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Young Actors and the Way In

I have been teaching young people for the past 15 years how to find their way into acting. This calls for a far different set of skills than with the adult students who come with years of life lived and stored experiences, and understand conceptually that they are going to use their experiences for their work. Imagine that you are suddenly asked to speak a language you don't know. You can memorize phrases and repeat them, but you lack the ability to understand the content and the ability to use your understanding about life and apply it to the audition material you are to work on and deliver the next day.

Young people are unfinished works in process—shaped by limited exposure to the world around them and still learning by rote rather than by experience. They are referencing family, school, and of course television in forming opinions, reactions, and behavior. So the "self" they need to bring forward isn't quite formed yet. They require an especially nurturing environment which eases them into skills they may have not practiced—such as interview technique, cold reading skills, how to deliver their best with audition material, and the ability to improvise—while remaining open, relaxed, and fully bringing themselves to the tasks.

In 1996, I was teaching at The All About Kids Acting Conservatory. At that time, I was picking scenes and monologues for the beginning actors. Try as I might, even though I presented what I thought was interesting age-appropriate material, there was a disconnect between some of the students and the material. During one of the classes, I gave my 9-year-old student Damon a monologue to read. It had to do with losing a best friend. He read it, but it sounded flat, unreal, and speech-like.

 "Damon, did anything like this ever happen to you?" I asked. "No." "How do you think the person in this story feels?" "I don't know?" "Guess." He shrugged and looked blank. Then, I noticed his new basketball sneakers. "You like basketball?" "Oh yeah, me and my best friend watch the games all the time." "Would you be upset if he moved away?"

"Oh!" He was in it now, his energy had completely shifted. I could hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes and body language. "That would be the worst! I would never find another friend like him!" He was in the mindset he needed to be in to do the monologue. I asked him to read it again. This time he was able to translate his fear of losing his best friend into the monologue and I felt it. It was truthful. When he was done reading he felt it too, and so did the rest of the class.

A child or teenager experiences joy, love, confusion, fear as we all do, but often the feelings and situations are happening for the first time and are not something they yet know how to work with. Acting asks the actor to engage feelings and thoughts from their own lives to develop a role. Young people may have a wealth of life experiences but don't yet know how to use them in their acting. They need to be guided how to plug into, connect, parallel, or imagine the character they are playing. This highlights their ability to empathize and identify another's experience, as well as their own. They must be shown how to build a bridge between connecting to experiences not their own. Asking questions that elicit stories, watching for reactions that coincide with what they are asked to play, bringing that moment to their attention, and having the student read the line with it in mind can begin the journey "in." Once that happens, a doorway has been opened and the process must be continued to strengthen that ability.

Young people have been bombarded with issues of having the "right" answers inside the classroom and "belonging" outside the classrooms. Expressing themselves has begun to be risky business after a certain age, so self-consciousness and the need to look cool can be an obstacle when expressing is the very thing needed. It can become an unused muscle that can be uncomfortable or embarrassing at first. Any exploration of emotions can only happen if a young person feels safe and secure—encouraged to be creative, imagine, and risk. I urge parents to thoroughly check credentials and reputation when choosing a place to train their young actor.

Elizabeth Bauman teaches out of Scott Sedita Acting Studios. She taught at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and Los Angeles. 

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