At Fun House Theatre and Film, Comedy with Kids Isn't All Fun and Games
Doak Rapp as “Grunther” takes a pie from Taylor Donnelson’s “DeNeiro.”
Six weeks before opening night for the next show at Fun House Theatre and Film, it is audition day, nervous time for the 40 actors lined up on a late mid-May afternoon in a crowded hallway outside a tiny rehearsal studio in Plano. Some fan themselves with "sides," short pages of dialogue they'll try to memorize quickly and perform in front of director Jeff Swearingen. For others, it's their first time auditioning for a Fun House production, so there's paperwork to fill out before they can eyeball the script.
The play is Game of Thrones, Junior, a new G-rated comedy written by Swearingen and based loosely on the hard-R-rated HBO fantasy-drama series. Audition alerts have gone out via email and Facebook and today's turnout is larger than for previous Fun House productions of Hamlet, Edward Albee's Zoo Story and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Fun House, founded in 2011 by Swearingen and his partner Bren Rapp, has been getting lots of hot publicity lately, racking up Best of Dallas and Mastermind awards from the Observer, plus DFW Theatre Critics Forum honors. Word's spread among Dallas actors, designers, directors and agents that it's a company packed with talent. Fun House regular Lizzy Greene has stopped by the Game of Thrones, Junior auditions to say goodbye to Swearingen. She's moving to Los Angeles to star in a new Nickelodeon cable-TV sitcom, discovered via Skype audition after acting in leading roles in several Fun House comedies.
"I need you to be professional," Swearingen says to auditioners as they take seats on plastic chairs, stools and the floor in front of him. "I need you to have the ability to go from zero to 60, which shows me a lot. I need you to be well-behaved. If you can control yourself, if you can sit and be quiet, you can play Hamlet someday."
Swearingen warns that he is a strict director. He has rules. No flip-flops at rehearsals. "They make noise and nobody can keep them on their feet," he says. No hands in pockets onstage. No slouchy posture or sloppy diction. Nobody talks when he's talking. Nobody makes fun of anyone else. No food in the room. Water is OK if it's in a closed-top container. "Everything I say to you now is a lesson for you in the future," he says.
When a young actor lounges a bit too languidly across the second row of seats, Swearingen snaps at him. "Sit properly in your chair. Put your feet down and don't ever do that again. Not ever, ever, ever." The offender straightens up.
There are 28 roles in Game of Thrones, Junior. Some parts have been pre-cast with Fun House veterans. Among newcomers hoping to get into their first Fun House play is Jude Baremore. He has acting credits, including a role in a semi-professional Peter Pan and a bit as an extra in the American version of the Korean horror film The Host, which was shot in Baton Rouge. Jude is serious about acting. He has an agent who's been encouraging him to do more stage work, one reason he's auditioning at Fun House. "I'm here because it offers me a good chance to learn," Jude says. "When I grow up, I want to be a famous actor."
But first he has to get through the fourth grade at Spring Creek Elementary. Jude Baremore, age 9, will be the youngest member of the cast of Game of Thrones, Junior. At the May audition, he nails character "Tony 'Bra' Stark" by being able to yell his lines — and get laughs in the right places — from offstage as if he were falling out a castle window.
"He had fun at the audition and seemed like he wanted to do it," Swearingen says about casting young Baremore. "He'll be adorable in this part."
The oldest actor in this production is 16. Most are in the 11 to 15 range. Fun House Theatre and Film is an all-youth company, a "theater-within-the-theater" offshoot of Plano Children's Theatre. The two organizations share two modest performance spaces at the back of a nondescript office and retail center off Custer Road. Parents pay $250 per kid per show to be part of Fun House, a "pay-to-play" set-up common among after-school programs like PCT. What's different at Fun House is that not every kid who can pay is picked to play. Auditions are the weeding-out process.
The creative force behind Fun House Theatre and Film is Swearingen, 35, known in the Dallas theater community as a professional improv comic and actor (he's currently co-starring in Kitchen Dog Theater's world premiere of Matt Lyle's comedy Barbecue Apocalypse). He writes four or five original plays for Fun House every year ("It's cheaper than paying royalties," he says) and directs most of the shows, although some established Dallas theater directors have stepped in recently, impressed by the level of the talent pool. René Moreno, Dallas' top freelance stage director, came in to helm Rosencrantz and Guildenstern this spring. Brad Baker, a professor and former chair of Collin College's theater division, directed Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things.
