Age 28, going on 12: How adult actors pull off playing children onstage
When does 28 equal 12? Or 41 equal 8? And how is it even possible that 22, 25 and 35 could all equal 11?
The answer: When you are casting grown-ups to play kids onstage. Sure, boys will still sometimes be boys and girls will sometimes be girls, but frequently it’s men and women tackling these youthful roles. Not acting your age is a time-honored tradition, from “Romeo and Juliet” and “A View From the Bridge” to “History Boys” and “This Is Our Youth,” as well as more recent plays like “The Wolves,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Choir Boy.”
Sometimes adults play children’s roles for absurd effect as in “Pen15,” the Hulu series whose two 31-year creators portray 13-year-olds navigating the treacherous world of middle school, or Celebration Theatre’s “Born to Win,” an L.A. production with an adult playing an 8-year-old children’s beauty pageant contestant. But the bigger challenge is pulling off realism, creating the illusion that the adults onstage are plausible as the much-younger characters — a feat accomplished by two of Broadway’s biggest hits, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Mockingbird” features Celia Keenan-Bolger, 41, as Scout; Will Pullen, 28, as Jem; and Gideon Glick, 30, as Dill.
Potter has a new cast that took over March 20, with Nicholas Podany, 22, as Albus Potter; Bubba Weiler, 25, as Scorpius Malfoy; and Nadia Brown, 24, as Rose Granger-Weasley — all ages 11 to about 15 during the course of the two-part play. (The original Rose was played by Susan Heyward, 36.)
“If you nail it then everything else falls by the wayside,” Podany said. “You don’t think about age at all, you just think about these characters as people and watch their story.”
When movies and television series cast younger, there’s a danger that a high-definition close-up will reveal the discrepancy. Theater audiences, whose imagination frequently fills in everything from props to sets, are predisposed to suspend disbelief. “Distance helps,” said “Mockingbird” director Bartlett Sher, especially in big Broadway houses.
This casting trick “can be so convincing and believable — and more compelling — when it’s experienced in live theater,” says Leah Gardiner, director of “If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a ….” The play, whose title ends in a word that can’t be included here, opened March 10 with actresses in their 20s playing teenagers.
Gardiner took her 13-year-old son and a friend to see “Harry Potter,” and when they went backstage after, she said her son was “amazed” that the actors were adults.
Jim Carnahan, who cast the new “Harry Potter” lineup on Broadway as well as productions in Australia and San Francisco, points out that Heyward could play Rose because she is 5-foot-3. “She looks tiny in a huge theater.”
Carnahan didn’t specifically look for older actors: In Australia he cast 18- and 19-year-olds. Weiler said plenty of actors 11 to 15 have the talent to pull off the job, but he argued that “it would be potentially unhealthy to ask them to do a role of this size eight times a week.”
A key for him is to play Malfoy as “physically freer” at age 11.
“If they’re lucky, kids are less bogged down by life and more direct in how they act,” the actor said. Teenagers, however, “contort their bodies.” Weiler thinks about “what I’m insecure about, what I’m trying to hide, how I’m trying to present myself — I definitely think back to high school, which is torturous but revelatory.”
Gardiner said some plays require life experience to capture the complexities of a role. She never considered teen actors for “If Pretty Hurts.”
Hallie Griffin, 30, costarred in Michelle Kholos Brooks’ “Hitler’s Tasters,” which New Light Theater Project produced at IRT Theater in the fall. Griffin played one of three Aryan teens who must taste Hitler’s food daily to make sure it isn’t poisoned.
“If I were really 16, I would just be nerdy and awkward,” she said, adding that visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and spending time in Germany were among the life experiences that helped inform her performance.
Brooks said the play’s second reading used real teens, including a 13-year-old.
“I learned a lot from hearing young actors, but it was not a good fit,” the director said, adding that “I was super uncomfortable with it, especially with the speech about being raped. I wonder how a young actor accesses that.”
Her director, Sarah Norris, added that small, low-budget productions that rehearse during the day can’t realistically cast students. Other than Griffin, she looked to recent college graduates. At auditions she asked actresses to sing and dance together. “I looked for the ones who would go for it without hesitation, who had the playfulness needed,” she said. She eliminated some talented actresses lacking that “youthful spirit.”
The word “innocence” repeatedly popped up in casting conversations. Carnahan said it matters more than physical looks, though it’s harder to find in younger people now.
“Not everyone can play someone so young,” Gardiner said. It took four months to cast “If Pretty Hurts. “Many of us have grown out of or forgotten how to tap into that part of themselves. There’s real art to it.”
The director talked to her actresses about how physical teens are.
“When I was that age we’d lean on each other and laugh so hard we’d fall on the ground,” Gardiner said.
Each day in her rehearsals for “Hitler’s Tasters,” director Norris had her actresses discuss a different memory — family pet, first crush, painful high school moment. The goal: bring them back to adolescence.
The “Mockingbird” casting happened by accident. Sher said the creative team wanted to hear the language read by adults at the first reading, so Celia Keenan-Bolger was brought in to read Scout and Pullen to read Jem. (Glick, who plays Dill, came later.)
“But since the voice in the book is so mature, this just seemed like a beautiful solution,” Sher said, especially since the three switch between being kids and looking back as adults, sometimes in mid-scene. He pointed to Keenan-Bolger’s ability to “lift her pitch and suddenly seem emotionally innocent and 8 years old.”
Keenan-Bolger said Sher encouraged his actors to experiment so they’d know what felt forced. When previews started, they stripped out the physicality, she said. “Then we added just some of it back in to get to a good balance.” She added that this role needed more nuance than when she played young in “Peter and the Starcatchers,” a broader and more overtly theatrical play.
Since the voice in the book is so mature, this just seemed like a beautiful solution.
— “Mockingbird” director Bartlett Sher
Pullen, who was terrified at first “because everyone has seen bad versions of actors playing children,” recalled how early on Sher got his actors up from table reads as a way of forcing them to live inside their characters’ bodies. Pullen realized he was acting too much, trying to show the audience he was 12 instead of just getting into the mind-set of a 12-year-old.
Playing Dill, Glick said he had to be careful “not to press the gas too hard because it felt too ‘winky,’ which can be very off-putting.” For Glick the key was a “slight distinction” — the idea was “not to play a kid but to try and feel like kid.”
Podany also doesn’t want to “play a kid,” saying instead he tries to “stop being an adult.”
“It’s a small shift in semantics but a big shift in my mind-set,” he said. Kids experience everything so vividly while adults “make a choice not to feel things so intensely.”
Ultimately, he said, the key is to get in the right frame of mind. “Then the play takes care of you.”
The bigger challenge right now is feeling like a grown-up in real life, he said. “I’m living in my own apartment and paying my own taxes for the first time,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing at being an adult.”
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