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BWW Blog: Paisley Haddad - East Meets West-4 Directors Talk About Directing Kids and Teens

Directing Kids and Teens sounds like a very difficult job, but for these 4 directors, the task is very easy. Cheryl Baxter-Ratliff (Los Angeles), Joel & Christine Seger (Massachusetts), and Kelley Manson (Massachusetts) have had their fair share of young adult productions to be proud of. No matter what coast they are from, they all can agree that kids and teens are "sponges" that can soak up information and that they do not have any bad habits they need to break on stage. They also talk about their beginnings in directing kids and teens, memorable moments thus far in their directing, and more. Read my Q&A below to see what they said.

PH:What made you get into directing kid and teen shows?

Cheryl: " I got into doing teen and kids shows because I grew up in a dance studio with my mom Betty Hayes Baxter in Wisconsin and I taught so many kids and teens over the years. I started teaching along side of my mom when I was 12. I moved to LA when I was 20 but I always taught and choreographed once I moved to LA. I had a dance career but loved working with kids in my spare time. When Ellington (Cheryl's son) went to Laurel Hall (School), I started doing the musicals there because I thought it would be fun to stage the shows my son was in."

Joel&Christine: " Christine was a natural born director. She created shows with neighborhood kids when she was only in elementary school herself. Joel came to working with young performers by way of their dance studio. Directing kids and teens in theater was a natural progression from teaching dance. We met performing in theater and it was always a big part of our lives. We wanted to teach theater craft to kids. We don't want theater to be lost on this generation. Less theater is done in schools and somebody has to make sure that young performers are still exposed to the art form. Teaching theater arts and music/voice as well as dance is important. It is from this desire to teach that helped us decide to create a company that produces theater with children as performers."

Kelley: " I was just getting into the business as a choreographer. It was 2014 and a close friend of mine is the theatre teacher at a local middle school. We had recently finished working on an adult show together and he didn't hesitate to ask me to branch out and add some pizazz to the school musical. That show was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

PH:What are the biggest advantages of directing kids and teens? The disadvantages?

Cheryl: " The advantages of working with kids and teens is they don't have bad habits to break. They have young minds and can grasp a lot of information. The down side is sometimes when you work on musicals at the schools they have other commitments such as cheerleading, or sports. They don't always get to all the rehearsals, so I worry they won't be able to make it happen the night of the show. But they do and it all seems to come together in the end. When I work with kids and teens in a professional show its easier. They are hired to be at rehearsals and I have auditions to pick the best. In a school situation everyone is in the show. Last year I did Mary Poppins in a professional theater and we double cast the kids in the show. It worked well because Jane and Michael Banks are large rolls, so double casting them made it easier on the kids."

Joel&Christine: " The biggest advantage is that young performers learn quickly. They absorb information like a sponge. Our summer theater program is 3 to 4 weeks long and we are able to produce quality theater because the kids aim to please. Not only us and their parents, but the audience. The bar is set very high for them and they constantly hit the mark.The biggest disadvantage sometimes can be the material itself. They don't always understand the joke or history of a show/scene. Another disadvantage is focus. Our typical rehearsal is 3 hours long. That can be a very long time for our casual theater performers. Our more seasoned actors handle it just fine. But the less experienced ones can find it tedious... that difference can also lead to tension with the kids. Something we don't usually have a problem with when working with adults."

Kelley: " Children and teens tend to pick things up so easily! It's true when people say kids are like sponges. I give them blocking, teach a dance, run some lines and they've usually got it all after the first try!Kids are fun. I'm fun. We get each other.

That said, an occasional disadvantage is that sometimes my humor goes over their heads or a bad word slips out. I'm human."

PH:What is the difference of adult and kid/teen productions to you?

Cheryl: " The difference in adult and teen productions is usually the kid/teen productions are at schools and the adult productions I do are on a professional level. As I mentioned before, the rehearsals aren't taken as seriously in a school situation as they are in a professional setting. So there are more absences in the kid/teen shows. But for me, I don't hold back and I try to make the kid/teen shows as professional looking as I can. I give them lots of staging and push the choreography to their limits. One year we did 42nd Street and they learned the original opening number and only a few of them had ever tapped before."

Joel&Christine: "Adults usually have more world experience. They have a different understanding of life. Finding a "character" can sometimes be easier for adults just because they have something to draw from. Adults tend to be more focused than the younger performer. Adults also take constructive criticism better. These of course are generalities. We have worked with many young performers who were very professional, even when they were beginners."

