Directing Youth with Kerry Hishon
Youth Director Kerry Hishon talks about the process from auditions to rehearsal to performance and shares her hints, tips, and tricks. If you’re auditioning for Oklahoma what type of song should you definitely NOT choose? How do you build ensemble? How do you plan a rehearsal schedule? Bonus: Listen in to find out how Kerry directed Peter Pan without the wires.
- Kerry Hishon
- Original Kids Theatre
- Student Directing Series: Plays and Publishers
- Student Directing Series: Directing Your Peers
- Student Directing Series: Auditions
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
This is Episode 102 and you can find any show notes for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode102.
So, it is a very unique skill to be able to direct youth well. And, as a drama teacher or educator or even if you’re a student director, learning how to direct well is a continual process. So, let’s keep learning.
Today, I’m going to talk to youth director, Kerry Hishon, and bonus! Make sure you pay attention. In the middle of this, she’s going to talk about how she directed Peter Pan without the wires. I love it.
Lindsay: All right. Hello, everybody! Welcome to the podcast!
I am very happy to be talking to Kerry Hishon. Hello, Kerry!
Lindsay: Hi! Okay. So, first off, where are you in the world?
Kerry: I live in London, Ontario, Canada.
Lindsay: Awesome. You guys are practically just down the road from us, you know, give or take a few hours. So, Kerry, you have a really interesting background. You do a little bit of everything.
Kerry: Yeah, I do, actually. I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I’m primarily a youth theatre director, I’m also an actor, I do a little bit of playwriting, I am a stage combatant, and I also work at Original Kids Theatre Company.
Lindsay: Awesome. All right. Well, we’ll come around to talk about all of that, but let’s talk first about how you got into this. What was the first thing that really drew you to theatre?
Kerry: Oh, gosh. Well, I grew up in Stratford, Ontario, so it’s kind part of the culture there. You learn iambic pentameter before you learn to multiply in school and being around the Stratford Festival, you get to see shows and you don’t really realize that it’s actually a luxury for so many other people and we’d go with our schools every single year and see multiple shows and you’d think it’s no big deal, “Oh, yeah, I’m just going to go to the Stratford Festival today,” and you don’t realize that other schools, like, save up and this is their big end-of-the-year trip, and for me, I was just used to it.
Lindsay: Or that other people don’t live in towns that have this amazing theatre resource, like, right around the corner.
Kerry: Yeah, you don’t even think about it. You just think, “Oh, yes, of course we have a world-renowned theatre here, doesn’t everyone?”
Lindsay: So, it’s kind of like it’s part of your life always. So then, how does that translate into trying to pursue it?
Kerry: Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed it. I loved doing theatre during public school and high school and I then pursued it in university. I went to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and I majored in Stage and Screen Studies, and I just really enjoyed it. I loved every aspect of it and the wonderful thing about that program is that you get to do all sorts of different disciplines. I took acting classes and directing and playwriting and screenwriting and theatre and film history and even design which was terrifying for me because I am so not an artist. I have mad respect for all those designers out there because I could not do that – that’s why I get people to do that for me.
Lindsay: But I think it’s important, too. Like, I think that what aids my playwriting is that I have acted and I have directed, and you sort of get that all-encompassing, right?
Kerry: I agree there. I think having that background and having had your hands in a little bit of everything is really helpful. It really develops your skills and gives you an appreciation for all the hard work that goes into creating a theatrical production. It really is such a team effort. You can’t do it by yourself.
Lindsay: I think, as an actor, the last time you mishandle your props is when you become the prop person.
Kerry: It’s so true. It’s so true.
Lindsay: Aside from acting, you do a lot of youth directing. So, what does that mean?
Kerry: Yes. Well, I work in Original Kids Theatre Company which is a company here in London, Ontario, which has a membership of over 300 young actors between the ages of eight and eighteen. I work there in the office, but I started there as a youth theatre director and Original Kids hires independent theatre artists to direct and music direct and choreograph shows. We produce over 20 shows a year.