A kids' theater that eschews fairy tales and Disney musicals for plays by LaBute, Stoppard, Albee and Shakespeare? That's Fun House, where the biggest hit to date was Swearingen's homage to another major playwright, the dark comedy titled Daffodil Girls, Inspired by David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Instead of real estate salesmen, Swearingen had a troop of vicious little girls in yellow uniforms competing to sell the most cookies. Critics gave it five-star reviews, every performance sold out and the run was extended an extra week.
Seventh-grader Kennedy Waterman, 13, played the "Jack Lemmon role" in Daffodil, giving a performance so intense she was listed alongside grown-up professionals from Kitchen Dog and Undermain theaters in the "Best Acting" category of the 2013 DFW Theatre Critics awards, which also named the play one of the year's best new scripts by a local playwright. If Fun House has a resident star, it's smart, sensitive Waterman. "Of the thousands of kids I've ever seen, I've never seen any as good as Kennedy," Swearingen says. "I want to see her go to Yale Drama."
Daffodil Girls also featured Lizzy Greene, now 11, as a tiny-but-tough blonde iteration of Al Pacino's Glengarry character. Greene's the one going off to Hollywood this summer. "I can go do TV because I have Fun House behind me," she says. "Fun House made me a harder worker, more open and social. I learned to express myself with theater. It gets you used to putting everything into it and not being upset when you're criticized. I'm excited about the Nickelodeon series [titled Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn — she's Dawn] but I'll always come back to the theater." (Repeat, she's 11.)
Fun House Theatre exists because Jeff Swearingen was tired of children's theater the way others do it. With dumbed-down scripts and lackluster direction. With undisciplined performances by smirky little hams. He'd been teaching and directing at Plano Children's Theatre for a few years, but not the way he wanted to, he says, and not with the type of material he knew some kid actors could handle. (PCT gained some notoriety two years ago for putting on a Hairspray that cast white kids in the roles written for African Americans. In his recent appearance at the Kessler Theater, original Hairspray filmmaker John Waters said he'd read about the PCT controversy and found it so perversely wrong, he actually approved.)
Swearingen was ready to quit PCT — "I felt like I was doing day care with a stage" — when he met Bren Rapp, a new member of PCT's "Stage Moms" committee. ("I wonder if they realize that 'stage mom' actually means something bad," Swearingen says.) Rapp was a 40-year-old divorcee whose teenage son Doak was cast in plays Swearingen was directing. "I sat in on some rehearsals and saw that this guy [Swearingen] knew what he was doing," Rapp says. "My kid was actually being taught something. There was something about the way Jeff got through to kids when he worked with them. It was so above what I had seen anyone else do."
A tall brunette with a flashy Real Housewives fashion sense (she might remind you of RHONYC's Bethenny Frankel), Rapp has a background in marketing and saw potential for promoting Swearingen and his disciplined-but-fun style of teaching kids real acting skills. Rapp graduated from SMU with a degree in political science and theater studies, but wound up working for sports agent J.B. Bernstein, now known as the character played by Jon Hamm in the Disney movie Million-Dollar Arm. "From J.B. Bernstein, I learned about the branding of products, and I could see that Jeff Swearingen already had a brand that he wasn't even aware of," she says.
She took Swearingen out for drinks one evening and asked, "Have you ever thought about doing this stuff your way?" His answer: "I will not start a children's theater with you." She changed his mind.
"She caught me at a good time," Swearingen says. "She told me I was really good at it and she asked me everything I loved and hated about children's theater. I gave her a list of what I wanted a children's company to be and she said, 'What if I got it for you?' Then she made it happen."
Rapp presented Swearingen's must-haves to the board at PCT and made the case for the spin-off troupe. Swearingen wanted and got: complete control of creative content and marketing; no interference by parents (meaning, no parents allowed at rehearsals); a regular salary out of the fees parents pay to have their kids in the program; and the power to turn kids away who weren't right for roles. He also wanted Bren Rapp as partner and co-producer of Fun House. "She's super-efficient about everything," Swearingen says. "I don't need a left brain. I have a Bren."
