PUBLIC PROFILE: Eve Smyth & Kate Sullivan – Co-Directors, Ashland Children’s Theatre
Rogue Valley Messenger: The adage is never act with dogs or kids! Can you make a good counter-argument?
Yes! Especially if you’re working with a kid who is pretending to be a dog, then you get the best of both worlds. Okay, we can’t really speak to the dog part, but kids are amazing to work with. They live so much closer to the imaginary world than most adults, so they are able to access the door to that world and take you right through it with them. They’re curious about what stories have to offer and how they can be a part of them.
RVM: You host improv classes for 4 – 6 years olds. In some ways, that seems like the perfect age, as young kids are almost always game for make-up and spontaneity.
ES: Yes, our Make Believe Explorers class is a fun romp for sure. We ask students “if you could be anything in a story, what would it be?” The responses cover a vast range—it might be a puppy, a dragon, the driver of the Titanic (we’re not kidding), or a rock. The possibilities are endless. (Though, of late, we’ve had a wide variety of animals that are rainbow colored and sporting unicorn horns.) We see shy children really open up as they become their characters, bouncy kids become focused. They are living their dream. We also give attention to listening and sharing the story with the other actors and the audience.
RVM: Adolescence, especially early teenage years, can be such a time of uncertainty and even embarrassment. It would seem like being on stage would accentuate that. Or, is this good “therapy”?
At Ashland Children’s Theatre we see so many kids and teens find their voice and learn how to stand in themselves through theatre. It’s incredible. They feel so validated and seen. In our improv classes we spend time making mistakes—and celebrating them. Yep, that’s right. Take the risk, make a mistake, and often that very mistake is a gift. That mistake becomes what your improv scene is about, or the happy accident that reveals something new in scripted work. And sometimes; it’s just a mistake. But that’s all it is, and we move on. Theatre is a collaborative art form. Everyone is in it together and at ACT we are big believers in building ensemble and support among our students. We build a community, we lift each other up—and they feel it.
RVM: What would you say are the top two lessons or take-aways from children learning to act?
Connection. Theatre improv, and acting, are really built on one initial premise—offer and accept. This encompasses a lot if you think about it. Give and take, speak and listen, take turns, share, pay attention. It’s about building a connection.
Fun. When you’re having a good time you can take the risks that will further your creativity.
Through connection and fun, we see students discover that they contain more than they realized. We believe strongly in the power of theatre to enhance a child’s self- confidence, self-expression and ability to collaborate with others. We see them learn to take their own space on stage and in the world and feel the value in that and in themselves.
RVM: How much is this about process and how much about production? Meaning, how much does the end-result, the stage productions, really matter, or is it the journey to get to that point?
ES: Wow, good one. In our opinion, it’s both, in perfect balance. The process is so full; learning techniques of voice and movement, delving into character development, sequencing, timing, connecting and playing off your scene partners, listening, finding emotional shifts and narrative beats, being responsible to show up, on time, with your work done, trying new things, being flexible and rock solid—there’s so much. But having an audience is an integral component to theatre. It isn’t really theatre without them and, we have to say, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when all the process work seems to synthesis and time and time again, that’s when we see kids rise. They’re telling a story, and the audience is there to meet them, to unwrap the gift that they’ve been working hard to create for this moment.
RVM: When did you first get on stage?
Eve: My first stage was my front porch where I performed many an extensive interpretative ballet, but my first audience was in the fourth grade when I played Rumpelstiltskin.
Kate: My first on stage role was in the third grade, when I played Christopher Robin in the school play. My big moment was pulling Winnie-the-Pooh out of the honey jar; I did a pratfall that took me off stage and into the audience’s lap. I was hooked.