It's a part-time, once-a-year job that you age out of on your 14th birthday. The youngest kids, ages 4 and 5, aren't even reading when they start so they have to be drilled daily. They can't talk out of turn; they can't even whisper at the wrong moment. No squirming.
And each year, in August, children from throughout the Houston area try as hard as they can to get hired on for this duty - auditioning for parts in A Christmas Carol -- A Ghost Story of Christmas put on by the Alley Theatre.
To try out for a spot on one of two, 13-member kid casts they sing a song or recite a monologue - the youngest are asked to sing Happy Birthday or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And then in the fall those selected begin rehearsals for their part of the 50 performances that will be put on in November and December.
Terry Cranshaw is production stage manager for the Alley's A Christmas Carol and works with the 26 young actors. A 25-year-veteran of the theater business, she's known some of the child actors for years now.
"I'm in charge of getting them on their feet before the actors come in to rehearse with them," she told Art Attack. The kids begin rehearsing after school for a couple of hours a day one week in advance of the adults, she said. "There's families who've been doing Christmas Carol with us since '99 and earlier."
"Some are quite young and don't know the story. Some are young enough that they don't read. We teach them stage right and stage left. We have a dialect coach come in and teach them the dialect, the cockney whatnot. We show them what the blocking is so they're not trying to remember that when the big people come in. We're trying to sort of layer things in for them and make it a bit less overwhelming -- for us, too."
Using two interchangeable casts works best for locally-based casting projects, Cranshaw said. "We have kids who go down sick for a couple of days and their counterpart comes in to do it. We have kids who get sick mid-show and we kind of scramble around...OK you've done that role before, get over here." They have costumes in multiple sizes - "big and small urchins," Crenshaw said - so they can substitute on a moment's notice.
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The youngest actors in the cast play Ignorance and Want, the haunting figures who emerge from underneath the robe of Christmas Present during the show. "They're in more scenes than any other kids. We do a scene a day with them. Drill it. Then someone has to put the big robe on to show them how to get under the robe and grab a leg."
The reasons for the age restriction are twofold, she said. One has to do with balancing the ratio of equity and non-equity actors and the other has to do with size. Too big, and as Crenshaw puts it: "They're not looking like kids in Scrooge's era."
A slight surprise: Crenshaw said the kids in the play aren't scared by Marley's ghost (actually no kids are in the scene when he comes up out of the floorboards), clanking chains, or the loud noises in the play. "More often it's from realizing people are out there...people that they know. They know parents and grandparents are out there; it's a different kind of pressure."
A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas runs through December 29. Tickets are available for purchase at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713-220-5700.