Junior thespians take the stage
Comedian W.C. Fields once said, “Never work with animals or children.” That sentiment is often heard on the set of Beijing Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol, a production that opens this month. That’s a good thing – at least for the kids. “When child actors are good, they’re just adorable, and they steal the scene,” says Chris Verrill, the theater’s founder.
Verrill, an American who has spent three-and-a-half years in Beijing, points to the youngest actor in this year’s production – a 6-year-old Filipina girl who is dashing around the rehearsal area. “She memorized all of her lines the very day the director called. And for those two lines, she’s going to steal the audience,” says Verrill. Nor is this little girl the only one who’s bound to occupy the spotlight. Elsewhere in the play, Scrooge is on stage with an 11-year-old girl. “The girl has a very adult demeanor in this child’s body,” says Verrill. “The guy playing Scrooge knows full well that during that scene, no one is going to pay attention to him.”
Australian Jack Baker, 12, plays Peter Cratchit in the upcoming production. “I like learning lines and experiencing different emotions. Being with the other characters helps me act,” says Jack.
Rachelle Camello comes from the Philippines and, at age 13, is a veteran player at Beijing Playhouse. She’s been part of the crew in three Beijing Playhouse camps and will play one of the Cratchit children in A Christmas Carol. Camello says that she enjoys the chance to hang out with friends and learns how to act from them.
The 25-person cast in the production of Dickens’ classic tale includes seven child actors, ranging from age 6 to 19. Although the choice of performing A Christmas Carol is as traditional as it gets, director Brandon B. Blackburn-Dwyer examined the original Dickens and added scenes that are usually cut from productions. This year’s show is also a musical with original songs composed by Nina Lenton, a local expat.
Several of the actors in the play are veterans of the Beijing Playhouse Kids’ camp, established a year ago on the request of parents who wanted their children to experience the thrill of live performance.
During each camp session, the kids take acting and singing lessons and work on creating set designs and stage props. But the most important – and fun – part is getting scripts, memorizing their lines and learning blocking, or stage movement. Each week-long camp ends with a show.
“Our mission is to expose kids to all facets of putting on a show,” says Verrill, who’s served as executive director of Beijing Playhouse for three years. “In one week, we’re not going to make brilliant actors or actresses, but we take kids who are really shy and we put them onstage.”
The theater company’s week-long drama camps (9am-4pm) run four times a year, and kids engage in exercises to teach them how to project their voices, how to sing and how to do a bit of dancing. Choreography is kept relatively simple – a good idea when there are 30 kids on stage at the same time. This winter, young thespians can also enroll in a drama camp to perform ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (details below).
Each Beijing Playhouse kids’ camp is directed by Holly Naylor, an expat who moved to Beijing in 2006, and includes guest lecturers who teach workshops on fight scene choreography, and voice techniques and getting into character.
But how exactly does a child’s acting sensibility develop? “We teach kids to think about what their character is thinking and feeling, something that all actors go through,” says Verrill, who has extensive experience in productions with adults.
Not only can he list countless reasons that acting benefits children, but he also firmly believes these skills will be useful throughout life. “Are these kids going to grow up to be actors and actresses? Probably not,” he said. “But public speaking skills, having confidence in front of an audience, presentation – these skills are useful in things like sales and teaching.”
And, Verrill is quick to add with a smile, “It’s fun! It’s about quality of life. It’s something you do to enjoy life – that’s what the arts are for.”
While most kids at camp are just having fun with theater, a few do exhibit a genuine talent for drama. In last year’s camp production of Peter Pan, Verrill found himself raving about the child who played the lead role. “She could go on to be a professional actress,” says Verrill. “The 13-year-olds take it seriously, and they do a good job,” he says.
Though Beijing doesn’t have a wealth of regular acting opportunities for kids, children can always get involved in the theater programs at many schools, including WAB, ISB, and BSB.
A Christmas Carol
Fri and Sat (7.30pm), Sun (2pm), Dec 5-28
RMB 300 (at door), RMB 250 (advance)
Block 8, Chaoyang Park West
Winter Theater Camp
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
9am-4pm, Dec 29-Jan 3
Kids ages 6-13 (enrollment limited to 30)
Beijing BISS International School