Lindsay: That is insane. The logistics alone just boggles my mind.
Kerry: It is pretty crazy. On top of that, we also run a kidlets program for young actors, five to eight, and a summer camp program, too.
Lindsay: Oh, well, that’s amazing and also wonderful that that’s there, that they can do that.
Kerry: It’s a fantastic program. We’ve been around now for 23 years in the London area and it’s just fantastic. It’s such a fun place to be and I just absolutely love the kids and the people that I work with on a daily basis. It’s like a family.
Lindsay: What’s special about directing for youth?
Kerry: I really like working with young actors because they’re not afraid to try new things. They’re really eager to get in there and explore characters and have fun and play and be silly and they don’t have the sort of questions and the reservations I find that working with adults have. They’re so open and willing to try new things.
Lindsay: I think that, too. I think they’re a pretty unique group – energy for days and always willing to try new things.
Kerry: You’re not kidding when it comes to energy for days. I’ll go into rehearsal and, even if I’m feeling bummed out or tired, you’re in there for three minutes and their energy just fills you up and it’s just absolutely wonderful and you go home and you’re sweaty and excited and you just had a fantastic day, and even if it’s not a great rehearsal, you’re like, “You know what? We’ve accomplished something.” It doesn’t even matter if we got, like, one page blocked – that’s a step in the right direction. So, that’s always a good thing.
Lindsay: So, let’s go through some of the steps from your side of the table. When you hold auditions, what are some of the big no-no’s that seem to happen time and time again from young actors when they step into your audition room?
Kerry: I think one of the big things is not being prepared and, luckily, we don’t have to deal with that too much. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of kids who’ve come through and they’re like, “Yep, they’re taking it seriously. They know what to do.”
But I occasionally have some young actors that they are either not really committed and they’re not prepared and they haven’t really taken the steps to find a good monologue that works well for them or they haven’t picked a song that’s a good choice for the show. Like, if you’re auditioning for a show like Oklahoma, you’re not going to come in and sing a Katy Perry song. It just doesn’t work that way, you know? It doesn’t show off your vocals. It doesn’t show off the style that you’re supposed to be portraying.
So, being unprepared or making poor choices is really tough and, as a director, you want so badly for your actors to do well. You know, you’re gunning for them and I hope that’s something that young actors really take from this is that your directors, they want you to do well – they’re sitting there hoping, “Oh, my goodness, I hope these actors are going to give me everything they’ve got and make my job so much easier by giving me a good audition.”
So, I’d say, first and foremost, being ill-prepared.
The second is nervousness and that’s really just something I think that has to be practiced. You really can practice auditions, you know? Rehearse your stuff at home. Work with your friends or your parents and just rehearse your stuff till you know it forwards, backwards, on your head, and that way, the nerves still might be there, but you’ll know how to cope with them and you know how to push them aside and just focus on what you need to do. You just need to do the job which is, you know, perform as best as you can.
Lindsay: What a great piece of advice – practice. Practice with your friends. You know, I think sometimes that, particularly with young actors who haven’t done it a lot, it totally escapes them that they could actually maybe run through their audition piece more than once or twice.
Kerry: I agree. I agree. I really feel that auditioning is a skill that can be practiced, especially if you happen to be a member of a company like Original Kids and you have that resource. There’s directors there that you’ve worked with or staff that you’ve worked with and they’re generally happy to listen to you practice or even give you some pointers, if you want that. Like, never be afraid to ask for help and ask your friends to listen to you. Ask your family members to watch you and give you some feedback.
One other tip that I’ve found really useful was actually, in this age of laptops with videos in them and your iPhones with video feedback, you know, film yourself and watch yourself and you can see, “Oh, okay, I always lean to the left,” or, “My arms are kind of flapping,” or, “I keep touching my hair.”
Film yourself and watch yourself. It’s kind of embarrassing at first and you pick yourself apart, but that way you can see, “This is what I do. This is what I look like. Okay. This is what I need to work on.”
