How 20 kids got to hang out with Scrooge every night
On a warm Monday afternoon in August, while their peers were enjoying one of the final days of summer vacation, 101 children were swarming the Milwaukee Rep's usually calm offices. Accompanied by parents or grandparents, they had set their sights on becoming a street urchin, young Ebenezer Scrooge or a Cratchit kid.
December seemed a long ways away, but the Rep was beginning the sifting process that would result in putting 20 kids and teenager on stage to appear with the adult actors in its 36th annual edition of "A Christmas Carol." The production opened at The Pabst Theater last weekend.
The children, or more accurately their parents, had answered a general audition notice the Rep had circulated earlier in the summer. Associate artistic director Sandy Ernst and children's director Shawn Gulyas were going to make the first evaluation of the group, reducing to 25 the number of kids Joseph Hanreddy, the overall director of the production, would see at a callback audition three weeks later.
A few of the non-adults were already cast in Ernst's head. Three ensemble roles usually filled by acting interns were going to be played by teenage veterans of previous "A Christmas Carol" productions at the Rep. The interns were needed in the Rep's parallel production of "Next to Normal" in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.
Younger veterans who wanted to return for this year's show were also in Ernst's mind. The Rep likes to use children they already know if the previous experience with them was positive. Some kids who had small parts last year would be considered for larger roles.
The current production of "A Christmas Carol," the fourth version of the classic story the Rep has used over the years, is liberally laced with Christmas carols, and the company needs its child actors to have good singing voices. Musical director Randal Swiggum assessed the kids' vocal ability while children's director Gulyas worked with them in a rehearsal hall.
Divided into groups of about 15, the auditioners sat in a circle and introduced themselves, stretched their bodies, talked about favorite activities and what they had done for fun that day, and played theater games. The kids, who were as young as 6, were asked to sing a song of their choice while simultaneously miming an action. A little boy forgot the words to "Happy Birthday."
Each child was instructed to say "wow!" "Fill up the room," Gulyas directed. The kids were asked to dance, walk around the room and freeze.
Some of the children were barely engaged, and others turned on the sparkle to Broadway proportions. Ernst and Gulyas soaked it all up and huddled after each group was dismissed.
They were looking for poise, presence, and most importantly with this age group, focus. A 7-year-old girl twirled around the rehearsal hall with such untamed energy, she presented a potential problem. Energy is good but lack of discipline isn't.
Ernst and Gulyas compared notes on the children. "Good voice, but too self-conscious." "Focus is not his strong suit." "Sings well, seems to have poise." "She was brave and sang out."
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