Sometimes they have to hold hands in rehearsal. Or show the youngest actors the masks so they won't be scared of them. But overall everything goes pretty smoothly as the Alley Theatre gears up one more time for putting on A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas.
Actor/associate director and company member James Black has been in Christmas Carol since 1989, but decided this year that adding directing duties as he did last year was a bit much to handle. So you won't see him trodding the boards with Jacob Marley's ghost -- or any of the other ones -- in the story of Scrooge this year.
What you will see are professional actors working alongside local amateur children. At the end of each summer, the Alley has an open audition for children ages 5 to 14. Two teams of 13 kids each (26 total) are cast so that they can have every other show off. And once cast, they almost never back out.
"We have a lot of brothers and sisters who start out as cherubs and Tiny Tims and work their way up to young Scrooge and Belle," said Black. "It's fun to know that in some cases you're imprinting what's going to be a lifelong love of theater."
The normal run for an Alley show is 28 performances. A Christmas Carol, a huge moneymaker for the Alley, goes for 38 performances plus a whole bunch of matinees (and they aren't abridged) during the week for school kids.
Black said the kids usually pick up their parts sooner than the returning adult actors. By the end of rehearsal, most of them know every line of the play, he added.
"I have to tell them how to stand so most people can see them and we have to work with them on being loud, projecting on the stage."
"I'm not necessarily looking for the best actors. Kid actors can sometimes be a little sterile, a little spooky," Black said. "I just want kids who are kids who have that unshakable confidence of youth. There's so many fantastical elements in the play, the more you can ground it in a reality, the more effective it is."
The Alley will again use former associate director Michael Wilson's adaptation of the play, which Black says is clever in how it combines special effects with the very human elements of Charles Dickens's work. "It plays as well to kiddie shows as it does to the family audiences."
And younger kids in the audience are very vocal onlookers, he said. "They scream at every blackout; they cough at every fog cue. And they're on their feet cheering at the end of the show."
Black said he's somewhat surprised that the youngest kids are engaged by Christmas Carol.
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"You wouldn't think the themes of this story would specifically speak to a younger audience, but the sad fact is that it does. That's always the heartbreaking thing about doing these matinees -- how can this possibly land with a younger audience, how can they possibly wrap their heads around the themes that we're discussing? And yet they can. This makes the experience all the more poignant and rewarding."
And the young audiences are tough, he said, laughing. "You can't phone it in even though it is 10 o'clock in the morning. They will let you know. "
The young actors in Christmas Carol this year include: Diana Alejandra, 13, Bellaire; Liam Conner, 12, Meyerland; Adele Cooper, 10, Pearland; Bryce Cooper, 11, Pearland; Winch Eagleton, 9, Heights; Ally Fleischhauer, 13, Tomball; Bryn Fleischhauer, 11, Tomball; Kyla Fleischhauer, 8, Tomball; Sophia Jolie Groen, 9, West University; Sean Holshounser, 12, Northwest Houston; Tinsley Maier, 12, Bellaire; Brock McEldowney, 9, West University; Cole McEldowney, 11, West University; Allan Perez, 8, Sharpstown; Lucas Phillips, 12, Tomball; Artemis Melania Postolos, 9, River Oaks; Kyriaki Postolos, 5, River Oaks; Dylan Ramsey, 8, Clear Lake; Catherine Ribbeck, 11, Galleria; Molly Ribbeck, 10, Galleria; Cody Smith, 9, River Oaks; Ellie Smith, 11, River Oaks; Ian Tonroy, 10, Spring; Chantellie Wesley, 8, South Houston; Christopher Wolff, 7, Hedwig Village; and Peyton Wood, 12, Katy.
A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas opens Sunday, November 20, and runs through Tuesday, December 27, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For ticket information go to www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700.