Right away, Rapp started building the Fun House brand (son Doak came up with the name). She invited critics to review Fun House shows and urged them not to soft-pedal their reviews just because the actors were children. She hired a professional photographer to shoot production pictures and convinced scenic designers and costumers to work cheap for long hours. She poured her own money into productions, too, spending $3,000 for the scenery and costumes for Daffodil Girls. She gets no salary for her work with Fun House. Her day job is as a freelance marketing consultant to professional sports teams and individual players such as Shaquille O'Neal.
"J.B. Bernstein taught me to be aggressive," Rapp says. "I told Jeff to trust me, that I believed 100 percent in what he could do and that we could be right up there with professional theaters. People thought we were nuts."
It's the third night of rehearsals for Game of Thrones, Junior. They rehearse only two nights a week, three hours each time, until tech week. The cast is seated in the first two rows of hard wooden benches in PCT's black box space. Nobody's scrolling an iPhone. Nobody's squirming or poking or even whispering. All 28 kids, none wearing flip-flops, quietly stare either at script pages or at Swearingen, who's standing onstage alone for the moment, deciding which scene to run next.
He will spend the following hour on one three-minute bit, going over every beat and every syllable of dialogue until the kids get it right. Swearingen stays on the stage as he directs (other directors work from out front, using the audience's POV). He often "tags out," switching places with kids to demonstrate how to time a gesture or how not to step on another performer's line. The young actors, onstage and off, watch his every move. Just when the process begins to feel tedious, he's liable to digress into his goofy imitation of a leprechaun or tell how, as a child, he was terrified of Jeff Bridges (Jagged Edge, the mask-removing scene). There is a lot of laughter at a Fun House rehearsal but there's no fooling around.
The 80-page Thrones script is pure Swearingen silliness, with a subtext that takes digs at fluffy "junior-ized" shows like Annie Jr. and Les Miz Jr. and the sanitized-for-kids Rent that downplays AIDS and homosexuality when schools get the rights to perform it. (Swearingen and Rapp are currently co-writing Mortgage, a Rent musical spoof that Fun House will produce this fall.) Thrones, Junior is what happens when all adult material is stripped from a show so it can be child-friendly, Rapp explains.
You don't have to have seen a single episode of HBO's Thrones to get Junior's jokes. Most kids in the cast say they have never seen the series, so score one for good parenting. But Swearingen's inspirations run closer to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Hanna-Barbera cartoons and Star Wars (light sabers, Jar Jar Binks) than to George R.R. Martin's rape-and-decapitation-happy Thrones saga.
Swearingen's Stark clan, for example, bickers over who sits where in family photos. His body-painted warrior "Grunther" (Doak Rapp) speaks in guttural growls as he fastens a Superman cape on his platinum-wigged bride, DeNeiro Targetyen (Taylor Donnelson). The "Ice Family" (Matt Howe, Hannah Winkler, Lauren Miracle, Jake Hlad) are cheerful Neanderthal Cleavers. And his Tyrion Lannister is renamed Tyrese Cannister (Alex Duva), a Clue-playing imp who hip-hop dances. There are gross jokes about catching farts in Ziploc bags and a kooky routine with a rubber chicken. Junior ends with a "white wedding," but the white stuff is whipped cream and the fight is with pies to the face.
"Stop smiling! No happiness! Welcome to Fun House!" Swearingen says to Jude Baremore, who falls a little too easily into fits of giggles when his director or fellow actors do something funny. In Game of Thrones terms, Jude's a bit of a "wildling," his 9-year-old energy always revving on high.
Jude's mom, March Baremore, says her son's been a performer since he was an infant singing into the baby monitor to wake her up. "He was in classes at Dallas Children's Theater when he was 3," she says. "He's just always had it in him." Jude came to Fun House because his mom met Lizzy Greene's mother at a children's acting seminar. "She told us about Fun House. Jude's never cared about any audition before but for this show, he wanted it more than anything," March says. She got special permission from Jude's teacher to text him at school when she received the email saying he'd gotten the part.
