Child's Play

Hitting marks. Learning new steps. There's little kidding around at HITS.

"Now," announces Carolyn Franklin, "everyone is going to be silent." She says this with complete authority, and no wonder. She is a director talking to her actors, a grown-up commanding children, a woman whose favorite shirt identifies her as the "SUPREME RULER" of HITS Unicorn Theatre. The roar of kids' conversation subsides to a purr, but Carolyn is not satisfied. "Everyone is going to be silent," she repeats. She glares theatrically at a clutch of giggly girls. "Especially this ultra-silent group over here." The girls hush.

The class is rehearsing How to Eat Like a Child, a musical that purports to instruct grown-ups in the art of childish behavior. The kids like the show. It's one of the rare musicals designed for children, and is especially well suited to the Lollipop Players' third- to sixth-grade age bracket. But at 5:45 p.m., about halfway through the Thursday-afternoon session, the class's concentration is waning. They are acting like children.

Carolyn wants them to act like actors. They've just reached "How to Brag," a scene they haven't staged before. Jarrett Thomas and Ryan Llewellyn, who sing the duet, fidget at center stage while Carolyn positions the rest of the class in the background -- one clump here, one clump there, so that they look like kids on a playground at recess. Jarrett, a black kid with marshmallow cheeks, dances a few steps from another show, then drops to the floor and does weird tripod push-ups with one bent knee. Ryan, a white kid, has bleached-blond hair that rises in little peaks like the meringue on top of a pie. He dances a little, too, then throws a fake punch at Jarrett. Jarrett pretends to punch back.

Ryan and Jarrett:  All the right moves.
Deron Neblett
Ryan and Jarrett: All the right moves.

Carolyn stands back to survey her handiwork. "Excuse me!" she yells at the wriggly chorus. "I can't do anything if you don't hold position."

She turns to Jarrett and Ryan. "Let's sing this once," she says. "I'm not convinced you know it."

Armando Lasa, the music director, plays a few bars of the song on his keyboard.

"I'm left-handed," Jarrett sings.

"I am double-jointed," Ryan replies. And on they go, trading boasts about the accomplishments that determine elementary school status: kissing a girl, getting stitches, burping loud.

"My joke's dirty," sings Jarrett.

"My joke's ten times dirtier," sings Ryan.

"Mine's from Playboy magazine."

"Well, mine's so dirty that it's obscene."

"Oh, yeah?"

"It's great!"

"Let's hear!"

Ryan whispers in Jarrett's ear. Laughter seizes Jarrett like a demon taking possession of his body. He doubles over. He slaps his knee. He guffaws, he chortles, he gasps for breath.

Suddenly he stops laughing. "I don't get it," he says.

It's a funny moment, rooted in embarrassment. Someone failed. Ryan's character tried to be entertaining, and Jarrett's character hoped to be entertained, but somewhere the little enterprise went awry.

Real life is obviously very different. In this first run-through, Jarrett has nailed the joke.


Carolyn demonstrates the Charlestonlike dance step that she wants Ryan and Jarrett to perform, then motions for the boys to follow. "I got it!" says Jarrett, and he dances beside her as if he's known the steps all his life. Ryan furrows his brow, all concentration.

Kids are not the only ones who brag, and when Carolyn brags, it's about the success stories HITS has racked up in the 20 years since she founded it. She likes to point to the head shots that cover the wall over her desk. There's the girl who overcame scoliosis, taught herself to sing on pitch and was named Miss Manhattan. There's the boy who grew up to be a doctor and now serves on HITS's board. And there's the girl whose mother was an alcoholic, whose brother was a drug dealer and whose sisters were crack addicts. After she got a scholarship to HITS, the theater's staff more or less adopted her. She studied business in college and now works for the NAACP. Talent, Carolyn likes to say, matters less than hard work.

But obviously, on stage, talent matters, and just as obviously, Jarrett has more than his fair share. As a second-grader, after school, he used to watch an older group of kids practicing a play. One day the lead didn't show up, and Jarrett asked if he could fill in. When the teacher asked if he knew the part, he rattled off the dialogue for all the characters. The teacher called Jarrett's mom and suggested that she enroll him in an acting class.

