The Nuts and Bolts of Producing Children's Musical Theater

Thursday, January 10, 2013
It's no secret that everyone and his brother, sister, aunt and uncle feel that they have the knack for producing children's Musical Theater. With so many publishing houses out there producing mini versions of some of Broadway's biggest hits, providing a "how to" and robust director's manual and prerecorded tracks to the show's songs, everyone is jumping on the band wagon and offering summer productions for kids ages 5-15 years old. However, it is very important to realize that it takes much more than a script, a bunch of students, and hall to produce truly great children's theater!
There are definitive areas of producing a musical with kids that will make a show simply mediocre or make a show simply spectacular. These areas are as follows: Quality Casting; Strong direction; Scenic Design and Construction; Lighting Design; sound design; costume design; a quality performance venue, Publicity and Marketing.

The reason I mention quality casting is because it is here lies your most important task. In my 25 years as an Artistic Director, I've always said, "Casting can be your best friend! It can make your job as a director a pure joy or a living hell!" And it is so true. If you cast the wrong child in the lead, a great set, costumes and lighting design will not save your show. It is for this reason that time and careful planning and thought should be given to the casting of each role, especially the leads. With casting in mind, always planning ahead and casting a double or understudy is a wise and prudent thing to do should your first choice fall ill or fall out of a tree a week before your show opens. After all, we are speaking about kids here!:-) Of course, going hand in hand with strong casting is your job as the theatrical producer to hire a top-knotch director. Without a iron-clad experienced director, you ruin the risk of the show not having a strong flow or semblance.
The next crucial thing to think about is your rehearsal process. Where will rehearsals be? A Church, a school, a hall? How many days per week? Hours per day? Will the rehearsal process last 8, 10, or 12 weeks? Once this is determined a solid rehearsal schedule can be put together and distributed among the students.
Now that rehearsals are under way, it is time to think about what and how your set design will look like? There are so many ways you can go with a set design. Of course, after much trial and error over the last two decades, I find the KISS principle best. "Keep It Simple Stupid!" It's true. A wonderfully designed set with bright colors simply hanging from a theater baton will go miles and cost far less than having several stage wagons built or huge flats to fly up in the air. Remember: This is children's theater. Kids performing for kids. You can find great scenic designers almost anywhere these days. Craigslist, College Dept, High School Theater clubs, etc... I strongly advise staying away from Performing Arts magazines, as these folks are all strictly professional and will charge a pretty penny.
Your next important task is to find a great lighting designer. Focusing lights on a stage and mixing colors to create moods is not a difficult job. It is however a specialized one and if you don't hire the right person, your beautiful set will look a lot less beautiful and you won't be able to evoke the kind of response you are looking for from your audience. Like Scenic Designers, you can find good lighting designers on places like Craigslist, College dept, etc... Most Lighting designers will charge you a couple hundred dollars to light your whole show. I've always believed that lighting a show, especially a musical is critical to the overall success of the production. This is definite one area you do not want to skimp on. There is nothing worse than going to a children's production and the curtain opens to all these kids in costume with blinding white light from the ceiling light fixtures! In the words of one of my past students, "Yuck!"
Speaking of costumes for the students, this is the next big item that should be on your list. Costumes are indeed important, but think that you have to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on each costume. A simple vest, hat, glasses, jumpsuit, etc.. will do just fine. Of course, a great deal of this is determined by your show. Doing the musical, Annie? Making orphan clothing is quite simple. Doing Aladdin? This of course may require a costume designer and seamstress. Again, you can find students who are willing to help you with this or even volunteer moms, dads, grandmas, etc... Sewing is an American past time! What ever you do, do not make the mistake of producing a period piece than skimping on the costumes. Nothing says tacky more than this.
The next important item is sound. If you can't hear the kids on stage, why bother paying for a ticket. Nothing is more aggravating than attending a wonderful performance only to be confused as to what is going on because you do not understand the kids. Body mics work best. But if you cannot afford these, choir mics or shot guns definitely work in a pinch. Please, please, please make sure that the sound designer you hire knows how to set levels. Feedback during a show is never pleasant.
Finally, getting the word out about your performance is key to building the excitement among the actors, paying all of the expenses that have been piled up and of course, spreading the word about what you do, who you are and why your theater program is so important to the community!
There are countless ways today to publicize a show and get the word out to everyone and their brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. The internet has a wealth of social media, ticket software programs, email grouping, etc.. to help spread the word about your show. Of course, it never hurts to print up posters and post cards and distribute them around your town in every coffee, house, bookstore, school or church! Who can resist a great kid's production?
So, to briefly recap. To produce truly great children's theater, remember there are several key areas to consider. Hiring a strong director; Casting the right kid in the right role; hiring the best designers your budget can afford; hiring the best lighting and sound people your budget can afford; and getting the word out to further capture the community you are trying to impress!

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