Saturday, March 29, 2014

Being a Child Actor In a Long Running Show

Me right before I started work on "Mary-Mary."

My childhood headshots

With the proliferation of musicals starring children on Broadway, a lot of people have asked me what it was like being a child in a long running show. When I was 11-13 I did about a year long run (it might have been a little longer,) of a musical called “Mary-Mary.” We primarily performed in Los Angeles, but I also went with the show to the UK, touring to London, Warwick and Stratford. The show was a kind of modern “Alice in Wonderland” esque story involving a cynical, grown-up before her time young girl named Mary-Mary, and a host of fantastic fairy tale characters. I played Mary-Mary alternating with mainly one, but for a short while with two other girls, (though I did the majority of performances.) I was the youngest person in the cast - I was always a kid who looked older then I was, so I was the only Mary-Mary who was truly playing my own age. The others were older and looked younger. The other Mary-Mary's and I were never at the theater at the same time. 

I loved doing “Mary-Mary.” It will always be one of my theatrical highlights. Interestingly in real life I was much more like the end of the show Mary – I was in some ways a very innocent twelve year old, very imaginative, and I saw the world in magical ways. I think I still do. My acting abilities were primarily challenged in the first half of the show when Mary is much more jaded and “cool” then I was. I had a very strong grasp of acting – I was in my first play when I was five, and had been taking acting classes ever since. I grew up in L.A and got an agent when I was seven. By twelve I was an old pro. I was very fortunate that I was treated as such. I have friends who were also child actors, and many have horror stories of the kinds of things directors would do to manipulate a performance out of them (that old chestnut about a kid being told their parents are dead to get them to cry is much more common then you might think.) Largely thanks to a wonderful mother, and the fact that I received legitimate acting training I was very blessed to always be treated as an equal actor, and never had any traumatizing incidents. 

“Mary-Mary” was a big responsibility for me. I only left stage twice the whole show, and I was speaking off stage during both exits. I had to be at the theater very early to get ready and warm up before the performance(s.) I used my own hair in the show and had it French braded (two braids, just like Dorothy.) I liked the other people who worked on the production very much. Ironically, maybe this is true to an extent with all performers, but especially children, I remember my relationships with the other characters as separate from my relationships with the other actors. Although I certainly missed everyone when the show ended, I almost missed some of the characters more then the actors themselves. Like they had been real people in a way. The actors I knew I could always see again, but I would never again be able to talk to, and interact with the characters I loved so much. Mary was sometimes closer to a character onstage then Ashley was in real life with the actor who played them.

I’m glad I did my first long run as a child. Children are by nature in the moment, something essential to surviving a long run, and now I have a paradigm to bring to a long run as an adult. But even as a child it did get difficult to keep the show fresh after a while (though probably after a much longer period then one would think, it does take a decent amount of time to really get into the groove of a new show.) I began to set little challenges for myself to help keep things feeling new. One show I might filter things through Mary’s sadness, the next her anger. One show I might play her as a little girl pretending to be older then she is, the next as a girl who really had to grow up too fast. I never did anything that really changed my performance, just little thoughts I kept in the back of my mind to keep things interesting for me.

One thing that really did help keep things fresh was when new cast members would join the company. As wonderful as everyone was, an especial favorite cast member for me was Rachel who replaced the adult lead in the show a few months into the run. Not only was Rachel a former acting teacher of mine, but she was a close family friend. She and her family came over for dinner at my house, and my mother and I went over to hers. I spent most of my time onstage with Rachel’s character, who becomes like a mother to Mary during the course of the show. I felt the same way about Rachel offstage as on, and it was very special for me to get to perform with her.

I remember discovering things about the show and Mary right through the final performance. Every time a new cast member came in with a slightly different take on the role, I started to see new things in the play I hadn’t thought of before. Rachel played her role in a very maternal way, Cheryl was much more zany – kind of your kooky aunt, and Evelyn was closer to a Mary Poppins esque interpretation. Each made me see the show differently, and my Mary became different in response to these three actresses.

Though I was ready for a break by the time the show ended, I was so sad when it was over. I think when you’re a child actor there’s a kind of axe hanging over you – the knowledge that you have a very limited amount of time to play a certain role, and then you’ll never be able to play it again. I cried the day I realized I was officially too old to play Annie. lol. By the time I finished my run in "Mary-Mary" I barely fit into the costume – I was getting tall and the costume was stretched to maximum capacity. The adults could play these roles for years, but I knew I was a ticking time bomb. You’re far too aware of growing up when you're a child stage actor, whether you feel grown up or not. (I think in film and TV it's sometimes the opposite. You're kept a little girl far longer then you should be.)

“Mary-Mary” was a haven for me. My family and I were going through hell in real life, but doing the show I, in a way, felt like I got to step into a fantasy world and be with characters I loved, and who loved me. There’s something magical about being in a show when you’re a child. But it’s also made very clear that you’re expected to be just as professional as the adults in the cast. Show wise I was never treated any differently from anyone else. I didn’t have a child wrangler like many shows involving children do – I was completely responsible for getting myself ready on time, taking care of my costume while I was wearing it, making all my entrances and maintaining a consistent performance. Socially however, I was treated very differently.