Lindsay: Well, it’s amazing how many unconscious ticks young actors have that they just don’t realize how many times they touch their hair or they shuffle their feet from side to side.
Kerry: The shuffling – oh, my gosh, it’s funny because it’s like they’re doing a little dance and they don’t realize they’re doing it.
Lindsay: And it’s completely actor-driven. It has nothing to do with the character and it’s like, “If I believe this was character-driven, then I would love it, but it’s not.”
Okay. What about overdone? If you had to give some advice to young actors out there, what monologues or music pieces do you never want to see again?
Kerry: One of the things that I also do on top my directing is I write a blog and this is actually one of my blog posts, “Overdone Monologues and Songs.”
I never ever want to hear the Tuna Fish monologue from Christopher Durang. I’ve heard that one 10,000 times. Neverland 911 is one that I hear all the time. Really, anything that, if you Google “monologues for young actors,” just avoid those ones like the plague.
Lindsay: Don’t use any of those!
Kerry: Don’t use any of those because everybody else does it.
Ones that I’ve found recently I’ve heard a lot of is Anne of Green Gables, the “Oh, Mrs. Lynde, I have red hair!” and et cetera, et cetera. I hear that one a lot. And “Falling Down the Rabbit Hole” – Alice in Wonderland – I hear that all the time. Dorothy waking up in Wizard of Oz, that’s one I hear a lot, too.
In terms of songs, I hear Castle on a Cloud all the time – all the time – and My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music. I had one show that I had, I must have had five kids sing that song in a row and, by the end of it, I was just thinking, “I can tell that raindrops on roses and brown paper packages are not your favorite things, and you’re not convincing me that those are your favorite things.”
Lindsay: Awesome. Absolutely. Okay.
So, once you get them, you’ve cast them and you’ve got them into rehearsals, how do you go about building ensemble between your group? Because you have a lot of musicals and a lot of chorus work. What do you do to get your kids to really work together?
Kerry: I think, right off the bat, it’s important to have the kids get to know each other and really have the team – the artistic staff – get to know them as well.
So, at the beginning of rehearsals, we do a lot of name games and that’s something that’s just so, so important. Learn the kids’ names. I’ve worked with teams – artistic teams – where you get to the final process and you get to the final dress rehearsal and, if you don’t know the kids’ names, it’s just embarrassing. So, it really makes them feel important so that’s first and foremost – learn their names – name games, talking to them, really.
At the beginning and end of every rehearsal, I like to get the kids together, we sit in a circle and we talk about what happened that day. Take five minutes just to ask the kids about their day. Then, we can set that aside and we can set aside regular life and we can get into our theatre life and we can really focus on the play and the work at hand and, at the end, we can kind of have, again, a sit down and just talk about what we accomplished today, what we want to work on next time, and just really get to know the kids on a personal level. Find out what they like to do when they’re not at Original Kids or at rehearsal.
Really, just treat them with respect and like people because that’s what they want. They’re used to being in school all day where they’re having to sit and be quiet and they come to the theatre and they can be themselves and they can really play and have fun. That’s why we do theatre. If it’s not fun, there’s no point of doing it.
So, first and foremost, really get to know them and get to know them as people.
In terms of ensemble building, there’s obviously tons of theatre games you can do. I really like having the kids create backstories for their characters. I’ll have them write down some character traits about their character. You know, “What is my character like? If I’m doing Peter Pan and I’m doing Pirate #6.”
Kerry: “First, my name is not Pirate #6. My name is Pegleg Pete and I am 30 years old and I love rum and I got onto the ship three years ago,” or something. You know, come up with bits about your character so you know that you’re not just Pirate #6. Maybe you have a relationship with another pirate on the ship. Maybe there’s someone you really like and someone you don’t like. Get together with your cast and figure that out.
Lindsay: I think that’s awesome, particularly when you’re doing those big musicals where there are so many characters who are just sort of there for the singing and not necessarily there for the story and yet they’re so important. That’s hard to convey, I think, sometimes, to young performers.
