start to lose that, it's "Hey, look, I'm playing a seven-year-old!' The audience will be interested for about five minutes.
"We have to get seven-year-oldness focused into what's happening in the script. If the actors are specific about what that child wants in every moment, which can change from one half-sentence to the next, it'll seem a lot like seven-year-olds. To us it seems like they're 150 percent in that emotional moment."
Sheila Balter has played the role of an outspoken schoolgirl for the last four years in Grace Paley's The Loudest Voice. It's one of the staged stories in the repertory of Word for Word, a Bay Area company that dramatizes works of literature verbatim. She portrays nine-year-old Shirley with such conviction that I called her to find out how she did it.
She attributed her authenticity to her recent artist-in-residence gig working with third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in an after-school program. She modeled Shirley after one of her students, a particularly bright girl with strong opinions: "She had an openness and a forthrightness that you have then; she felt free to express herself unencumbered by self-consciousness."
Balter carefully observed how kids walk and stand and behave. "The key for me was physical," she said. "I chose a few things: Something as simple as bending one knee, putting my weight on the other leg. I wanted the sleeves of my sweater to be long so I could play with the cuffs. And kids kind of drag their feet a little bit."
She also incorporated specific memories from her own childhood: Recalling a favorite teacher, she chose to have a crush on the schoolteacher in the play.
"I've learned over the years of doing this play that simpler is better," she said. "I used to have her a little more hunched over, trying to make myself smaller physically, more coy. I tried out some squirming and wiggling and twisting of my arms. I think I've toned down some of the physical things. That's really not necessary.
"It's the same as any acting: It has to be truly coming from you internally. If you're trying to act cute, it doesn't work, as a child or as an adult. It's not about imitating their voice; I'm probably a little more in my chest and head voice as opposed to my lower register, but it's still my voice. It's about running and springing and finding, going back to your own childish spirit. Remembering your relationship to the other kids. Curiosity and wonder are key elements, too. I try to be very present at every moment, because for children every moment is really an adventure."
Rules of the Playground
I called Carol Hazenfield, an improv performer who also teaches improv and scripted theatre in San Francisco, for an overview. She made several important points:
1. Children's responses are more primitive than ours. A normal, healthy child, up to the age of 11 or 12 (when self-consciousness kicks in), will let any emotion out.
2. Children are physically less controlled, because they don't have the motor skills we have.
3. "No children I know stand with their toes turned in, acting cutesie," said Hazenfield. "Adult actors do that. It's one of my pet peeves." Mine, too.
4. Actors tend to go for result; rather than play a specific child, they play a generality. If you're paying the same kind of detailed attention to character in playing a child as in playing an adult, you'll get a whole range of specifiers‹weight, shyness, clumsiness, extroversion versus introversion; all the characteristics of human behavior are present in both adults and children.
5. Another, opposite trap: playing children as too self-aware. Clues: if your emotional choices or objectives are too complex. Better to choose more primal objectives and responses.
6. Real kids won't stop playing their objective till they're shut down totally. They want what they want and they want it now and make direct tactical choices to get it‹they wheedle, cry, dance, flirt, and they can turn on a dime.
7. Unlike adults, children can forget their previous emotion. When playing an adult, you always have to bring the baggage from the last emotional moment to the next, right? But when playing a kid, you don't have to. This awareness of real-time transactions should affect all your choices: physical, vocal, etc.
"The nature of playing children is they don't know the rules yet," explained Hazenfield. "They haven't had enough trial and error to know what will work or not work. There's a lack of cynicism. So if they get their objective, they tend to celebrate and be more delighted, and if they don't get it, they are crushed. There's an emotional investment."
So‹did the actors who play seven-year-olds in Blue Remembered Hills pull it off? Partly. There were some physical clich s that didn't work: self-conscious pigeon-toed stances, kicking the dirt sheepishly with the toe of a shoe, too much generalized fidgeting and flinging around of bodies. Sheila Balter is right: Less is more. On the other hand, the commitment to objectives was, as Clive Chafer suggested, 150 percent. And as Hazenfield mentioned, every character rejoiced boldly in every objective accomplished. And despite the flaws, by midway into the play, my companion and I agreed: Our brains had totally accepted the fact that these were children romping before us. Which means you don't have to push; you can trust the audience to get it. BSW