While on the road directing and performing with Missoula Children’s Theatre, I had many life-changing moments that provided me with a huge amount of perspective. This story is only one of them.
We were casting our weekly musical of The Frog Prince. At this point in our five-month tour, my partner and I were like robots. We had been casting the same show for weeks and weeks, and all we desired was to be able to cast the show in two hours with as little stress as possible. Little did we know that this would be one of our weeks where we felt the reward of our theatrical mission.
While my tour partner and I were in training, we were warned that at times we may become impatient with children in our productions. We were well-aware that we would be dealing with kids who struggled with lines, behavioral issues, attention disorders, and cast members who would not show up to rehearse. To persevere, we remembered what our trainers told us: the children who may test our patience are the ones who need the experience the most.
Often times, we would not witness any miracles in person, and many weeks seemed to be more of the same, but then we’d find out a month later that, “Thomas participates in class now,” or, “Allison’s self-esteem has skyrocketed and no longer feels like an outcast.” Many times we did not receive any feedback. Week after week, we could only rely on our past triumphs to maintain our patience, and sometimes even our sanity. We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were making a difference in the lives of the children with whom we worked.
This particular week started off like any other. Our hosts were wonderful, and the school community was positive and tight-knit. We chose to cast a young middle-school-aged boy, Benjamin, as one of our lead frogs. He was not 100 percent confident in the audition, but we saw spurts of potential in him, and he was the only kid to physically act like a frog. He was also a highly respectful kid, and he deserved the opportunity.
Benjamin worked hard all week, putting forth a lot of effort to be off-book as soon as possible. We noticed, however, that even when he was not rehearsing, he continued to move and walk like his character. We later learned from our host that Benjamin had a stroke when he was a baby. We felt a little guilty for thinking that his stature was intentional, but would we have cast him in this role otherwise? We also found out that his father had always been pushing him to play sports and was not a theatre supporter. He did not think it was a “manly” enough activity. Benjamin had tried to play football in the past, but it was not comfortable for his body. We were thrilled to hear that both of Benjamin’s parents would be at the production, and his father could see how talented his son was on stage.
As we got closer to the performance day, Benjamin would frequently approach us and ask how he was doing with his role. Typically, I find this behavior to be a bit irritating, but knowing Benjamin’s background, I found it to be heartbreaking. He was doing such wonderful work, and the fact that he felt so anxious and insecure was surprising. I knew that I would always remember Benjamin if this happened in the future. Sometimes you never know what a child is going through at home or at school. As adults, we learn that this type of attention-seeking is not usually beneficial to our careers, or that giving too much praise without any criticism is not helpful. Benjamin was just a kid, however…a child who desperately needed a confidence boost. No matter how many times he asked us, even when we were juggling fifty tasks at one time, we took a moment to give him that positive reinforcement.
The Power of Theatre
Benjamin had a long monologue at the end of the show, and on opening night, he seemed super nervous, but by the finale, he was beaming with so much pride, and so were we. I did not have the chance to meet Benjamin’s parents after the show, but I hope that his father is encouraging his son to follow his own dream, whether it is theatre, politics, engineering, etc. Benjamin is only one child, but we want all kids to know that regardless of whether or not they are disabled, overweight, underweight, have a speech impediment, or have any other issues that may make them feel insecure, they have a place in the world where they can thrive and bring something unique and powerful to the table. That place is the theatre.