Kerry: Yeah. I just want to make sure that everyone feels important and knows they’re there. And, yes, you know, you can always say that there’s no small roles, just small actors, and that’s not entirely true. Yes, there are some roles that are smaller – not everyone can be Peter Pan, not everyone can be Wendy Darling – but everyone is there because they’re in the play. They’re important so it’s important to make sure that they know that.
Lindsay: What are some of the challenges you find with rehearsing a large cast with lots of young performers?
Kerry: First, the chattiness because they get to know each other so well and they get to become friends and then they just want to talk, talk, talk, talk all the time. So, it’s important to make sure to establish that, when you come to the theatre, we will have a break time and that’s when you can talk, that’s when you can socialize, but we need to focus on the play, on the work at hand. Now, it’s Kerry time. It’s play time – play time as in theatre time, not play time as in muck around on the stage.
It’s important to establish that you can be friends with the kids and you can have a fun time, but there’s a line between being their friend and being a pushover. You still have to establish yourself as the director and to have that strong sense of leadership there. I think I went off-topic there.
Lindsay: Yeah. Well, especially when you have a play with so many moving parts.
Kerry: Exactly, yeah.
Lindsay: And so many things to learn and so many elements.
How long do you rehearse?
Kerry: For my most recent production which was, again, Peter Pan – I actually did Disney’s Peter Pan – we started rehearsing in January, the first week back to school, and we performed over March break. We rehearsed three times a week for five hours during the week. So, two and a half hours on Mondays, two and a half hours on Thursdays, and three hours on Sundays. So, I guess, do the math there – eight hours a week for ten weeks.
Lindsay: No math, no math.
Kerry: There you go. So, I think it’s really important to be organized. Just plan your time wisely. Get together before rehearsals. Even start with your team. Map out what you’re going to do at each rehearsal. You know, “Today, we are going to do casting. Then, the next day, we’re going to do a read-through. And, the next three days, we’re going to learn this song and then this sing.” And then, just really plan ahead, use your time effectively.
The worst thing you can do is come into a rehearsal and say, “Oh, I don’t know what we need to rehearse today.” No, when you have a limited amount of time and you have a huge group of kids to work with, you need to plan exactly what you’re going to do.
Of course, leave a little bit of wiggle room because there’s always going to be things happen. You know, you get to rehearsal one day and, “Oh, guess what? Wendy Darling’s not here today.” “Well, I guess we can’t rehearse that scene.”
So, be flexible. Have a back-up plan but have a plan to begin with – that’s the most important thing.
Lindsay: So, I wanted to do a little segue since you’re talking about Peter Pan and I know that a lot of our customers, a lot of our listeners have either done Peter Pan or it’s a very popular play. So, let’s talk about two things – one, the flying; and, two, the combat aspect.
So, how do you handle something that is a very technical element – like flying – with young performers?
Kerry: Well, if I had tons and tons of money and the ability to do so, I would have loved to do wires. Of course, you can’t do that in our small theatre. So, our flying was actually two different things. First thing is we are very fortunate at the Spriet Family Theatre in London to have a balcony on our stage. So, part of the flying was the Darling children and Peter Pan and the fairies tip-toeing up to the balcony and flying on their tip-toes with their arms to the sides. We also have a hazer so we used some stage fog and some haze to make it seem kind of atmospheric and we had some of our ensemble bring cardboard clouds on-stage as well to make them look like they were flying around the clouds.
Lindsay: Hey, you know what though? I think that’s exactly what it should be in some cases because I’ve just heard so many horror stories about rigging and wires going horribly wrong with the show.
Kerry: Well, especially when you’re working with young actors, for Peter Pan, our actors, they were in grade two to grade nine and it would be very dangerous to do that, I think, with actors that young. So, there’s always creative ways to go around it.
Kerry: So, like I said, we had some ensemble members come on and they were clouds and we also had some come on with flashlights and they were stars. That way, you could include more of your ensembles, there’s more dancing opportunities, and the kids just had so much fun.