At HITS, Jarrett shone immediately. When the Lollipop Players performed Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, the parents of other kids couldn't keep their eyes off him. Last spring he landed a juicy role in Oliver, HITS's adult production, its big annual foray into Miller Outdoor Theatre. Over the show's two-week run, thousands of people saw him play the Artful Dodger. And each night, as he took his bow, the applause rumbled especially loud.

Jarrett loves that applause, and he is dead serious about an acting career. Movies, he says, or TV, or commercials -- anything with a "touch of theater." In January, for his 11th birthday, he asked for a professional-quality head shot. His mom sent the photos to five talent agencies, and four called back. One mentioned an audition for a Dennis Quaid movie to be shot in Austin; another talked about a movie with M.C. Hammer. At an agent's suggestion, Jarrett signed up for an "on camera" class. This summer he wants to go to New York to jump-start his career.

Dancing, Ryan keeps his eyes trained on Jarrett's feet. Jarrett is a year older than Ryan, but they're tight friends. Sometimes Jarrett intimidates Ryan. Sometimes he inspires him to keep up.

When Ryan began taking HITS classes two years ago, Carolyn gave him only the smallest parts, the ones in the chorus. She liked him -- he worked hard -- but his voice was mousy, and he lacked confidence. She figured that, like most HITS kids, he wasn't destined for stardom. Someday, she thought, he might use the skills she taught him to argue a case in a courtroom, or to make a boardroom presentation. He'd grow up to be an appreciative audience member, a patron of the performing arts. She'd count him as a success story.

But Ryan had other ideas. He'd been watching Jarrett on center stage, and he wanted a spotlight for himself. One day he walked into Carolyn's office. What do I have to do to get bigger parts? he asked.

Be brave, Carolyn said. Be louder. Don't be timid.

He took a summer break from acting classes, and his life grew complicated. After his mom split from her longtime companion, Ryan felt he needed to take care of her, to be the man in the house. In the fall, he didn't tell her that he was auditioning for a big part: Sky, the Marlon Brando character in Guys and Dolls. He didn't want to risk disappointing her.

At the auditions, Ryan surprised Carolyn. He radiated personality. He exuded confidence. His sang loud and strong. My God! thought Carolyn. It's there!

That night Ryan told his mom the good news and burst into "Luck, Be a Lady" -- the show's big number, his big number.

Ryan felt lucky, and he wanted that luck to stick around.


The luck, if it was luck, settled in. Now, a semester and three shows later, no one seems surprised that Ryan shares the stage with Jarrett.

Carolyn turns her attention to the chorus. Mostly they're the kids who didn't land the major roles. She teaches them a complicated arm motion that makes the whole stage seem to move. She divides them into three groups, and at the bit where Ryan whispers his alleged joke, she directs them to rush forward in three waves and pretend to eavesdrop. "No, not like that," she tells a skinny girl. "You have to stand like this, so your booty's not facing the audience."

At last they practice the song's grand finale. "Brag, brag, brag, brag," everyone sings, arms pumping.

Jarrett sings, "I brag better…"

Ryan elbows his way in front of Jarrett: "I brag much better…"

Jarrett elbows Ryan: "I brag much, much better…"

Ryan elbows Jarrett, then stands with his arms wide and legs spread open: "I brag very much better…"

On his knees, Jarrett slides through Ryan's legs and emerges with arms outspread, a big-finish smile on his face. Everyone sings, "THAN ANYONE ELSE COOOULD EVVV-ER BRAAAG!"

The song over, Jarrett breaks character. "Ow," he says, rubbing his knees. He consults with Carolyn. Ryan looks sympathetic.

The chorus kids talk among themselves. "It must be 6:25," says Armando. "They're ready to go."

"Please!" Carolyn shouts. "Give some consideration to your fellow performers!"

The chorus kids grow only a little quieter. She escalates to a warning: "I can do this number with only six people in the chorus." She lowers her voice. "And if I have to, I will."

The chorus kids look stunned. It's bad enough being relegated to a bit part, practicing in hopes of someday landing a big one. But now Carolyn is threatening them with an even worse fate: not being on stage at all.

Silence falls, and it is absolute.

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