ROCKINGHAM — “Finish the moment!” shouts Shelly Walker, director of the Richmond Community Theatre, to her young actors on stage, instructing them to really commit to trying to pull one of the others up off the floor as if they are stuck.
“We’re losing the flow!” she stresses to actors dragging their feet.
There are three more days of rehearsals before the Young People’s Theatre performs “The Fairy Tale Network,” a script the 8 to 14-year-olds only saw two weeks before their performance.
“It’s a fun challenge to push yourself to see how fast you can get your lines memorized,” said Mia Grace Franco, now in her fourth year with the YPT.
The play follows three mice who have to save their TV network’s ratings under demands from their boss, a cat, who will eat them if they fail, and they decide to do it by updating fairy tales for a new generation. Each re-told fairy tale has a different set, actors, costumes and props, which the children each had a hand in creating.
They also wrote original commercials between each fairy tale, performed by the actors who didn’t have as many lines in the main plot.
Walker said they’re “pretty close” to being ready, but the “busy bees” — the ones who have to move the set pieces and other technical work in between scenes — have the most complicated job.
“It’s a pretty intense two weeks,” Walker said, but not as much as the previous year when the children started from scratch on a play called “The Friendship of People and Puppets,” which required that they build puppets in addition to writing, learning and performing the lines and designing the set. “(Performing an existing play) lets the kids relax and have more fun.”
Walker said the kids often find it easier to remember lines they wrote themselves rather than ones written by a professional playwright.
“That’s an important thing for them to experience and realize,” she said.
Most of the 20 kids in this year’s YPT are returning actors, with only a few first-timers — which means Walker has to make it a new experience each year. The children have varying levels of skill and interest. Ben Lutz, 9, who’s playing Sausage the pig, said he’s “just trying it out” while Toni Beale, 11, who’s playing Mama Bear, wants to be a professional actress and Mia Grace hopes to study theater at The Juilliard School in New York.
“I was never interested in theater,” said Mia Grace, who plays the Big Bad Wolf in the YPT’s take on “The Three Little Pigs.” “I thought it was weird until some friends told me about it … I thought it was an adult thing, not a kid thing.”
Alexis Walker, 9, (Shelly Walker’s niece) who is playing Goldilocks in what will be her second performance with the YPT, said this year is a new challenge for the actors because instead of acting with puppets, “we’re acting for ourselves.”
As director, Walker keeps the actors who aren’t involved in the scene from standing idle backstage so they aren’t tempted to do it during the real thing. She tells one to take his hands out of his pockets so he can better sell a pitch for one of the fairy tale TV shows. She tells the Big Bad Wolf in “Little Red (Yellow) Riding Hood” to “find your physical character as a wolf … scare the little kids in the audience.”
One actor threw out an idea for a pun in one of the commercials in between runs, and Walker added that the actor could give a sarcastic “ba-dum-tss” after the line. During a scene set in the “deep, deep, deep” woods, the actors use house plants to create the effect, but it wasn’t enough for one of the kids who said the red flowers “don’t add to the scary” to which another remarked, “just paint them black.”
Merrie Dawkins, vice president of the theater’s governing board, and Brian Perry, a board member — both volunteers — act as extra sets of eyes making sure the actors are following the script.
On the work her aunt puts in, Alexis said, “there’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders.” Mia Grace said she got a better understanding for the challenge of directing at another theater where she was in charge of younger actors saying, “It’s harder than you think.”
Dawkins said parents often remark that their kids have better grades and increased confidence after going through the two weeks of the YPT. The actors agreed. Tobey Lunceford, 12, one of the busy bees in his second YPT, said it’s showed him how to express himself. Toni said it’s preparing her for the professional acting world. Mia Grace said she’s learned to express different characters, including herself, in new ways — and has even learned to enjoy giving presentations at school.
“They gain a greater self-awareness when they’re in the spotlight, which gives them more confidence,” Walker said of the effect of the YPT on the kids. One of the children, who has difficulty speaking, joined last year because he likes puppets and enjoyed it so much he returned to be in a play that now requires him to speak on stage.
“He has a place here. There’s an acceptance of character that happens in theater — I don’t know how it happens but it does,” Walker said. “In school being unique can be made into a bad thing — but here, unique is good.”