Kelley: " I don't feel there is much of a difference in production quality. Every cast I've worked with, children or adults, have been very dedicated, easygoing and invested in the production. And oftentimes, children don't yet have an ego to control."

PH:What is your most memorable moment while directing a kid/teen production?

Cheryl: "A couple memorable moments for kids shows is when I choreographed Beauty and the Beast and my son Ellington played Lumiere. The power went out so all the lights onstage went dark right in the middle of Be Our Guest. All 50 of them kept singing, and doing high kicks in the dark. The show must go on. Then the year we did 42nd Street, the girl that played Dorothy Brock actually broke her foot during The Shadow Waltz. If you remember, in the show, that character breaks her foot in the story and Peggy Sawyer goes on for her. I told the girl, hey, its not literal. Your not really suppose to break your foot!!! Her mother was doing costumes back stage and taped it up and she went back on and finished the show. What I love about these kids is they learn, the show must go on."

Joel&Christine: " It's hard to pick one "most memorable moment". Our favorites frequently revolve around a young performer when they get "it"... That moment of inspiration, the spark of creativity, the "AHA" moment. We were fortunate to witness that this summer. One young lady struggled with a particular role. Specifically, the strong solo in the middle of Act One. Many conversations between us, lots of notes (and even emails to mom) happened for 3 weeks. Then it happened. The solo clicked. She literally stopped the rehearsal cold. Yes, we cried. It is those times that we remember. The moments we share with these actors stay with us for a long time."

Kelley: " I think that choreographing Little Shop of Horrors in 2015 was one of my favorite moments. The entire process, really. I've been in the show myself and it is definitely one of my favorites. From the audition process of picking the best people for the roles, creating dances, encouraging the two leads to make their big kissing scene a little less awkward... it was a lot of fun to see my (and my director's) visions evolve onstage."

PH: Tell me about a current or recent production that you are directing.

Cheryl: " Currently I am doing the summer program at Laurel Hall and we are doing Xanadu. I thought it would be fun because I danced in the movie in 1979. Its really fun for me to set some of the steps on the kids. They are from 3rd to 8th grade. Trying to explain the 80's to them is interesting. Some of these shows I choreograph and some I direct and choreograph. I am also currently doing Evita at a big theater in Thousand Oaks. We will have 5 children in that production in the fall."

Joel&Christine: " We just closed "School of Rock, youth production". 4 weeks, 5 instruments played live onstage, 21 scenes, 32 performers, and almost 100 costumes.... WOW! The biggest and toughest show we have produced to date. (This includes our adult productions.) The change and growth in the young performers was simply amazing. 2 of our performers had never played an instrument, but they learned enough to play live for 3 performances. (One was so good she fooled everyone. We were frequently asked if she had the most experience.) The show was difficult to produce. Not only because of the live instruments, not only because of the length of the show, not only because we had four weeks, not only because they were all under 18 years old... It was difficult for all those reasons and more. (Being one of the first productions in the country added pressure!) But they rose to the occasion and succeeded.Over 400 people attended the shows with standing ovations at the end. The quietest of actors came out of their shells with breathtaking performances and powerful solos that brought people to tears. The transformation from these actors was unreal to watch. We wish we could have shared the show with more people. This will always be one of our all-time favorite productions."

Kelley: " I'm currently directing and choreographing Footloose the Musical with Sterling Community Theatre. There are adults and children as well, but it's definitely teen-driven. We rehearse all summer and run for two weekends in September. They are like my summer family. We laugh, we sweat, we curse the dance routines together. Rehearsals are coming along nicely (but HOT) and I can't wait to see the end result in a few months!"

Cheryl ends the Q&A with the most rewarding part about the whole experience for her, "The most rewarding part for me about working with kids is when you see a shy wall flower one year and then the next year they want to try out for one of the leads. Its so rewarding to work with kids that have never been on stage before. One of my students Emily Koch was in our shows and now she is Elphaba on the national tour of Wicked and was stand by on Broadway. Great to watch these kids grow into adults that because of some of these programs the school offer, they can go on and have a career.It's so important to have programs like these in the schools"

Cheryl Baxter-Ratliff's cast of Xanadu, Directed by David Haworth (Photo Credits to David Haworth)

Joel & Christine Seger's School Of Rock:Youth Production (Photo Credits to Christopher Masi)

Kelley Manson's Little Shop Of Horrors & The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Photo Credits to Diane Twiss)

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