Employee of the Year Hires Kid Actors for a Very Adult Piece of Art.
There’s a bunch of pre-teen female actors putting on a performance at FringeArts later this month, and, no, it isn’t Annie.
“They are regular kids,” said Employee of the Year‘s co-creator Abby Browde, the New York-based artist who has worked with the cohort of children since 2014 as part of the performance group 600 Highwaymen. “None of them are industry kids.”
Yet, these girl actresses are given quite a daunting task in Employee of the Year: They tell the story of one woman’s life from start to finish through the use of movement, monologue, and song. At first, Browde and her artistic partner, Michael Silverstone, weren’t necessarily committed to using kids in the performance.
“We were both interested in a journey myth, and something that was narrative-driven because our last two shows weren’t,” Browde said. “We both kept writing together to discover the story. We were working with different groups of actors, from teenage girls, young women, and college students, but we were really stumped as to who who should perform it. It was Michael who said, ‘Well, maybe it should be all children.’ At first I thought, ‘Absolutely not,’ but then I paused for a second and thought, ‘Oh, shit: It should be all children.'”
Browde and Silverstone started the workshop process with youth actors, and one of the early performers, Violet, is still with the show. In fact, the original cast of girls has toured with the production since its inception in 2014, performing in New York, Zürich, and Hannover, Germany. Not only has the performance changed, but so have the girls.
“When you work with children, there is a microscope on them,” Browde said. “You go away for two months and the costumes don’t fit, and the songs have to change because their voices have changed.”
But isn’t just the physical changes that have added to the impact of the work. Browde suggested that the girls, who started the work at ages 9 and 10 and are now 11 and 12, have impacted the overall message of the piece.
“The show takes on a different meaning now that they’re almost teenagers who are trying to avoid their adulthood,” she said. “We had a moment where we were thinking that we should go back and re-cast the tour, but we wrote the show for these people. The songwriter wrote the songs for these voices and their personalities. It didn’t seem quite right to re-cast the roles for someone else.”
“A couple of the girls recently said in a discussion, ‘We understand the story better now and we find it sadder than we used to,'” Browde added.
As creators, Browde and Silverstone had to re-think some of their own artistic ideas once they started the rehearsal process with a bunch of 10-year-olds.
“When we started working with the girls, we had to write and explore their voices specifically,” Browde recalled. “We were going through a training process. We’d make material and throw it away. It was a real laboratory. Through that process, we got really detailed. We got into the emotional life of the story with the girls, and that teaches you that acting is sort of a natural skill. It’s an innate skill to put on a fictional story: That’s what children do. They play make believe. Something about it seemed so instinctual.”
“You have actors who haven’t lived the things they’re talking about,” she added. “Sometimes this just felt like any other acting project. For young people, they have fantastic imaginations and they can get into something that they haven’t lived through. That really helped evolve the style of the show.”
So, should you bring kids to Employee of the Year?
“We don’t think that it’s made for children,” Browde said. “There’s a formal aspect to it. It’s not meant for a young attention span. I think if you’re around 11 or 12, it might be totally fine, and it might be exciting because you’d get to see the future.”
Browde also recalled her own youth, and how she was encouraged to perform and create in environments that weren’t condescending to children or youth. That’s been a huge influence for this project and how Browde and the company treats their youth actors.
“We try to speak to the girls so they take ownership, so they hold the reigns,” she said. “They really can! Now, they are really actors, both technically and virtuosically, and they understand it mechanically.”
Browde isn’t sure what the future is for Employee of the Year now that the girls are close to hitting puberty. However, she did mention one idea that would make for very interesting theater.
“Knowing that these kids have grown up through this project is very exciting and we’re still trying to see how that translates to the audience,” she said. “Part of me wishes that there would be a reunion show in 30 years when the girls know how it feels to go through everything they talk about in the performance.”
Employee of the Year plays at FringeArts February 26-27. For tickets and more information, click here.