I Did Theatre For Children... And It Wasn't Easy!
There's a common misconception about TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences). Specifically people assume that they tend to be worse quality than other shows, that the jokes are dumb or lazy, and because the audiences are easier the please (Ha!) it's a less respected form of entertainment. I'm here to tell you that ain't the case.
In the 2017-2018 season of Alberta Opera (now Alberta Musical Theatre), I toured Jack and The Beanstalk around the entire province of Alberta for just shy of three-hundred performances over a nine month period. Every weekday we would roll up to the school or community hall early in the morning with our Tim Horton's, to unload the set, costumes and weights from our Van and rush to set up our set while we hummed and stretched, preparing ourselves to sing and dance. After the show we packed it all up and went to the next performance. Two (and sometimes three) shows a day five days in a row is exhausting. There's a certain extra energy required to kickstart a show for a gymnasium full of half-asleep kids. It was challenging to say the least, but it was also awesome.
This is the part where I gush about the team. From the moment we started rehearsals early in September, Alberta Musical Theatre's AD Farren Timoteo made it clear that we should in no way fall into the assumption that TYA requires less skill or should be held to a lower standard. In the development of the show our director Lana Hughes, made an incredible effort to ensure that this show was such a high caliber production that it set us up for success. Everything from the extravagant costume design (Deanna Finnman) to the inventive and beautiful set (designed by Megan Koshka and Tiana Tolley), exudes quality and care. We drilled musical numbers with the help of musical genius Erik Mortimer, and the incredibly enthusiastic choreographer Ainsley Hillyard. I also have to mention Erin Valentine who as SM had the unfortunate job of whipping a cocky recent grad into shape (me, it was me). We worked hard, and as a result we toured the province proud of the show we'd brought to life. It paid off massively, as teachers would come up to us after the show expressing that they had expected to sit through some lame children's theatre while trying to not to nod off, but instead wound up laughing and screaming along with the kids. We had actually managed to break this TYA assumption for our adult audience, as well as ourselves.
There were unexpected challenges along the way. The most 'humbling' challenge was learning how critical kids can be. They sometimes don't have the same social grace we learn later in life and as a result will let you know if there was something they did not enjoy. I distinctly am fond of the humbling moment when I had finished my Mysterious Bean-Man song and a kid in the back of the room yelled: "thank God that's over!" As an actor who was at the time taking myself way too seriously, it was hard on morale at times. Now I think it's hilarious. Some other hardship highlights were the time the power went out mid-song and the teacher's aimed flashlights at us, the time the set fell, the three times I fell from my stilts, the time the van got stuck in the snow, the time the van got stuck in the mud, and the various times we were sick (because children). Oh! And there was that horrifying time when we asked a girl what she loved to do (99% of responses were Fortnite related) and she said her favourite thing to do was to let her dog lick her tongue. Now you are scarred for life too.
On the flipside, most of the time children were incredibly giving audiences. They were so invested in the friendship between the Giant and Jack. My favourite feeling was turning the corner and entering the scene in stilts, as the kids screamed in horror as I towered above them nine feet tall. Then as I searched the set for Jack, they whispered desperately for him to hide. It was so much fun. My talented troupe of Ethan Snowden, Rachel Ironmonger, and Talesa Mandin made each show just as energized and fun as the first one. The reception from Alberta's communities was inspiring as well. As we moved into rural areas, entire communities would make an event out of the show. They would welcome us with open arms. I had never considered that this would be some children's first exposure to live theatre ever, and yet it was part way through the tour when I remembered seeing the 2003 original version of the same show at my own Elementary School. It was likely one of the first seeds planted for my own passion of acting. So there was this fulfilling reciprocal relationship I developed with the show.
If you are considering a career in acting, I would highly recommend doing TYA in some capacity. Not despite the inherent challenges, but because of them. And if your gut reaction is that you are 'above' doing a children's show, maybe ask yourself why that is. You may have made an unfair assumption about TYA. Especially if you are graduating from an acting program, do it. You will immediately learn how to apply all that you've learned to keep your voice and body in shape to carry out this marathon of an experience. It's also freeing to be big and expressive in a way that caters to the style, something that would never work in film. I look back at my experience of the tour fondly and I'm positive I'm a more resilient, adaptable and giving actor because of it.
Have you done TYA? Comment below and share your favourite memories/stories below!