A director's great expectations

Young actors learn the value of hard work

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / April 13, 2008

They auditioned in mid-January. The next week, they started rehearsals - three or four nights a week, every week, for more than two months. They've studied the text, explored the characters, learned the songs, practiced the dance steps, adjusted to the costumes, and figured out how to help move the scenery around without missing an entrance cue.

Now, finally, they're in a show. And they're still getting their homework done, too.

These are the two dozen cast members of "The Secret Garden," who have come from a variety of Boston neighborhoods and surrounding towns to perform in the Boston Children's Theatre musical, in downtown matinees through April 27. The oldest actor onstage is 18. The youngest - a remarkably assured third-grader named Megan Cumming, who alternates with Sophie Shea, 9, in the starring role of Mary - is just 8 1/2.

Boston Children's Theatre, in short, is not just theater for children; it's theater by children, as it has been since it was founded in 1951. And that, as executive director Patricia M. Gleeson notes, means that she must always be thinking about two constituencies: not just the parents and children who buy tickets to watch the theater's shows (and in some cases have been doing so for four generations now), but the ones who sign up for classes or summer programs, audition for roles, enter an annual playwriting contest, and generally count on BCT to provide a thorough, high-quality education in the art of making theater.

For the audiences, Gleeson aims to present work that's engaging, literate, and polished - and entertaining, of course, but never just entertaining.

"Children's theater gets a bad name, for a lot of reasons," she says. "But it doesn't have to be 'less' because there are children doing it. I like a play that appeals to Mom and Grandma, as well as to the kids."

Gleeson, who estimates that she's directed between 300 and 500 plays (many of them since coming to BCT in 1989), says "The Secret Garden" fits that bill. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1909 novel, the award-winning musical (with lyrics and book by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon) tells the story of young Mary Lennox, an orphan whose discovery and restoration of a neglected garden brings renewed life and hope to her and to everyone around her.

"I really love 'Secret Garden': the music, the characters, how Marsha Norman took the book and turned it into this musical," Gleeson says.

She also likes its thematic and actual darkness - or, at least, that's what lighting designer Jennifer Simon is teasing her about at a recent dress rehearsal. "She always wants it dark," jokes Simon, who guesses she's designed about 40 shows in her 15 years with BCT.

"I like more mood in lights," Gleeson admits. Especially in children's theater, she says, the lighting is often too bright and flat. "Most people think, 'We need to see their faces all the time,' " she says. "But it should be beautiful." In short, it should be less like our ideas of bad children's theater, and more like real theater.

Gleeson is similarly uncompromising when it comes to directing her young actors. She welcomes them briefly to the rehearsal, notes with displeasure that many arrived late, then matter-of-factly states, "There are things we're still working on, and projection is one of them." When one boy says his bow tie is missing so he's taken another child's, and they'll just grab a replacement out of the box, she turns stern.

"Wait," she says. "Each kid had a bow tie. Find the other bow tie. They don't grow on trees."

That no-nonsense attitude is partly fueled by economic necessity - the hardest thing about running BCT, Gleeson says, is finding the money to do it - but even more, perhaps, by a deeply held belief that discipline and high standards are essential to the arts.

"You only have chaos if you don't lay down some rules," Gleeson says. "If you raise the bar and insist on that, that's where they're going to come. But if it's 'anybody can chew gum, anybody can do whatever,' it's not good for the kids, it's not good for the arts, and it's certainly not good for the community."

So does that mean that if a child breaks her rules - misses a rehearsal for no good reason, is consistently late, speaks rudely to other children or to staff members - she'll send him or her home?

"Absolutely," she says. "I tell them there are two reasons to miss rehearsal: illness and death. And in the latter case you don't need to call me."

She's serious about that. And what's interesting is that the kids are serious, too. Deborah Gelch, whose daughter Miranda is in the "Secret Garden" chorus but has had larger roles in other BCT shows, says the seventh-grader is so devoted to the theater that, when she's working on a show, everything else takes a back seat.

"She loves it," Gelch says. And she has plenty of company. "A lot of these kids," says the Newton mother, "I've seen for the last four years." The older ones were in middle school when Miranda began, and now they're the seniors she looks up to - just as she's likely to be, a few years from now, for Megan Cumming and her peers.

The young choreographer for "The Secret Garden," Khary Green, is himself a BCT alumnus. And when a visitor asks how the dancers are coming along, he doesn't respond with a standard bit of empty praise.

"They're getting there," he says. "But we've still got some work to do."

For their part, the actors listen carefully and try to address the criticisms they receive. And that, Gleeson says, is a huge part of what they can learn by studying acting - whether they go on to a career in the theater or not.

"I want them to know they can - and they can do better," she says. "They learn, 'If I make a mistake, I can pick myself up and go on.' "

In short, these children aren't just learning how to act onstage. They're learning how to act in the world.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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