jpegFrom Blue Remembered Hills  to His Dark Materials to Blood Brothers, adults playing children is a common trope in the theatre. In this environment, far from the limitations of the naturalistic casting demands of television and film, actors are keen to embrace the vocal and physical chellenges of ageing down. In the theatre, they are received by a willing audience, who are somehow happier to suspend their disbelief and be swept along by the story.

This licence to turn one’s hand to playing anyone, unrestricted by age or even gender, is what I love about acting for the stage, and I recently found this freedom in playing such a range of younger characters. Portraying such roles does present certain challenges, as you’d imagine. We’ve all seen children played badly on the stage, as thumb-sucking, skipping archetypes, and it can appear patronising to an audience. Of course as actors we want to play the truth in any interpretation, but it is easy to get caught up in the outward characteristics of children and lose this sense of honesty.

In my preparations I spent time observing children of the age I was aiming for and it is certainly these physical characteristics that provide a good “way in” to first building a character. A change in weight and tempo is required to find the erratic movement of a toddler. Much like the forward vocal placement I found, children have an irrepressible sense of always moving, or trying to move forwards, and are perhaps led more by their eyes and noses than adults. I watched my own daughter in fascination, and noted her sense of constant exploration of her surroundings, her determination to pick up herself up immediately after every little bump or fall.

It was through this observation, supplemented of course by careful study of my script that I came upon what I found to be the most useful consideration in the playing of children. Of course, the physicality is key to the performance, but it is imperative to not lose the sense of the character’s wants and desires. Kids don’t have the same social hang ups as us. They are free of any agenda, they speak without subtext, and their motivations are always incredibly clear. I found in my case they could generally be divided into either the pursuit of fun or the pursuit of food. They come across the same obstacles to achieving these objectives as any adult, but there is somehow a purity of vision and strength of conviction we can learn from here.

How often as actors are we asked to “see things with fresh eyes”? To discover our surroundings, to be spontaneous and engage our imaginations? Children do this naturally and without inhibition every day. To this end then, the playing of younger, perhaps more innocent roles is an invaluable education to the actor. Seeing things with the wide eyed fascination of a child can be a refreshing and rewarding experience, not just in terms of acting, but in life itself.

Photo: ‘Kids Playing’ by Flickr user Shadayyy under a Creative Commons Licence.