While directing a bunch of (rather awesome) youth over the summer, I realized something very quickly. They were better artists than me and better artists than some professionals that I’ve worked with on productions.
Now wait. Calm down. Hear me out.
If I’m being totally fair, their technical skills were not stronger. Not by a long shot. But skills can be learned and practiced very easily. Theatre schools are everywhere, the opportunity to take part in workshops is at our finger tips (Literally. Seriously…Google “Theatre Workshops”. The options are endless), and being in a production is always a possibility especially if you are willing to make your own work. All of these experiences can hone the skills you have and help develop skills that you don’t, just by being in the room. So, if my colleagues and I have more experience, then what exactly makes those darn kids better artists… at least in that moment?
1. They had no egos
One of my favourite things about working with youth and teens is that they haven’t quite developed a full concept yet of what “good theatre” entails (obviously, this is subjective). They just went through the process. They didn’t think for a moment to focus on anything negatively. All they knew was that they had to make the show the greatest it could be. At auditions, each one of them was EXTREMELY nervous regardless of whether they had auditioned for me seven years in a row or never before. The thought that they were superior to others around them didn’t even cross their minds, even though, as a director, I could SEE the difference (for the sake of simplicity let’s say in their “talent”). None of that mattered. They didn’t feel the need to cut anyone else down, to feel more important, and not one actor felt that any particular role was owed to them.
As we move forward in our careers, I think at times we forget to be humble or grateful. We forget that core phrase that there truly are “no small parts but only small actors” and our experiences are what we make of them. Not only were these young artists AMAZINGLY SUPPORTIVE of each other no questions asked, but they, quite frankly, didn’t have time to judge what their peers were doing. I gave them props (pun intended) for that and told them the old actor’s ego joke:
How many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One. And all the other actors to stand around and say “I could do that.”
They didn’t get it. But it made me love them more.
2. They just focused on the work
It wasn’t until I went back to work full time with these eager beavers that I realized how um…perhaps lazy?…my techniques, routines, and focus had gotten. For example, my students have eight days to learn an hour long show. They need to be off-book by day four. They ALWAYS WERE. ALWAYS. When my directors ask for that, I do try. But that off-book date (for most of the shows I’ve been a part of) has been…*cough* fluid. A “mostly off-book” day and not just for me, but for most of the actors I work with. But these guys went home after 7 hours in class, after soccer games, ballet lessons, competitive jiu-jitsu competitions, you name it and they spent time memorizing all of their lines, songs, and dances. These mini go-getters found the time to do the work (with no excuses) regardless of circumstance. They consistently asked important questions, and took notes ensuring that they improved the next time. They arrived on time for class every day prepared mentally and physically to get to work (and work hard). The dedication they had to their work at such a young age blew me away.
3. They created a family
When I say they supported each other, I really mean it. They worked so hard on a show that finished so quickly; a feeling that most artists can relate to. But beyond just working together on a common goal or product, they truly cared about each other. They wanted to succeed, but more importantly, they wanted to succeed TOGETHER. They knew that we were all on the same ship (the FRIENDship?! Okay, too much.) They realized that we either all sank or we all swam together. So they often put their own tasks aside and took it upon themselves to help each other. It was not something I imposed or insisted upon as a teacher. Even though I LOVED the idea of forcing them to help each other, I knew it wouldn’t be as powerful. But I didn’t need to do that. They wanted to help and they wanted to support their peers. Every day I would see them at lunch or break going over dances together, running lines with each other, or bringing someone up to speed on new script changes, etc. and it just made my heart full.
Some of these are students have come back every year at the same time just so they can work together again. I know they are staying in touch via social media and other means after the show is over and that makes me so happy. And I know that they really felt like a family when most of them cried on the last day of class (though if you ask the teenagers, I’m sure they will deny it!)
As more established artists we often forget to let our walls down. We are so busy being “professional”, even competitive at times, that we forget to really connect with our peers throughout the process. Sometimes, we don’t really let ourselves become friends; friends that could eventually become cherished colleagues, inspiring bosses, or hey…even family.
4. They let go of their insecurities and have fun
At a crucial time in the lives of these young artists, the dreaded progression through the teenage years, they have managed to keep the self-doubt, self-consciousness, and crippling insecurities at bay. Why? Because of all of the things above. By becoming such a close and supportive theatre family, they have developed a firm groundwork of respect and trust for one another. They created an environment that is free for them to ask questions without judgement and take big risks; even when it fails the first time. They push themselves and each other outside of their comfort zones and trust their director to do the same. It’s a safe, fun, and an all around enjoyable work atmosphere.
Here’s the catch. THEY DON’T TAKE THEMSELVES TOO SERIOUSLY. Not like a lot of us do (or at least not like I do sometimes…). Are they serious about working hard and putting on a good show? Why, yes! Do they tell lame jokes and dress up in each other costumes while making farting noises sometimes? Also yes! I’d be lying if I said that they didn’t make me laugh every day. And I’d be lying if said it wasn’t important to be silly. Bottom line: They are serious about the work without taking themselves too seriously. Maybe we could all take a page from their books. After all, aren’t we just a bunch of weirdos who dress up and pretend to be other weirdos in front of a group of weirdos who want to watch?
Our fear of looking stupid is holding us back. THAT’S what kids make us realize. They remind us what it is to be free and to be present in the moment. And remember that if we all commit to our ideas 100% and try it together, then none of us really look ridiculous…right? Or at least we all look ridiculous together.
So, after these moments of self reflection and brutal self-honesty, I realized some things. Whenever I work with kids and teenagers, it inspires me. They inspire me. Seeing their kindness and respect for one another never ceases to re-ignite my passion for teaching theatre and lighting the way for others. It reminds me to check in with myself and re-evaluate my process as an artist (in a very constructive way). It also makes me proud of my job and more than anything…makes me excited for the future of theatre.