This week, we began rehearsals for Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical, the next show opening on our Mainstage (June 21-July 21). Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda is a story about a brilliant young girl who loves to read but whose parents are dismissive of her genius. She begins her first year of school where she makes several young friends and learns of the terror that is Miss Trunchbull, the school principal. Matilda’s mind is so fantastic that she is able to use telekinetic powers to help rally her friends and rebel against the tyrannical forces. Not only is Matilda portrayed by a young actor (Emiko Dunn), but much of the show is carried by an ensemble of young actors, who range from age nine to fifteen. Working with so many young professionals makes for a unique production experience— from auditions to rehearsals and performances. I had the chance to talk with Jenna Duncan, Olney’s Associate Artistic Director/Casting Director, about the experience of casting young actors.
How many young actors are cast in Matilda?
Jenna: There are thirteen young actors in total, but only seven on stage at any one time. Six of the roles (Eric, Nigel, Hortensia, Lavender, Bruce, and Amanda) are double cast.
Can you explain what doubling is and the purpose it serves?
Jenna: Often, young actors will be double cast in a role so each actor only performs in roughly half of the performances. The doubling is used to help preserve kids who aren’t used to doing seven shows a week in the way that adults are. It can be an exhausting amount of work for one person.
Can you tell me a bit about the casting process for young actors and how it differs from your typical process?
Jenna: For casting adults, we do a lot of invited auditions. Part of my job is knowing the adult pool and going to see a lot of theatre to know who the adult actors in town are. But for young actors, there is constantly a new pool. There are always new young actors and they are constantly changing. The ones that we did know last year now often look and sound like adults! So the casting process for them is much more reliant on submissions. For the first half of the process, we asked for video submissions. We sent flyers to basically anywhere we thought we could find children who were interested in performing: schools, churches, camps. We posted it online and asked places like Adventure and Imagination to pass it along to kids in their programs. We received around 300 video submissions to begin with. Chris Youstra (Associate Artistic Director/Director of Music Theatre), Rachel Grandizio (Casting/Artistic Apprentice) and I watched those and narrowed them down to a first callback with about 80 young actors. We had them come in with material from the show, and from there, we narrowed it down to a second callback with about 40 children. Then we cast from there.
At the second callback, we had a dance call. They learned the dance for “Revolting Children.” It was actually the same number we did with the adults, and was fun to see the differences in how the kids and adults approached it. The choreography wasn’t exactly the same, but it was interesting because the number is really about letting loose in the most childlike way. So in the same way it allowed us to see which adults could really do that without feeling silly, it showed which kids were willing to let loose in front of a room of adults and who was most tapped in to that imaginative spirit. The kids naturally have a lot of what the adults strive for; the qualities that are knocked out of us as we grow up by needing to conform to societal standards and being asked to stop playing.
What is special or exciting about working with young actors?
I saw Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical on the West End and I had never seen a professional group of children that large carrying a show on stage in that way. It felt like a master class in acting. We talk so much about discovery as adults, about curiosity and making things feel like it’s the first time we’re experiencing them. A lot of the time, young actors have this in earnest. They are constantly so alive and present when they are onstage. They’re not in their heads the way adults can sometimes be.
In terms of working with them, I love that for the same reason I love them as audience members. You can’t trick them. On the whole, I’ve found that if something doesn’t make sense to them, they tell you. If they have a question or an opinion, they say it.
Will Olney patrons recognize any of these young actors from past shows?
Eliza Prymak and Hudson Prymak were on the Mainstage at the beginning of this season in South Pacific. They played Ngana and Jerome, the children of Emile. Eliza is playing one of our Hortensia’s and Hudson is playing one of our Nigel’s. And Ella Coulson was in Annie, which was our holiday musical two years ago in 2017. Ella is our other Hortensia in Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Watching our dance call with the children at auditions was an amazing reminder of what I love about working with them because they were so supportive of one another. They would cheer every time one kids had a great moment or freestyled a particularly cool move. They had so much love for each other. And I see that whenever I teach, too. In one of my classes earlier this year, there were two girls talking about auditions before class. One of them said “Did you get cast in Beauty and the Beast?” And I thought it was going to be a competitive or passive aggressive conversation, just because it can be so competitive with adults talking about who booked what show. The other one said yes, she was cast. So the first asked “what role are you?” And the other one said, “I’m napkin number five.” I was so ready for the other one to be like “Oh, I’m Belle.” or “So and So got Mrs. Potts,” But instead she screamed, “THAT’S MY FAVORITE NAPKIN!!” That’s why I’m always pumped to work with kids. When they are joyful it is contagious.