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Various bits of advice for new directors working with children and new actors of all ages:
I have worked and reworked my scripts to make them easy for children to memorize.
I have found that children do fine with even complex lines if the lines are catchy, expressive, and logically follow or are prompted by the line before them. Children usually learn their lines fine, the problem is they do not say them when the time comes. Therefore I have written these to establish prompts and patterns. Nearly every line has a clue in the previous line - you should have each child circle those prompt words in their script.
Children also learn more from hearing than reading - that is why you don't want to say anything around a child you don't want them to repeat. Take advantage of this by letting the kids in a scene watch adults run through their scene. They will think it is hilarious and will remember it in detail. It is far clearer to show kids than explain.
I've known many kids who have learned every line in multiple scenes just from listening to rehearsals. My 6 year old daughter used to recite the whole play riding in the backseat home from rehearsals.
If a kid cannot read well, do not bog down the rehearsal while everyone waits impatiently for them to sound out each word. You will make them hate rehearsal and learn nothing. Instead, say the line to them with all its expression a few times and they will pick it up quickly.
Rehearsals have to be exciting and energetic for kids to learn.
Consistently, in my experience, the actors that learned their lines first were the kids too young to read because I would say their line to them and have them repeat back and then join in the recital.
Then I would announce that little 5 year old Danny had learned his lines before anyone else and we'd all cheer him.
A technique to help them speak up, is to have them run lines once with everyone across the room or even across the building from each other, hollering their lines. And you should have someone in the rear of the rehearsal room to holler "What?" if a child is not loud enough. Everyone understands intuitively to speak up for someone far away, but hearing that from a director right in front of them does not sink in.
Be prepared. Have all the blocking (movement of the actors) figured out and written into your script so you can tell them how to move and where to face from the beginning. You don't want to have to stop rehearsal to figure it out. You will lose their attention.
Start rehearsals on time even if you are missing actors - Don't penalize those on time by making them wait and do not reward the late by being happy that they finally showed up. Run lines from the script at the start of rehearsal so they get in the habit of keeping on going, and let them run a scene with as little interruption as possible. Be happy and excited yourself but snip off any disruptive, inattentive behavior immediately. Kicking a kid off the cast (or sending them home to resolve the problem and then letting them back on, humbled) at the first rehearsal can do wonders to improve the behavior of the others - not to be used manipulatively, but with kind firmness.
Get the child actors' parents to help you. Make a list of all you need and all that needs to be done and assign it out.
There is a honeymoon period when a child first gets a part and starts rehearsing when they and the parents think they are very lucky to have this special opportunity - this is the time to collect any fees and assign them responsibilities because soon they will lose that excitement as the work, the repetition, and missing their TV shows to come to rehearsal sinks in.
You are doing a wonderful thing, introducing children to the power of expression through theater. This world would have far far fewer problems if most people were brave enough to speak up as individuals when things first start to go wrong, instead of watching and allowing bad things to get worse, hoping authority or the group will fix it.
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