Directing kids as young as Jude presents special challenges. Like, vocabulary words. "Do it with precision," Swearingen says to 11-year-old Matt Howe, who's playing "Ice Dad." "I don't know what 'precision' means," Matt says solemnly. Swearingen patiently defines it using the ripping of smaller and smaller pieces of paper. "Got it now?" asks the director. "Yes," says Matt, whose acting résumé says his goal is "to be the next Will Ferrell."
On this night of rehearsal, Swearingen also will have to explain "homeopathic," "multilevel marketing" and "going postal." "Doesn't anyone know what 'going postal' means?" he asks the cast. Kennedy Waterman takes a guess: "Is it, like, taking out the mail?"
When Swearingen sees a kid doing what he calls "bad child acting," he stops everything for a quick lesson in how not to do that. "I'll give you a hint about bad child actors," he tells the cast. "They say everything excited. Nobody acts like that unless they're on drugs or they're a psychopath. Never do that. Never, ever. Being a good actor means being able to listen and lock it in. You have to retain direction. You have to become a storyteller, take the audience on a journey. Remember, the play is happening even when your character isn't talking."
It's a delicate thing, acting, requiring layers of skills and loads of chutzpah. Acting when you're as young as the Thrones, Junior cast means overcoming lots of fears natural to adolescence. Fear of failure. Of judgment. Of being laughed at by peers and strangers. In Swearingen's plays, the comedy is pie-in-face broad. He has to keep pushing his actors to make their performances bigger and louder. "I'd rather it was loud and wrong than quiet and right," he says. Little girls who start out barely squeaking their lines at 6 p.m. are budding Ethel Mermans by 9 o'clock.
Getting "notes," the theatrical equivalent of instant employee evaluations, is something Fun House kids also get used to. Sometimes it's their parents who can't. Bren Rapp says she's dealt with calls and emails from moms and dads upset that Swearingen has told a child he or she was doing something wrong onstage. "It's the participation-trophy mentality," Rapp says. "We don't do that here."
Jude Baremore was excited to get notes after his audition, says his mom. "He loved that and he's loving this play," she says. "We've been to a lot of other children's acting classes over the past four years. Too many places — they're just selling a dream and not teaching anything."
And what is Jude learning from Game of Thrones, Junior? "Not to do things I was taught for film," he says.
For three hours on this night, Swearingen, speaking in sound effects like "fahshoo" and "bzzzzffftt," moves kids on and off the stage as he blocks scenes. He changes lines on the fly, rewriting his script when he sees bits not working. How do the kids learn blocking and dialogue so quickly? "They're young," he says. "They don't know any better."
Growing up in Montana, Mississippi and East Texas, before finishing high school in Richardson, Jeff Swearingen never had a Jeff Swearingen to teach him how to be an actor. He grew up so poor he couldn't buy school supplies, he says, and he admits he was a "terrible, terrible student" and "a bit of a troublemaker" as a child. With several siblings he's no longer in touch with, he was raised by a grandmother whom he adored. His parents have never seen him onstage in shows he's starred in over the past decade of acting at WaterTower Theatre, Kitchen Dog, Theatre Three, WingSpan Theatre Company and elsewhere. "My mom's advice to me when I was 25 was to get a job in a gas station and get married," he says. "I wasn't exactly set up for success. I wasn't someone backed with encouragement."
Swearingen is not a classically trained actor, just a few classes at Richland College, where he was told he'd never make it in showbiz. "I think they saw me as just another dirtbag kid," he says now. He enrolled at KD Studio for one semester then dropped out and took grunt jobs at a Dollar General and a pet store. "I don't recommend working in a pet store. Animals die in pet stores. You can't just throw dead animals in a Dumpster. You put the dead animals in the freezer. Every week and a half, someone comes and takes them out and then your job is to clean out the freezer. You're pulling out full-grown cat Popsicles. Yeah, that was fun."
As a waiter at the Magic Time Machine, where wait-staffers play characters from TV and movies, Swearingen was Kenny from South Park. "I remember one night this guy called me an out-of-work actor. It was the best I'd felt in a long time because at least he called me an actor."
Swearingen read, studied on his own and went to auditions but didn't get cast for three years, filling his spare time with martial arts training. Kung fu. Thai boxing. Kick-boxing.
