A few weeks ago, I premiered my first show with child actors, grades 5th-8th. My friend Emily was directing the show, and asked if I would choreograph it. She's gotten me involved in some pretty amazing projects in the past, so I trust her completely, but I'd never been available to work on one of her youth productions before. This go round, it worked with my schedule, and it just felt right.
Going in, I was super nervous, as for years I've said and thought that I am not good with children. Not only was this my first time working with kids, but it was also the largest group I'd ever worked with, with 26 kids in one dance (others ranged from 2-14 dancers). I choreographed 9 dances for the production, and had rehearsals in the suburbs 2-3 times a week in the brutal cold, dealing with rehearsal cancelations a-plenty, and the death of my beloved cat in the process. I spent a lot of time feeling insecure over my contributions to the production, but one day sort of clicked and got over it, with help from the great feedback from the Board members who sat in on rehearsals who were also mothers of a couple of the kids in the show. I had no standard of comparison of what they were wanting and expecting from me, and how well the kids would be able to perform my choreography.
When the big weekend came, we had 4 performances, and I blubbered and cried like a proud parent, amazed at what these kids brought to the show and how talented they all were. It was amazing seeing the show come to life. The kids were so sweet, and I got so many hugs, a few gifts, and a million kids and parents asking if I was coming back to work on a future production. I felt like a million bucks.
I can honestly say that I have never felt so much love, pride, relief, validation, satisfaction, and joy after a production than I did after this one.
It was really an incredible experience.
Here are a few things that I learned in the process of working on my first kids show.
1) Kids are hilarious. I had one group of 10 girls more than any other kids in the show, so by the end of the rehearsal process, we all knew each other very well. We got to have some nice chats, and I taught them some good stretches and ways to take care of themselves as dancers. Our comfort level also meant that we could play with each other a bit more. One night, they played a slight prank on me that made me laugh so hard I couldn't contain myself, and it will forever be one of my favorite moments in any rehearsal ever. I was so grateful to them for that. Even outside of that group, the cast always kept me giggling.
2) Kids don't let anything slide. Adults are forgiving--if you do something one way one time and a bit differently the next, they will figure it out, or at least forgive you for the error. You can tell them things like "make this work the best for you" and they do. Not so with kids. The second I did something even slightly different than how I first taught it, a million hands would go up in the air, with a panicked "THATS NOT WHAT YOU JUST DID!!!" They constantly kept me on my toes and challenged me to be more consistent.
3) Working with kids is an amazing thing from a teacher's perspective, because you get to see them actually LEARN. At the start of one of my dances, I had one girl who had no clue about ballet or how to move her body. By the show weekend, she was NAILING the choreography. It was awesome. I pulled her aside and told her how proud I was of her and how great her improvement was. I think it meant a lot to her. Which leads me to...
4) With kids, you can make a difference! You can be the amazing influential creative person in their lives that they remember. I had a few of these in my life, and if I can be that to someone else--wow. What an honor.
5) Kids have great ideas! Once we got on the stage with the set, I was having a hard time figuring out a logistical issue for my large dance. One of the dancers raised her hand and made a suggestion that was brilliant, and actually fixed the problem. I am not sure I would have come up with the solution that she did, so I was grateful to her for that.
6) Kids are crazy and full of energy and need a lot of focus, but as an adult, you are in charge! I never really was overwhelmed with any chaos of behavior issues (these kids were all from a affluent community and are well-loved by their parents, so they were all good kids), but we did have to always tell them to stop talking. But authority-wise, they always knew that I was the one in charge, so when I said so, they would listen.
7) I used the term "yes, ma'am" & "yes sir" to the kids out of respect (I am from the South, after all), but when they used it back to me, it is because I am an adult, and they SHOULD say that.
8) It was an interesting realization that with the ages of the kids and the age I am now, I could be their mother.
9) You can totally tell the ones who are going to stick with it and those who are going to let theatre go. With my girls, one night, I talked to them about the sacrifices and glories of what it is like to work in theatre, and I used myself as living proof that it can be done and is very fulfilling.
10) Kids are adorable. Oh my gosh, there was this one tiny girl...
11) You smell a lot of farts in kids theatre.
12) That age is such a tough time of hormones and changes and crushes and figuring out just exactly who you are. It was interesting watching it from the outside.
13) In talking with the parents, and seeing how happy they were and how proud of their kid or kids that they were--it made it all worthwhile. It made me glad that I did it and that I live a creative life. I know why I choreograph, direct, produce etc, for MYSELF, but seeing how I can give back and share my talents with others--that is heavy. I feel very blessed to be the person that I am, with the life and gifts that I have.
14) I saw a lot of myself in the kids. Growing up, after every weekend of the Nutcracker every year, I sobbed. It was uncontrollable, and it confused Mom and Dad. I never knew why it happened, it just did. As an adult, I know that it is that letdown of energy and emotion and the largeness of having something that is all you do for 3-4 months and suddenly it is over. It isn't a sad thing, it is just a release. The 8th graders were crying because it was their last show with the company, but even the younger ones were crying. Seeing all the kids in this state after the final performance melted my heart. I hugged them and told them to just cry it out. One girl was bawling and said "I don't even know why I am crying!" I totally understood.
15) Working with kids is EXHAUSTING. Opening night, the adult design team (me, director, music director & our spouses) all went out for a drink to decompress. It was awesome. After the closing show, when I got home, I deposited myself on the couch for the rest of the day, barely able to move.
All in all, it was a life changing experience, and I can't wait to see the next production so I can cheer on all the kids and watch them grow.