At Fun House Theatre and Film, Comedy with Kids Isn't All Fun and Games

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner