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Getting The Little Angels Onstage

by Jerome Weeks 30 Nov 2009 5:30 AM

The holiday season means holiday shows. Holiday shows means young performers acting and dancing onstage. And children onstage require adult guides. We talk to three North Texans whose job is to coax the children, train them and keep the little angels from running amok.


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MANON: “Unto you a child is born.”
SCHAEFFER: “And we have hold – hold – hold. Blackout. Go Peggy.
[piano starts]
SCHAEFFER: “Quit shoving … Think big!”
CHORUS [sings]: “Joy to the World.”

When it comes to small children on a North Texas stage, Nancy Schaeffer commands the biggest army. Schaeffer directs the Dallas Children’s Theater production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. With two casts, that’s 92 children. Schaeffer says, with all those children, her primary concern is safety. But that many kids also offer her an advantage. When the inevitable colds and flus infect a cast, there are backups and understudies Schaeffer can put into other roles — like Gladys Herdman, a major comic character in the play, a bullying, bad-tempered young girl.

SCHAEFFER: “We’ve had Act 1 Gladys a red-head and Act 2, she’s a blond. You know, I literally grab one of the kids and throw them in there [giggles].”

It makes sense to put kids onstage. Children and gifts: Obviously, they’re major parts of the holiday season. But those cute scene-stealers also make financial sense. All the families will want to see their little darlings actually be quiet, stand in line and sing on cue.

They also make long-term financial sense – for the continuation of the art forms and organizations.

Tim O’Keefe is associate artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater. The company is currently making its Winspear Opera House debut with The Nutcracker.

O’KEEFE: “It’s wonderful to have children on the stage – because it looks real. And then, a lot of kids in the audience go, ‘Well, look at them on the stage. I want to do that. Oh, they take dance classes. I’d like to do that.’ Once they see the kids up there, it kind of piques their interest, which is very good for us.”

Despite the popular image of stage parents forcing reluctant kids to perform, most of these children actually like acting or dancing. This year, Manon McCollum plays the brawling Gladys in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The 8-year-old student from Stonewall Jackson Elementary even enjoys the typecasting.

McCOLLUM: “At school, I have this group of boys who I always scare. So I think I have a bit of practice doing this. [giggles]”

What children don’t usually enjoy is rehearsing over and over again. Or performing a show for opening night – and then repeating it 20 times. That’s something they have to be prepared for, says O’Keefe.

O’KEEFE: “Well, I think through the rehearsal process in the studio — you know [laughs], you do the best you can.”

So handling young performers onstage is a constant effort to keep them organized. Focused. And energized. Those are Alett Grey’s duties with the Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol.

GREY: “Sometimes, by the time you get to Sunday, they’re like, ‘I don’t really care.’ So you know, you have to be, like, ‘No, no, you’re excited! You want to do this! It’s Christmas!’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I guess I do.’”

O’Keefe and Schaeffer are directors or associate directors of their shows. Grey officially is a “child wrangler.” The title comes from movie sets where animal wranglers control the horses or dogs. Grey attends every performance of A Christmas Carol because the children are in her personal care whenever they’re not onstage. So her worst nightmare came — when she lost Tiny Tim.

GREY: “An adult is supposed to bring Tiny Tim off stage to me. Somewhere along the line, they put him somewhere else. And then he just went to the bathroom. And I was like, ‘I lost a child!’ And then he comes out of the bathroom – and unfortunately, couldn’t get his pants back on. But I found the child, put his pants back on and rushed him back onstage.”

the whole pageantThe big pageant finale in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

That Tiny Tim was perhaps a little young to understand how a true actor prepares. At the Dallas Children’s Theater, Nancy Schaeffer instills this classic lesson in all her child performers. She calls it The First Rule of the Theater.

Before actors go onstage, everyone goes to the bathroom.

CHORUS: “Merry Christmas!”

SCHAEFFER: “Very, very good.”