I was at that age where I really looked up to the older girls in the cast. I always wanted to do what they were doing. This was especially a problem when we were in the UK where my parents weren’t with me and, though I certainly had people with the production looking out for me, didn’t have someone whose responsibility it was to be with me all the time. During the day I was the cute kid to have around. At night no one wanted me tagging along. I was not invited to girls nights in the hotels where they would slather on face mask and talk about the boys they were dating/sleeping with in the cast. There were a lot of places I was just too young to go to, and I had to all but beg borrow and steal to get someone to take me to a museum, etc. on our time off as I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere on my own (keep in mind, this is in the era before laptops and texting. I couldn't distract myself with fun youtube videos or DVDs, and I had to use the hotel pay phone to call my mom - more often we exchanged good old fashioned correspondence.) I spent a lot of time alone in my hotel room desperately missing my mom. This was an especially interesting dynamic as I was playing the lead in the show, and was doing various press things, photo shoots that other cast members weren’t always involved in. Show wise I was one of the highest on the "totem poll." Socially I was the lowest. On a side note, this was in the days before everything was on the internet, so most of our press still only exits in good old fashioned scrap books of clippings and articles – there aren’t links I can post. I got good at the art of doing interviews (the secret: answer the question YOU want to answer, regardless of the question the interviewer poses to you.) I remember one time in L.A. the whole cast decided to have a movie bonding night, and we went to go see “The Crucible” – a movie I had already seen with my mom, and loved, especially because it was theater related. I remember being humiliated when we got to the theater and the box office worker deemed me too young to go into the theater, and was going to make me stay outside while the whole rest of the cast went in. Finally one of my favorite cast members talked the box office attendant into letting her count as my guardian and give her permission for me to see the movie, but I went from feeling like one of the cast to feeling like the silly baby instantaneously.

Things weren't much better back at school. Especially in L.A there can be a lot of jealousy when you're a child performer. I remember one day in the sixth grade I had to miss a day of school in order to do an invitational performance (a special matinee show where, usually, schools are invited to attend as a way to supplement a lack of arts education.) It wasn't until the eleventh hour when the producers realized that one of the groups coming to the invitational was my sixth grade class. The kids thought it would be really funny to try and embarrass me as much as possible including yelling "Ashley, you suck!" during the show, and trying to trip me when I had to make an entrance/exit down one of the aisles. 

I was never exposed to anything really bad doing the show (again I know horror stories from other kids,) but I found myself a not quite comprehending bystander on the periphery of some drama on more then one occasion. There was a drug incident in the cast – we all got a big lecture about professional behavior from one of the producers where the word “drugs” was never explicitly used, after which I apologized to him if I had done anything wrong. He smiled and said this had nothing to do with me. I had to beg one of the cast members to tell me what was going on. There were also a multitude of hook ups in the cast. I remember feeling in a weird, twilight-zone place of at once being horrified finding out that some of the people I looked up to were sleeping around, cheating on their significant other who was ALSO in the cast, and feeling vaguely jealous that I seemed to be the only one no one wanted to date. I remember being all but traumatized our first night in London when the company had gotten tickets for the West End play “Popcorn” – a brilliant work that no twelve year old should be watching, and, on the flip side, being in seventh heaven watching a WWII era “Hamlet,” and “Cymbeline” at the RSC. To this day “Cymbeline” is my favorite of Shakespeare’s Romances. I loved being in the UK, and I’m dying to perform there again.

But don't get me wrong, I loved acting as a kid! I was the one begging my mom to take me on auditions. Being onstage was the happiest I ever felt. It gave me an incredibly constructive way to channel my feelings, and on the practical side it gave me many life skills. I'm great at dealing with rejection. I actually think it's a good thing for kids to start being exposed to rejection early. When I was seven I didn't remember most auditions I did after I did them, so hearing a week later from my mom that I didn't get that snack commercial didn't leave me devastated, I usually responded with: "Oh, did I audition for that?" Pretty soon it just became an accepted part of life. You do your best, and a lot of times you don't get the gig, and it has nothing to do with you. I got really good at interacting with adults (though I was far more comfortable with people who were older then me then my peers anyway.) I learned about professionalism - if I was tired I couldn't just not show up to work, because it would affect a lot of people. I learned very early that my actions affected many more people then just me, and that it was far better to be a team player. 

I remember, the only time I’ve ever missed an entrance was in “Mary-Mary.” My entrance for act 2 was through the audience, so at the "places" call the rest of the cast would go backstage, and I would wait to get the call that the lobby was clear and I could go to the front of the house. One show I started to feel like intermission was going on for a really long time, so I snuck a look out at the lobby and saw that no one was out there. I cracked open the door to the theater and was horrified to see that the cast was halfway through the opening number and was standing frozen onstage while the music played for my solo. I had the first line after the song was over, so I just made my entrance on that line. After the show I got a serious talking to by the director before the stage manager discovered that the monitors were out and I never got my places call.

I really enjoyed meeting fans by the stage door after the show. There were lots of little girls who loved Mary like I did (I actually saw the show years before I was in it, and always wanted to play Mary.) A lot of young girls would celebrate their birthday by coming to the show, and I always felt so honored to be a part of something that was so special to so many people. 

A few years later as a high school junior backstage at a show.

"Mary-Mary" reunion with Rachel. (I'm a lot taller now :))