James Byrne
James Byrne
Lights. Sets. Costumes. The energy backstage is palpable as cast members put on their makeup, pin up their hair, and pull on their wigs. The stage crew is checking the props, setting the scenery, and putting their headsets in place. Excited patrons are hurriedly finding their seats and mingling with friends in the crowded auditorium. It is a typical night at The Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston.

Founded in 1981 by Susan Kosoff, Jane Staab, Andrea Genser and Tony Hancock, the Wheelock Family Theatre is now in it's 19th season. On the heels of a tremendously successful run of Anne of Green Gables this winter, WFT is busy preparing for its spring production of The Jungle Book, which will play from April 7 through May 7.

"It's going to be a really exciting show with lots of action and color," says director James Byrne. "There's always something going on." Byrne is working with a cast of seven professional actors and 38 children, playing a variety of human and animal roles. "Kipling's book is really more from the animal point of view than the Disney point of view, which tries to humanize the animals," remarks the elfin director, who thinks the actors will find it both challenging and fun to create the various animals with their bodies and voices.

Byrne, who has previously directed five shows at the Wheelock Family Theatre, got his start in acting at The Harwich Junior Theatre on Cape Cod when he was nine years old. Including Wheelock, he is now regularly involved with six theaters, from Boston to New Orleans. He acts, directs, designs and even runs his own theater--The Dollhouse Theatre in Boston's South End--with Ryan Landry.

In addition to directing The Jungle Book, he also designed the set. "I always design the sets for the shows I direct. I can't conceive of having the set designed for me," Bynre admits. "To me, it's so much a part of how the show's going to move, how it's going to look. As soon as I get a show, I start to visualize it...and then I've created the whole set in my mind."

Onstage, the action in The Jungle Book switches back and forth between the tropical splendor of the jungle and an English schoolroom, where Rudyard Kipling, an Indian boy made to feel like an outsider by his fellow students, is writing the story. It is through his own trials that Kipling creates the character of Mowgli, an outcast himself as the only man cub among wolves.

Kipling learns to transcend his difficulties by creating such characters as Bagheera and Baloo, a panther and a bear who befriend and protect Mowgli along with his adoptive family of wolves. Kipling cleverly uses his tormentors at school as the inspiration for the characters of Shere Kahn, the terrible, hungry tiger and his mischievous sidekick Tabaqui, the jackal. Byrne uses the children in the cast to play the monkeys, wolf cubs and other animals in the jungle.

So, what does a director look for in a child actor? "Creativity is the first thing," according to Byrne. "Then energy and an ability to focus. If a kid makes me laugh, that's always a good thing." But aren't there limitations to working on a children's show? Yes and no, according to Byrne. "[Young actors] are generally inexperienced, so you can really only get to a certain level with them. But I often get to work with the same kids over and over, so I can go through the process with them," Byrne explains. "I always try to mix the cast as much as possible. I think that to show a real community on stage requires diversity. I try to form a cast of people that you'd see in an ideal society."

Non-traditional casting has been a priority at WFT since its inception. In fact, Wheelock is being honored this year by Actor's Equity Association as the recipient of the Rosetta LeNoire Award in recognition of its lifelong commitment to non-traditional casting. The Theatre's casting policy made it possible for an Asian actress to play the title role in the musical Cinderella, welcomed an African-American woman starring as Maria in The Sound of Music, and allowed for a Hispanic Peter Pan.

The Wheelock Family Theatre is the only professional theater of its kind in New England. Its mission is to make theater accessible to everybody, regardless of age, race, economic background, and physical limitations. To help achieve this goal, WFT's plays are interpreted in American Sign Language for the deaf, and audio described for the blind. Some performances have even been translated for deaf/blind patrons by offering personal interpreters specially trained to deal one-on-one with them.

Staab, the Theatre's artistic director, believes, "Theater can be a vital force in all people's lives. If we wish to include all segments of our community in our audiences, it is imperative that they see people on stage with whom they can identify. We really strive to do shows whose messages are uplifting, challenging and thought provoking."

The Jungle Book is recommended for ages three and up, but aren't parents sometimes hesitant to bring a child that young to the theater? "My belief is that if a child can sit and watch TV, she/he can sit and watch a play," says Byrne. "I don't think you can just plunk them in a seat and expect them to understand theater if they're not used to it. They need to be prepped. If someone explains to them what they're going to see and gives them a framework to work with, it's not a hard thing for a child to grasp."

Byrne has directed the children's show at the WFT for the last four years and, as a teacher in the Theatre's educaton program, teaches beginning and advanced Shakespeare to children from ten to 16. "I love [children's] willingness to create and imagine, and the energy and excitement they have. You give them an idea and they just go with it rather than asking a lot of questions."

"I think it's really important to work with kids," Byrne remarks. "If you're going to make a change in society, that's where it's going to start: with kids."