Then slowly the acting jobs started to happen. A murder mystery at the old Hub Theatre in Deep Ellum followed by a role in Peter Rabbit at Plano Children's Theatre. He did a play with actor-playwright-improv-comic Brad McEntire and they became a team for Dada-ist sketches at Audacity Theatre Lab and late-night comedy shows at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Playwright Matt Lyle, who writes roles for Swearingen now (that's why he's in Barbecue Apocalypse), cast him as the title character in the world premiere of The Boxer, a charming, Chaplinesque "silent movie onstage" that was a runaway hit at Dallas' Festival of Independent Theatres and enjoyed subsequent runs at Dallas Children's Theater and the New York Fringe Festival.
"Theater gave me significance," Swearingen says. "But I did not have a family or a sense of belonging until I got to know the kids at Fun House."
It's barely a week until opening night and only half the cast of Game of Thrones, Junior is "off book" with lines memorized. Bren Rapp, in her duties as volunteer producer and stage manager, has spent the weekend building a throne out of foam pool noodles, painting the stage floor black and gathering an eclectic collection of props including a cauldron full of melted chocolate, cans of Silly String, a toy light saber and some origami doves. The show has, so far, 152 light cues. And there's still a 1960s-era film strip to make for a scene with the Ice Family. Rapp also needs to find out which kids in the cast are allergic to nuts, wheat or milk products in preparation for the pie-fight finale. (Kennedy Waterman, severely allergic to peanuts, wrote and performed a solo one-act called Allergic Me in a festival of solo shows at the Margo Jones Theatre this past January. Her monologue included a short film she made chronicling her life-threatening allergic reactions. Repeat, she's 13.)
So far the Fun House crew hasn't made it through the entire play during any rehearsal. Swearingen's getting frustrated with kids who seem immune to direction, who repeat the same bad-child-actor habits night after night. But he never raises his voice and when he's tough on one boy for stepping in front of another boy who's speaking, he says gently, "Who taught you these things? You have to unlearn this."
Being strict and critical, Swearingen says, "I'm teaching them how to be strict with themselves. How to get up and go somewhere you're scared to go. Remember, they dream of being a movie star or on Broadway. So I don't dumb it down. They're held accountable. I teach them a good work ethic."
"The bright young artists at Fun House are developing a more advanced process," adds Collin College theater prof Brad Baker, who says he'd like to direct there again. "In every way, they are learning what it takes to work professionally."
With fewer schools offering classes in the performing arts, Fun House might be the first or only theater instruction some kids will be exposed to until college. Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, many schools have eliminated drama, music and art classes, and cut out field trips to professional performances, to allow more time for test-prep and "fundamentals." But study after study shows that participation in the arts leads to profoundly positive effects on children of all ages and economic levels. UCLA's Graduate School of Education collected data on 25,000 students involved in arts programs, connecting experience and education in the arts with consistent improvement in academic performance and standardized test scores. Students who spend time in acting, music or visual arts also are more likely to get involved in community service and are less likely to drop out before high school graduation. In the UCLA study, the same results applied to all kids, not just to those in the middle- and upper-middle classes.
Being able to include more kids and teens who can't afford PCT's $250 tuition to be in shows is something Swearingen and Rapp hope Fun House can offer in the future. They say they dream of opening their program to a wider, more diverse range of kids. They talk about starting their own little acting conservatory and writing a book based on the techniques Swearingen teaches. "Jeff's goal is not to create the Nickelodeon TV stars of tomorrow," Rapp says. "His goal is to teach the art of acting"
But in the immediate future, they have more shows to put on this year. After Thrones, Junior comes Stiff, a new 1950s comedy by Swearingen (from an idea by scenery builder Dave Tenney) that Rapp describes as "Weekend at Bernie's meets Bullets Over Broadway." Then comes the musical comedy Mortgage. For lanky teen brothers Josh and Jeremy LeBlanc, who've grown up at PCT and Fun House, they'll be staging Sam Shepard's taut fraternal two-hander True West in November. In January, they'll put on a full production of Shakespeare's Richard III.
At one of their last rehearsals before Thrones opens, however, somebody's walked onstage in flip-flops, drawing a collective "ooh" from the ensemble. Then somebody else swallows an important word on a line that should be getting a laugh.
"Make it louder, louder, louder!" Swearingen commands with a comically painful grimace. "My dying wish is LOUDER!"
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