But Whitacre knows the importance of balance. He gives his students freedom to explore, express and experiment, but he also provides guidelines. Finding that balance is not always easy.
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“You have to set the rules, and you have to keep the rules. But sometimes you sound very mean,” he said. “Sometimes I think, ‘I can’t believe this is coming out of my mouth. Why did I say that? They are never coming back.’ But sometimes, the kids I’ve corrected, they produced the most fruit.”
Whitacre said he’s learned that kids can thrive when given opportunity. Some kids, he said, just need to be nudged or invited to try something new. Again, it’s a balance.
“You have to recognize where the potential is and be patient. There are some kids who will be very quiet,” he said. “But sometimes I’ll give them a role I know they won’t necessarily do their best at yet, but they will gain boldness for another role in the future. And If I don’t ever give them that opportunity, they’ll never thrive.”
Recently, Whitacre demanded boldness of the entire cast. He had a lot of set construction to do, so he told the kids to run the entire show as if he were gone. Handle sets and props and lines and everything — including mistakes — on their own, while Whitacre built items for the play.
“I told the kids, ‘Be prepared to fail,’ and I stepped back. I was there in the room, but they didn’t talk to me because I told them not to. And they did excellent,” he said. “They failed, but then they improvised. And I was so proud. I was just beaming all night long. I was like ‘Yes! They’re failing!’ Because I don’t want them to be afraid of failure.”
The real joy for Whitacre was the kids’ professionalism on stage.
“If I had not known, I never would have noticed,” he said. “They didn’t show it in their faces. They didn’t show it in the way they spoke. They just kept going.”
And that’s what makes this job so fulfilling for Whitacre. He’s working with kids, nurturing their self-expression and changing their lives.
“I never get sick of doing this. Ever. Even if I come in tired,” Whitacre said with a smile. “Because I come in and I get to play pretend with all of my good friends who also want to play pretend. It’s wonderful.”
If you go ...
WHAT: “A Princely Predicament”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays, Oct. 12 and 19; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 13 and 20, and Sundays, Oct. 14 and 21.
WHERE: Full Circle Theater, 113 S. Princess St., Shepherdstown, W.Va.
COST: Tickets cost $8.
CONTACT: Go to www.myyatl.com
MORE: In this original play, presented by Young Actors Theater Lab and written by YATL director Devan Whitacre, a prince must travel the world to find the perfect princess.