Who says a 10-year old can’t perform in a polished 1.5 hour theatre production? Certainly not Rachel Stewart, artist, writer, director and founder of the Active Children Theatre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For years she has been challenging children to push their limits, build life skills and blossom into their best selves.
Rachel, you’re an artist, writer and director – all in one. What’s your own background?
Growing up, I had two older brothers, a father who was a stand-up comedian, and a mother also involved in comedy as a writer. It was a wonderful childhood. I spent every school holiday in a theatre, backstage, painting bits of scenery, but also hanging in dressing rooms or playing with makeup of the performing girls. It got into my DNA. When I walk into a theatre, I instantly feel at home.
I was always a bit of a problem child at school. To this day, I struggle to walk past a funny line: if it occurs to me, I can’t leave it alone, I will just come in and say it. I think it made me fairly outspoken and quite lively to teach. Growing up, I was definitely one of those kids that polarized adults around me. There were those that truly despised me, because they couldn’t control me very well. But there were also some who thought: ‘This kid is a hoot!’ and encouraged me. I was lucky enough to meet some amazing teachers, who inspired the way I approach kids today. I want to create this feeling of being a co-conspirator, to show: “I accept you completely as you are. Now how are we going to surprise everybody else?”
So for me it was very natural to bring the family business back to life. Originally, after leaving college, I ended up working in advertising for years. That was obviously still very creative and I did meet and work with some incredible film directors. My time in advertising was quite an experience, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as now, working with my theatre kids.
How did you start with A.C.T?
I started it a few years ago because I had this very funny, not neurotypical child who – I could see – was a performer. My son Jacob is the strongest argument for reincarnation I’ve ever seen: he really has all of my father’s comedic sense. And I just thought: we need to do something with this kid. He was this hilarious character, who looked like he belonged in some Nickelodeon show, with bright orange curly hair and this clownish thing going on. Initially, I’d sent him along with his sister, who is much more conventional, to a traditional musical theatre group, but he got himself kicked out after the second lesson because he was telling too many jokes. So I just went to the kids’ school and said: “I’d like to start this after school club!” and they said: “Well, what do you know about it?” I told them a little bit about my background and, after setting up the whole thing properly, we began. It literally began with my Jacob and a handful of his mates who thought it would be fun.
Our first shows were quite rough, because the kids didn’t really know what was expected. Jacob was not the only one ‘wired to the moon’ at that stage, but what started to show itself was this really raw, sparky talent that so many of the kids had. Another boy I taught for years had had quite a lot of problems in school. He was branded as ADHD, and autistic, but still high-functioning. He was in my son’s class and the two of them were partners in crime. They were both kind of headless chickens running around the place. And in the little school production both boys had been given really crummy parts. Jake was given the part of some king, which involved him sitting on a throne and saying a couple of kingly lines, while the other boy had been given the task of playing a three-headed dog and only had to bark a bit on stage and hold a couple of sock puppets. It was about as lame as could be. So in the first production we ever did, which was Cinderella, apart from giving this boy a major speaking part, because he turned out to be very good, I said: “We’re going to bring you on as a dog, just for fun and to tweak the nose of the teacher who dismissed you.” Kids love that sort of conspiratorial thing. So he did this entire act as a comedic dog. It was a really important moment for him: he’d been quite insulted by being cast in a non-verbal part by his teacher. In traditional school plays, it is often the kids who tick the conventional boxes, who are given the main roles. But in reality there is a group of children where the talent really lies, who tend to be overlooked because they are harder to manage.
How is A.C.T. different from school productions?
When I work with kids, I write for them and showcase their skills. I stretch them while giving them stuff that really works for them. In more conventional musical theatre groups, I often see the show ending up at the lowest common denominator. Disney has a lot of these productions for schools, where as long as the kids learn the songs and you stick them in a nice costume, you’re going to have a nice show. Nobody is allowed to shine. It’s very flat in terms of what’s possible. With me, every child works at their own pace. Some kids come in ready and able to take on really complex pieces of theatre and do it amazingly well, and there are others who are battling their own demons, trying to find their confidence and voice. I try to accommodate for different levels. I don’t want to just produce a flat production that plays to the kid who’s struggling the most. That kid is going to find his place or her place, have something to say and feel great about what they’ve said and done in the context of the play. But equally, if there’s somebody who is amazing, I want to showcase that. Otherwise, it’s really not interesting for them to be in the group as they don’t feel challenged.
