This past spring I was able to cross a huge ‘to do’ off my bucket list, which was to choreograph an MTI Junior premiere. The middle school in my home town snagged the rights to the premier of Hairspray Jr. Being a big fan of the MTI junior collection and the show, I was excited for the project.
With every project comes it’s challenges. With Hairspray, came a load of casting challenges. Firstly, there is an entire African American ensemble. Well, The school district is racially diverse and had a large number of African American students who were interested in the production.CHECK! Secondly, the lead has to be overweight. So, I learned how to build a fat suit. CHECK! Thirdly, The show is written for a large ensemble. No problem, 140 kids auditioned and we cast them all. DOUBLE CHECK. Lastly, there is a cross dressing character. A man (or in this case a boy) dressed as a women, a mother to be exact. This is middle school, one of the worst times in every kids life, especially the boys and even more so, the boys in theater. With the bullying stories you hear about now a days and yes, even some of the bullying I lived through in my middle schools days, I was nervous that casting any boy as Edna in the show would be a self-confidence, bully attracting doom sentence.
In to auditions walks a boy, no older than 13, a boy I know from last year’s production of Grease, we will call him ‘R’, who actually asks for the role. He is short, stocky, cute as a button, and one of the most masculine teenagers I have ever met. He likes sports, he wears basketball shorts and a pair of ‘kicks’ every day to school. He carries around one of those Nike knapsacks that doesn’t actually look like it can hold books but it’s cooler than a backpack. He is friends with the ‘cool kids’ and has the voice of an angel and here he is, standing in front of the production staff asking to play Edna. I hesitate putting any teenager, no matter how masculine or self confident in that position. I worry what it can do to this amazing kid when he has to wear a dress in front of the entire school, when his friends start to make fun of him or when he is made to believe that this role isn’t as ‘cool’ as he thought it was. I worry it will hurt his spirit. But, my hesitations couldn’t withstand the obvious… he was perfect for the role. He can sing it, he can act it and he wants it. I now had to put my trust in the other 139 kids in the show and the audience not to ridicule R.
Throughout the process, R became one of the most well loved and admired kids in the cast. He was very proud of his role. He had his girly accent and motherly gestures onstage and off stage, he was just like any other male cast member. He constantly impressed the production team with his willingness to play and make a fool out of himself. Rather than being ridiculed by his castmates, he was praised and adored for his humor and talent. Even his guy friends, his ‘bros’, were complimentary, helping him run lines and choreography in their spare time.
As the show began to tech, we added the final elements to R’s transformation. A nightgown, wigs, a stuffed bra, a red sequined dress with matching boa and to top it all off, fake lashes and lipstick that would make a drag queen proud. He owned it all with a level of confidence that I’ve never seen in a boy that age or any kid that age for that matter.
Our first performance with an audience was in front of all the 5th grade classes from the district. He was outstanding, as we all knew he would be but here is where my nerves for R began to fester all over again. I got through the rehearsal process having my hesitations completely silenced by the maturity of the students and the confidence R exuded. However, it all came rushing back, worrying some small, 5th grade boy would make a snide remark during the talk back and give R a reason to feel anything less than proud of the work he had done in the show. While they may have all hoot and hollered for R when he made his big entrance in the sequin gown, strutting better then I could have ever done myself, I still felt the need to pray… please don’t crush this kid.
The talk back begins. Hands go flying in the air with the ‘pick me.. pick me’ wave to them. A little boy is picked from the crowd, he stands and says:
“R. What does it feel like to play a girl?”
And without any hesitation, without any concern for the effect the answer might have, he says loudly and proudly.
The audience….. cheered!
I saw R a few days later while I was dropping off some of the equipment we borrowed from the school. He walked down the hallway like a man who had grown a foot over the weekend of shows. Tall, proud, surrounded by the ‘cool kids’, in his basketball shorts and sneakers.
I only wish that as a 24 year old woman, I had as much confidence and guts as that 13 year old boy! You go R!