Hector, (no, not his real name, but I always loved the Iliad!) my gifted eleven year old son has just discovered the joy of acting. He has always been very fond of Shakespeare, and recently, somewhat reluctantly, Hector agreed to try a Shakespeare theater group for teenage homeschoolers. He had no trouble memorizing his lines. He was eager to get to rehearsals. His biggest challenge seemed to be casting off his reservations and really getting into his role. It took a bit of time, but slowly, he loosened up and started to show his stuff. This kid who had been the star reader in all his preschool performances hadn't been on stage or before an audience since he turned five. He simply hadn't seemed interested. I never forced the issue, despite my feeling that he might be a good actor. A month after his group theater project ended, Hector is now in rehearsal for his first community theater production, and very excited about it.
Needless to say, I have since been pondering the whys and hows of gifted kids and performing. My son is enjoying acting so much now; why wasn't he interested earlier? How does intellectual ability translate into acting ability? Will acting help him develop in other areas?
Fortunately, I know some families who have gifted children who have been involved in theater for many years.
Laura Fisher Andersen says her kids first were exposed to theater when she had a part in Miracle on 34th Street in 2001. By the following winter, her oldest child, Chance, was acting in A Christmas Story. Chance was eleven years old and had a great time performing. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he is now working on his 19th production, at age 17. A full time early college student, Chance hopes to take Broadway by storm soon after he graduates. Laura and Chance are not the only family members with star appeal though- the Andersens are loaded with talent! The four children of the family, Chance, Gunnar, Sydne, and Cole, have an impressive total of 34 productions to their credit.
Laura shares, “I believe that acting/singing/performing has helped the children grow in many ways- it has improved their reading abilities and their memory. They have had to take direction from adults other than their parents and have been held accountable for the responsibility of the roles they've been offered. They have had to learn to balance extracurriculars with learning and other community endeavors. They learn to work as a team with many people and not simply same aged peers as in traditional schooling. The responsibility of the roles they've played gives them ownership of them and a true sense of pride when it all comes together in the end. I believe it sharpens the mind. I believe there have been studies done that show a correlation between playing an instrument and academic achievement/capacity. If the voice can be considered an “instrument” then perhaps it too will positively impact their continued academic endeavors.”
Mary Beth Miotto is also enthusiastic about the many rewards of acting for a gifted child. She remembers, “ Jimmy was talking about being on Broadway from the time I can remember him talking. He loved musicals as I used to sing him the scores at bedtime and all day, and early on he enjoyed listening to soundtracks in the car. He really liked, “The Broadway Kids” CDs and the idea that kids were performing professionally got him excited. He was very serious from about age four. When he was in second grade and things were so uninteresting in school he asked about performing in a show. We thought that the act of auditioning would be an experience and did not expect him to get the big role. But he did and he loved his solos, lines, and even the long rehearsals.”
What else has Jimmy learned from acting?
“He has learned to take direction, to be supportive of other cast members, and how to hold back criticism even if it is constructive (that is the director's job) to manage his time and keep his energy level up even if he has to wait a long time for his turn. At first we hoped he would learn to accept rejection. Unfortunately, that took a long time to learn because there were not that many talented boys trying out... but eventually he did get one or two rejections and I think that has been a real maturing experience. He has learned that sometimes what you are doing as an individual is just fine or even great, but if it does not fit the image of the director or producer you will not be cast. I think this is important because it means that you can feel proud of your personal best even if it is not externally validated.”
Mary Beth also tells me, “ Jimmy has seen that there are many adults and teens who have one job in the day (lawyers, software developers, bankers) and then come to the theater to work hard on their passion and THEY ARE NOT ASHAMED OF THAT PASSION. In general, I feel that theater folk are VERY inclusive and accepting of all types of people.”
As an interesting aside from Mary Beth's last comment, my children's pediatrician is also a local actor who enjoys a variety of roles. He played the leader of the Jets in West Side story a few years ago, and the kids got to see him dance!
Gifted kids do seem to experience things very deeply and drama seems to be a great way to channel all that excess energy and emotion.