Young actors show their maturity
Performers learn much more than just their lines when they take on a role
As the eager young actors take the stage, parents' faces in the audience light up with proud smiles. "It just gives me goose bumps," says Tim Fawcett, as he watches his 11-year-old son Freddie and another boy, Sebastian Clifford, share the leading role of Oliver in the annual musical production of the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF).
"I feel incredibly proud," Fawcett says.
Auditions for the popular musical based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist started in May, after which 72 out of more than 800 young enthusiasts aged between nine and their early 20s were chosen for parts.
What followed was months of rigorous rehearsals for two or three nights a week at HKYAF's studio. The cast would finish school at 3pm, have an hour or two to catch up on homework and grab a bite, then rush to the studio by 6pm. The rehearsals finished at 9pm.
For the youngsters, juggling schedules meant a lot of give and take in terms of what they could do after school and on weekends. Timetables had to be planned carefully to include food and rest, and time for homework. Sometimes it meant joining fewer club activities, missing out on a much-loved school fair, or a field trip where everyone else in the class would be going.
Both Fawcett and Tansy Wainwright, mother of the other Oliver actor, Sebastian, say the key is to be as open as possible, and reason with the children so that they get their priorities in order and make correct decisions. "Freddie has been very mature throughout the process," Fawcett says. "What also amazes me is that a guy of 11 years of age would wake up 6am to get to school, and then would be at rehearsals until 9pm two or three nights a week.
"That kind of self-motivation and commitment has developed throughout his 'career' in the past four years."
Having been on the stage himself in his school years, Fawcett encouraged his son when the boy showed an interest in acting. He realised that Freddie's ability to express himself vocally combined with his athletic nature would make acting a good fit. Freddie soon proved a passionate actor.
Similarly, Sebastian showed an early love of music and acting, which his mother also shared. As Sebastian drew continued praise from his parents and teachers for his roles in school plays, Wainwright decided to take him to auditions.
Originally from Britain, Sebastian had been involved in several productions, including a part in the professional production of To Kill a Mocking Bird at the open-air theatre in London's Regents Park.
"During the audition for Oliver, I told Sebastian that even if he does not get the main role, he should still take part in the play," says Wainwright. "I want him to do the play for the right reasons, not just because he gets to play the leading role."
Lindsey McAllister, founder of HKYAF who is also directing the musical, says all the young actors are an integral part of the show. "I can never understand competition in the arts. It is never about winning an award, a prize, or a competition. Everyone should just enjoy art."
It might benefit youngsters if parents took them to concerts, art exhibitions and workshops, where they can get a taste of different art forms, instead of signing them up for lessons, she says.. The idea is to give children as much variety and exposure as possible, and then identify and nurture their interests.
It is important for parents not to make negative remarks, or compare their children with others when they sign up the youngsters for art classes, she adds, or they may be put off.
Being involved in an art production is not only about performance, but most importantly about acquiring life skills: concentration, creative thinking, the ability to work in collaboration with others, and to communicate in front of a live audience. "For me, the process of creating is much more enjoyable than the actual shows, as I see how these young people grow during this three-month period," McAllister says. "You can't positively get involved in something like this and not be touched by the experience."
Both Sebastian and Freddie say what they cherished the most about the production was being part of the community, where they met people who not only shared their passion for singing and acting, but worked as a team to help each other succeed. They also enjoyed being able to try their best and display their talent on stage.
"I feel proud and happy because I have been practising so much," Freddie says. "When it gets hard, I will just go, 'OK, this may be hard but I'm not going to give up. I know I can do this and I'm only going to try harder'."
Sebastian has displayed similar determination: "When something gets hard, I just practise it and practise it. It always works. Before each performance, I will always take a deep breath and tell myself that I can do it, and I am going to do it to the best of my ability." Some of the more emotionally intense scenes have been the two young actors' favourites. For Sebastian, it was when an enraged Oliver physically confronted the bully who insulted his dead mother. For Freddie, it was the scene when Oliver was rescued by the kind-hearted prostitute, Nancy, and was caught in the middle of a fight where his rescuer was killed by the villainous burglar Bill Sykes.
"It was where I got grabbed, and then there was all the shouting and dragging, and then there was a death," Freddie says. "It is a very dramatic scene for the audience."
Both boys dream of being a professional actors one day, and hope to study at drama school.. Their parents are open to this possibility and happy with the positive impact the theatrical art has had on their children's personal development.
McAllister says that some of the foundation's alumni have gone on to pursue a life in the arts, but many more have chosen other professions while retaining their artistic interests.
"The main point of getting involved in art productions is not about churning out professional artists," she says.
"It is about empowering a young person through art, and giving him or her a passion that is for life. As you grow up it is very easy to lose the magic, but you can always choose to get involved in an art production again to get in touch with the magic. It is like Peter Pan - you would never really grow up."
Oliver!, Shouson Theatre Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai, Nov 27-29, 7.30pm-10pm; matinee on Nov 29, 2.30pm-5pm. HK$200- HK$280 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2877 2656