Jo Hawes is a children's casting director with 19 years experience who has worked on over 100 shows, including West End smashes Matilda, Mary Poppins and Oliver!.
She also works with West End Stage, a theatre summer school where children and young people aged eight to 21 are tutored by West End professionals.
Parentdish spoke to her about the world of child acting and how parents can support a child with theatrical ambitions without becoming the dreaded 'stage parent'.
Some parents whose children are interested in acting can be a bit daunted by the idea of auditions. How does the audition process work?
I will send out an email with the information about the audition after the parent has approached me. I give quite a lot of information out because I'm very aware that either they might be very inexperienced parents and not know anything, or sometimes agents don't pass on all the information I give them.
Once they get to the audition I make myself very available in the waiting room because we don't allow parents into the audition.
If the parents are there, it changes the dynamic – the children don't know whether they're supposed to respond to us or to their parents.
I encourage parents to ask a lot of questions, because if they find it's all going to be too much, I want to know before I make the offer – it can be a bit of a nuisance later!
I understand how daunting it is: I've written a book – Children In Theatre – which covers the whole process from the first contact right through to closing at the end of the production.
Are there different considerations when casting child actors than there would be for adult actors?
You're looking to fill the part and whatever that involves. And that is the same whether it's a child or an adult. I suppose the crucial difference is if you're casting a child in a child's part they must look like children – so there are height limits. But in the end you're looking for the right child to play Jane Banks or to play Oliver.
You're currently working on a production of Miss Saigon, featuring children as young as four. Is it difficult to cast very young children?
It is. We have to do things in the audition to check how confident they are, which is crucial with that age group – that they want to be there. We play games with them – well, they think they're games - that are related to what they might have to do in the show.
For example, we might put coloured spots on the floor and say can they go from the yellow spot to the green spot, or can they run from the yellow spot to the green spot. And that's the kind of thing we have to do to test whether they can take direction.
Do you have any advice for parents who are attending their first audition with a child?
The most important thing is to support the child through the ups and downs, because it's a very competitive world and in auditions we are looking for a specific thing and we can only cast a very small percentage of the children who we audition.
They will go to a lot more auditions than they get parts – that's life. Treat every audition like an experience rather than a hurdle, take from it as much good stuff as possible.
I never want a parent to say 'why couldn't you have done that better' or 'why didn't you get that part?'. Because auditioning is a nerve-wracking experience and parents don't always understand exactly what it is the children are doing when they come to audition and how scary it really is.
And do you ever encounter the stereotypical 'pushy stage parent'?
The pushy parent is a tiny percentage, but they take up a disproportionate amount of time.
For example "Why can't my child do the press night – he's much better than the other child!" I have had that said to me, but that's once in a hundred shows and 19 years!
The BBC has announced it will no longer allow parents to act as chaperones for child actors on set. Do you think that's a good idea?
I've never had parents chaperoning. Chaperoning is an extremely difficult job and people underestimate how difficult it is. Apart from having to be with the child all the time, they have to have a lot of knowledge about the law, and they have to be able to stand up to a director who might want to work a child across a break.
Parents, generally speaking, are not equipped with all that. Even if a mother has got a licence and is happy to chaperone her child and nine other children, she's bound to treat her own child differently. That's not a criticism, it's just a fact. And children will respond differently to their parent than to a professional chaperone – so it's mutual.
You've been doing this for nearly 20 years. Have you found many child actors go on to make a career on the stage?
There's no doubt that a percentage go on to do it as adults, but a lot don't.
Have you ever cast any children who went on to be famous?
Probably the most famous example would be Tom Fletcher. He played Oliver at the London Palladium. And Jon Lee, from S Club 7, also played Oliver at the Palladium. He's the only child who has ever come up to an audition and made me cry, because he sang so beautifully.
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