I mentioned I came out of a professional theatre background. I grew up backstage and what I learned is that there’s a huge difference between what’s asked in a professional theatre environment versus a traditional children’s theatre group. I believe kids can do more than what they’re typically asked to do. That’s why, every year, I keep raising the bar and, every year, kids are stepping up.
How do you build confidence in these kids?
We do a lot of improv based games. When we start off with a cast, we really start off building a team. I often say to parents who say “Oh, Betty should go and play hockey!”: “Actually, theatre is one of the best team sports you can get involved in. Because you really rely on every member of the cast to play their role.” A show is only ever as strong as the weakest member, so you need to bring everybody along.
We also build trust. Every year we look at some crazy lifts. A couple of years ago we did a really fun performance, based on a loose retelling of Alice in Wonderland. In the final scene, the Cheshire Cat was carried above everybody’s heads, on outstretched arms. Working on these kinds of lifts requires trust and teamwork. This combined with some truly absurd improvisation creates an amazing synergy in the cast.
What about life off the stage? Does theatre make a difference there?
Well… one little girl joined me about a year ago. She was in group 6 at the time. She was very talented, a really sparky, fantastic kid. But she had been bullied quite severely, to the point where she had to change schools. You know how it goes – the tall poppy syndrome. In our group the only thing I get strict about is that we’re all nice to each other. We don’t tolerate any nastiness.
The other day her mother sent me a note… “She’s totally back to the child she always was. She now feels confident to express herself again.”
It is true, that a lot of the children are probably never destined to be on the West End or Broadway, or part of the Royal Shakespearean Company, but you see that they develop a sense of confidence, self-esteem, and an ability to think for themselves and think on their feet. These are skills that they can carry through life, even if they end up being an accountant.
The kids also develop a great work ethic, because you can’t expect a group of ten-year-olds to pull off an hour and a half full length production without bringing in a fair degree of discipline. It’s not all feel-good, there’s a fair amount of rigor and discipline, because in the end you want pieces that look polished. And this combination of self-discipline and self-expression is a really healthy balancing act for kids to develop.
What can we learn from children about living our best lives?
I learn every single day from the kids I work with. What inspires me is the relative simplicity with which they view life and the honesty with which they approach it. It is their delight in being, that we sometimes lose as adults as we get weighed down by our mortgage, or our boss, or whatever. Kids live much more in the moment. The most important thing I’ve learned is to stay in the present and not worry too much about what may be coming down the pipeline. The problem is, as adults we stop playing. That’s why improvisation for adults is such a great thing: it gives you a reason to play as a grown-up.
Children accept the way things are more easily. Now, with Covid, a lot of people complain about not being able to do the things they always do. We have all these expectations. But the moment you let go of those, I think you become a much happier person. Just embrace the things you can do and realize that a simple walk with a loved one is just as wonderful as a very expensive meal with fine wines. As we get older, we constantly want to hold on to stuff; we search for the next thing to add to our collection of things. Kids enjoy the now. The more we can do that as adults, the better and stronger and happier and more centered we end up being.
What would you recommend to the rest of us when working with children, either personally or professionally?
You need to respond to the children that are in front of you, not the children you think you ought to have. Maintain the lines of communication. It’s too easy for a parent to start behaving like a Victorian dad. You almost feel you’re playing a role: “Despite the fact I had a very wild time in my 20’s, I am going to totally disapprove of everything that you are telling me right now and send you to your room!” Obviously there does need to be some structure in place, because kids like to know where their limits are, and understand what’s expected of them. Listen to your children, invest time in them. It’s not just talking at them, but talking with them.
There is this game parents and children play, where children edit their stories to what they think their parents can handle. Meanwhile, the parents play their own part in the charade. The key is approaching your children with the same level of honesty and integrity you would like to be approached with yourself.
Equally, kids don’t respond to being questioned very well. “How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” Just let the conversation unfold naturally and be human. Don’t just play the authority figures banging on about getting homework done.
Any last words?
Just have fun with your kids. Introduce them to theatre, introduce them to performance. Find a theatre group near you, or, if you can’t find one, start your own. And just enjoy your kids, because the best way to learn adulting is probably from our children.