On Directing Kids

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Once, when TV director Mary Lou Belli was an observer on the set of a long-running sitcom, she noticed that the child actors were no better in the seventh year of the show than they had been in the first.

"Nobody gave them craft!" she sighs. "The directors always went for the easy fix as opposed to explaining the basis for the fix. But every kid bright enough to be on a TV show is bright enough to get it." Belli was inspired to write a book, "Acting for Young Actors," and develop exercises, many of which she uses when directing kids, as she has done on "USA High," "The Hughleys," and many other shows. "The more specific you are with kids, the better," she says.

A few surefire tools she uses with kids up to about 16 or 17:

- Because you can't always be sure they understand a direction, Belli asks them to repeat it back to her, to see if they got it right.

- She uses a 1-to-10 scale to help them understand the level of energy or intensity needed: "That was a 3, but I want a 10."

- She applies action verbs, of which she has amassed about 150, as in: "When you say, 'It's your fault,' think about pushing him away." You can fine-tune the tone by carefully choosing the verb—"push" will get a different result than "shove."

- A line reading is the worst thing you can do with kids, she notes, so she gives them subtext: "When you say, 'It's your fault,' what you're really saying is, 'I don't trust you.' "

- And if they're having trouble with the concept of truthful listening when acting, she gives them a quick exercise: Go to the table, pick up a pencil, write a phone number, hand it to her, sit down. "Then I say, 'Look, you really just actively listened!' "

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to directing children, though, whether for stage or camera. It depends on the project as well as the individual performer—age, maturity, personality, skills, talent, experience, and training. And beware the overly but shallowly trained child, warn a few directors: They sound like little adults, or "acting-metrons," as one director puts it.

Kimberly Senior, who recently helmed Martin McDonagh's dark play "The Pillowman" at Chicago's Redtwist Theatre, didn't treat the child actors much differently than the adults. It helped, though, to get the parents actively involved, she says, and to make time and space for one of the less-focused kids, so that he'd feel fully valued. Also, she kept the cast at the table for several days at the beginning of rehearsals, so that both the adults and the children had plenty of time to discuss the text.

At Berkeley Repertory Theatre, artistic director Tony Taccone had to corral a 30-member chorus of 8-to-11-year-olds for Tony Kushner's musical "Brundibar," which traveled to Yale University and New York, with a different chorus in each city. "You have to keep things simple, clear, direct, and honest, as is always the case," Taccone says. "You spend more time trying to make sure everyone's focused."

Wranglers were hired, and the chorus kids in each city also took a daily class for two weeks to learn music and movement before rehearsals started. Taccone broke the choruses into small groups, each responsible for certain things, and gave the older kids a sense of authority by assigning them to watch out for younger ones. "I've been a parent my whole life," he says, "and I'm comfortable around kids—encouraging them or telling them to shut up. It's a particular kind of energy."

"Young actors have an advanced understanding of the thought processes of people," asserts Robert Kelley, of the San Francisco Bay Area's TheatreWorks, in the midst of directing two preteens and a teen in "To Kill a Mockingbird." "The good ones are able to appreciate subtext, even the young ones, and the very young tend to be less self-conscious than the teens." He loves working with kids in drama or musical theater (for example, "Caroline, or Change") and helps them with basics, like given circumstances. If there's time, he does mini-improvs or schedules kids-only rehearsals.

Los Angeles film and stage director and teacher Mark Travis identifies the mindsets of the different age groups, providing a guide in how to work with them. The easiest group can be the 4-to-6-year-olds—they're so close to naturally becoming another character. (But you have to be careful that they eventually do go back to being themselves.) The preteens can separate a little bit more. The teenagers are more difficult, because they're going through the phase of rebellious independence.

Getting to Know Them

Travis thinks the best training for directing kids is to raise children yourself, or at least hang around with kids of whatever age you're directing and get to know their mentality. "The more time you spend with children, the better director you'll be when directing adults," he posits. After all, the goal and process of adult actors is to become childlike again.

Several directors stress the importance of not talking down to children. "Kids can work at a sophisticated level but often aren't asked to," observes Craig Slaight, director of the Young Conservatory at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. He realized early on that he need not talk to them any differently than he would to an adult actor. Children, he says, are fully capable of understanding how to play objectives and so on. When directing them in ACT's annual "A Christmas Carol," he has been astonished by the intelligent questions they ask during rehearsal breaks, such as "Because she's this and that, does that mean I should be doing this or that?"

Slaight is of course talking about stage kids, but regarding the professionalism of child actors, TV director Jerry Levine, in Albuquerque, N.M., filming the TV series "In Plain Sight," agrees. He points out the difference between working with kids on a kids show, like "Hannah Montana," and on an adult show, such as "Everybody Hates Chris," one of many TV programs he has directed. On adult shows, he tries not to treat the kids like kids.

"Mostly they're very bright and they know they're stepping into a professional environment, and it's their desire to rise to the occasion," Levine says. "I make it clear from the beginning that this is a choice they've made, to walk into a world with boundaries and with things we need to accomplish." The kids respond accordingly, he adds.

Because time is so short on sets, someone like longtime actor Jamie Donnelly is invaluable in coaching kids (ages 6 and up). And she fully agrees that kids are capable of understanding the very basics of the craft. "Sometimes it's hard for directors to articulate in a way a child can understand," she says. They might say, "Can you pace it up a little bit?" and the child says "Okay" but doesn't really know what that means. Donnelly is all about helping kids to understand the writer's intentions and the director's instructions, without ever interfering with the director's work.

Sometimes directors are harsh. They'll say, "That doesn't work," and the kid is crushed, Donnelly says. She treats her actors gently, giving lots of positive feedback and helping them pace the lines, sell the joke, nail the energy level, eliminate mannerisms, and have a clear intention in every scene. She also aids with diction, and to induce spontaneity, she improvises with them. She also does emotional-recall and sensory work. "There's no reason kids can't do that, but it takes time," she says. "I do a relaxation exercise with personal recall that brings up the feelings they need for the scene."

Kelley and others agree about the need to praise kids. "Adults get immune to 'That was great,' " he says. "If you constantly say that, you lose credibility. For the young, knowing they're appreciated will help you open the door to going a little deeper with direction."

He adds, "One of the joys of working with young people is you get to create the illusion of seeing life through a whole perspective we've lost as individuals—a type of innocence or inexperience."