In the fourth grade I voted for George H.W. Bush in a mock election because I had a huge crush on the boy playing him. I didn’t watch the candidates on TV, read the paper or listen to talk radio. Like most kids, the extent of my relationship to politics was overheard adult conversations and cheesy events at school. But the times, they are a changin'. Social media has revolutionized how we receive our news and kids today are tuning in to political headlines and memes.
Fun House Theatre and Film is doing something really interesting with this idea. Helmed by Dallas actor Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp, Fun House's concept is to put kids in the leading roles of adult plays. They’ve had a 5-year-old Blanche in A School Bus Named Desire, Swearingen’s hilarious retelling of the Tennessee Williams classic, as well as a 14-year-old Linda Loman in a critically hailed production of Death of a Salesman.
This season is all about “Politics Through the Proscenium,” as Rapp calls it. Swearingen and Rapp showed the presidential debates to their troupe of kid actors, ranging in age from 6-12, and had them write political sketches based on the candidates, which were performed as a comedy show, Babes In Electionland. The end result was a hilarious mix of archetypes, symbolism and drama.
“They fixate on different things,” says Swearingen. “The youngest kid  wrote a sketch about Donald Trump stealing Captain America’s shield and then they have to go back in time with Marty McFly to get it back. It all becomes symbolism. It’s how stories affect them. They get obsessed with little things, like, ‘Why a donkey and an elephant?’”
Fun House found professional actors to play the roles and had the kids narrate the show. “We knew it would be funny, but we couldn’t believe the response,” says Rapp. “People were hyperventilating in the audience. They loved it,” Swearingen adds.
Swearingen was a burnt out and bored theater teacher when he met Rapp. He was directing Rapp's son in a play when they found they had a similar way of thinking about kids and theater. Swearingen believed in taking kids' abilities seriously and teaching them real acting techniques.
Rapp, who had majored in theater and political science in college, wasn't interested in the typical theater offerings for kids she was coming across either. She noticed that the responsibility of getting kids’ plays up and running was often left to the parents.
Rapp loved Swearingen's approach and and offered him the chance to keep at it on his own terms. Together they came up with a vision for a theater that offered instruction with real depth to children interested in the theater. “Jeff is a real craftsman. What he’s doing isn’t purely scholastic,” Rapp says.
“I want them to become stronger as actors because they grasp the overall theme and subtext of what they are working on," Swearingen says. "That makes them ultimately more aware. A kid at 14 is going to have a way advanced understanding and approach to Shakespeare when they practice it in application in a real way.” He says he wants to teach them the stuff that actually counts in an acting environment, so they'll have marketable skills in the future.
For the political season that means focusing on what being an artist is all about: “Bringing social awareness and change — bringing people up when they’re down, and also knocking people down when they’re up. This season is about that,” says Swearingen.
Fun House produced The Theatre of Politics for the Fort Worth Fringe Festival earlier this year. Swearingen took transcripts from the presidential debates and rewrote them in the styles of playwrights Shakespeare, Tennessee William and Tom Stoppard. Actors ranging in age from 9 to 17 performed the scenes.
The theater is in the midst of its most ambitious undertaking yet, a take on the Netflix political thriller House of Cards called House of Bard's. This original play with a meta touch is about an audience binge-watching a new hit show. It's a collaboration between Swearingen, local Shakespeare scholar Lance Lusk and dramaturg Kyle Eric Bradford.
Directed by local actor/director Andy Baldwin, the show looks at the political motives and actions in a handful of Shakespeare’s works against the backdrop of modern television-watching habits. The Shakespeare dialogue is drawn from Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus.
Fun House also has an entry in the Festival of Independent Theaters in July, aka the “FIT Fest.” Rush Limbaugh in Night School features 12-year-old Alex Duva as the controversial right-wing pundit. Swearingen says Duva has an uncanny cadence and ability to play Limbaugh which made the casting decision an easy one. Duva says he knew Limbaugh was “the guy on the radio,” but with a cordial wit well beyond his years he admits that he doesn't care much for politics.
Duva wrote a sketch for the comedy in which Donald Trump tries to build a wall at an On the Border restaurant, and another that imagines a first-person voting video game. “Writing can be really stressful, but it’s good to get your work out there.”
This is part of Fun House's mission to identify uniquely talented kids in their program and find vehicles that will allow them to use their specific skills set. Rapp says she doesn’t think anyone in DFW is doing this kind of work with children.
“We want them to do original, meaningful work. When Seussical the Musical is the highest bar ... not that that show doesn’t have a purpose, but it’s better for little kids. If you’re learning it as a profession there’s got to be more than that for kids,” says Swearingen. He estimates that 80 percent of North Texas theaters and agents contact them when a show calls for a child actor. “They already know how to work," he says.
“Our kids learn from a production environment,” says Rapp. “We teach them they are only going to be professional. They police their own behavior and know what’s expected of them. They have to make the show happen themselves. And it really works.”