Also, how I staged that is, the kids who were clouds were already wearing their pirate costumes and then the stars were the Lost Boys. So, it kind of established sort of dream-like sense because the premise was that, “Was it all a dream? Did the Darlings just dream this?” and they’re getting a little taste of what Neverland is. So, it just worked out well that way.
Also, I wanted them originally in rehearsal blacks but the quick change was too fast so, in that case, you just have to come up with a better idea and that one worked out well.
Lindsay: Ah, just solve your problems, right? Actually, when you were talking about it, that’s the first thing that came to my head; what a great way to transition.
Kerry: Yeah, it was a great transition!
Lindsay: Yeah, and you meant it every step of the way. That was totally your intention from the very beginning. No, I adore theatrical solutions to sticky problems. You know, I just think, instead of the thing, “Oh, we’re going to fly them,” “Oh, we can’t.” So, instead of not doing the way, what can you do? And I just think that’s fantastic. You gave the perfect answer.
Kerry: Thank you! It involves the kids more and they take a real ownership in involving themselves in the scene changes. They really like that because it gives them more to do and just more stage time and, like I said, a sense of ownership rather than having a stage crew come on and do all the changes for them. They can be involved in that and create the scene and it’s fun for the audience to see, “Oh, look, there’s a pirate and, oh, gosh, there’s a fairy,” and it’s just a lot of fun, too.
Lindsay: Okay. So, now, let’s move on because there is a lot of fighting in Peter Pan. So, with your very young actors, how do you plan stage fights? How do you do them safely? What do you do?
Kerry: Well, the first thing is you have to prepare your script and know exactly what sort of combat was in it. In the Disney version of Peter Pan JR., there is only one sword fight and it is between Peter and Hook. We kept it very, very simple. They had wooden swords and their fight only consisted of about four moves. What we did was we demonstrated it between myself and my choreographer who is also a very talented stage combatant.
We created four very simple moves that looked really good on-stage that they could perform easily. We performed it for the actors, we filmed it so they could watch it at home, and then we broke it down step by step for them to learn it. Then, every day before we did the show, they would have to do a fight call and they would have to perform the fight twice – once at half-speed to get the moves back into their body and then once at performance speed – and that’s really, really important when you’re doing combat with young actors is that practice it, practice it over and over and over again until it’s in their body.
It’s like learning a dance – it really is. You wouldn’t have them do a move that they couldn’t do on-stage. Like, if they can’t do a triple pirouette, you’re not going to make them do it. If they can’t safely hold a weapon or use it correctly, you’re not going to do it.
So, if we had found that that movement didn’t work for them or they couldn’t learn that choreography, we would have altered it to perhaps something simpler – maybe a knife fight instead with rubber knives. But we also had to work on some other combat moves such as tying up the pirates and it’s just going really slow at first, showing the actors exactly where they need to be, and walking it through first until you bring it up to performance speed. It’s always safety first, safety last, safety always.
Lindsay: I think that’s the only way to do it. That sounds great. I really like the idea of videotaping it too so that they can constantly have it in their heads.
Kerry: It’s really useful and, actually, I do that with all my stage combat now, no matter who I’m working with, whether it’s youth or adults. It’s so easy to film it on your iPhone or your iPod and pop it up on YouTube. If you don’t want anyone to see you, you can make it private and keep it just for the rehearsal. But it’s so useful to be able to see that, especially me because I’m a very visual learner. I can’t just hear a direction; I need to be able to see what it looks like. That way, you can review it and it’s that resource there to use over and over again if you need it.
Kerry: And then, you can use it as a demo reel too in the future.
Lindsay: Always thinking!
Now, as you come up to performance, you must have to deal with – not deal with but have students be respectful of students, young performers who perhaps this is their first time on stage.
Lindsay: How do you deal with that? Because it’s a way different experience; “Oh, I’m just in rehearsal” to “Oh, there’s going to be an audience.” How do you deal with stage fright of your performers?
Kerry: For the most part, we work on that actually throughout the process. One of the techniques that I’ve found really useful is to do a little preview. So, for example, if you’re doing a small scene – for example, if I was doing – in Peter Pan, there was a scene with mermaids and they would work with the choreographer and the musical director to work on their part while I was working with other kids and we would do a little showcase.
So, the rest of the cast members would sit in the audience and the mermaids would perform what they’d done and then sometimes we would invite parents at the end of rehearsal to come in and watch a scene we’d worked on and then just kind of build up the audience from there.
You know, the more they have an opportunity to perform in front of other people – whether it be other cast mates, their friends and family who just happened to be around to pick them up – that’s always useful and just really reviewing as much as possible, like, allowing yourself that time in the rehearsal schedule to do full runs of the show, to work on problem scenes.
If you’re finding that a certain scene is always an issue, you want to leave yourself a little bit of time to practice a little bit more and give good feedback and get them to a place where they feel comfortable and that you can kind of pre-emptively work on the stage fright rather than have to get to the point where “Oh, I’m on-stage.”
Lindsay: It’s an overwhelming wave.
Kerry: Yeah, just kind of pre-emptively is the most important thing, I think. Getting them to the point where they are super comfortable. Like I said, if you’ve people in the hallway waiting to pick your kids up, “Come on in and see what we’ve been working on today!” and really celebrate their achievements.
Even if the scene is a little rough, you can just be like, “We just learned this today! Oh, my gosh, can you believe all the work they’ve done?” and that just makes the actors feel really good and the parents really like to see that because they’re like, “Oh, wow! I didn’t know my kid could do this!”
Lindsay: Well, isn’t that always the way, too? It’s like, sometimes, parents don’t know what theatre is and what’s happening. I think it’s a bit different if they’re going to an after-school program, but there’s still that, well, I’m sure that you must have to deal with parents saying, you know, “You should have cast my kid as Wendy Darling,” and, “Why didn’t you?” and to have them see what’s going on in the process maybe smooths some waters, maybe.
Kerry: It does, and we do have to deal with new parents who are new to theatre because, even if they are part of the theatre company, you know, it’s so easy to understand a sport whereas theatre has such a process that not everyone truly understands.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Well, because, you know, sports are rules and theatre is – which is not exactly the right thing to say because there are rules of theatre – like, you do have to have some structure and some guidance.
Kerry: But it’s a process. It’s a different process that not everybody understands.
Lindsay: Okay. My last question to you, this is very interesting because I talk to people a lot about this, particularly when we’re dealing with young performers. For them, do you believe the process is more important or the product?
Kerry: Oh, I think it’s definitely the process. I really feel that, you know, because they spend so much more time in rehearsal than they do actually performing. I think it’s really important. They could have a fantastic show but, if they’ve hated their lives doing it, then you really haven’t accomplished anything.
So, I really think it’s the process that’s really, really important. You want to make sure that they’re growing as performers. You want to make sure that they’re learning something. You want to make sure that they’re moving ahead and you’ll have different actors of different abilities, of course, and some will move ahead in leaps and bounds, and some of them will just move a few inches. But the fact that they’re moved in that forward direction is really, really important, and it’s not just, “Oh, we had an amazing show,” but, “Oh, these actors grew as people and they’ve increased their skills and they’ve learned new things and made new friends and that’s what’s just going to help them in the long run.”
Lindsay: Yup, I agree – 100 percent.
Thank you so much, Kerry! It’s been really great talking to you!
Kerry: Thank you so much for having me! This has been so much fun. I’m really honored to be able to talk to you and be on this podcast so thank you so much for this.
Thank you, Kerry!
Okay. Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Since we talked about directing youth today, I’d like to point you to the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode102 – and a blog series we did on student directing. Do you have a student director’s project in your program? Do you have students who want to direct your one-act? Give them some guidance! There’s topics on choosing a play, auditions, and – I think this one is the most important one of all – directing your peers. How, as a student director, do you get your fellow classmates to do what you want?
You can get links to the student directing series in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode102.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube at YouTube.com/Theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. Search on the word “Theatrefolk” and you will find us.
Okay. That’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.