Backstage: The people ensuring young stars can shine
Jo Hawes, casting director
Jo Hawes works exclusively with children in the entertainment industry. The author of Children in Theatre, the go-to guide for parents of kids who want to act, Hawes regularly runs audition workshops and is always on the look-out for committed chaperones.
“It’s very important that the children have stability, that they have someone who has a good balance of fun and firmness and fairness. I want people who are career chaperones, if you like. I want people who really are fun, who are engaged, who know a bit about the law – but they’ve got me to fall back on. I tend to be very careful about employing performers, because performers need to perform and children need stability. If I employ a performer, they’re going to go to auditions, get work and leave. Chaperoning is not a fill-in job.”
Aside from educating parents, Hawes also feels it’s vital that future stage managers learn more about working with children.
“It’s very important that stage management understands that working with children is not like working with adults and that there are certain things they need to be aware of. I explain to them a bit about the legal side of it, the licensing, the fact that they must have their break, that the chaperones are all-powerful and must be respected and very tiny things like, for example, if a child who might never have worked before goes to the stage manager and says ‘Can I go to the toilet?’, the stage manager must say, ‘Please go and ask your chaperone’, because the chaperone must always know where the child is.
“I’m a retired stage manager and by definition, they are very helpful people and will do anything they can to help, which is fantastic. I go into Guildhall School of Music and Drama and LAMDA and talk to students, and I think they find it really useful because, sometimes they’re scared, they don’t know what’s involved. How can they, unless someone tells them? It’s good for them to go into the business equipped in a small way with how to work with children.”
The Department for Education recently overhauled licensing regulations, through a committee driven by the National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment. Hawes sat on that committee and has strong views on the law.
“There’s massive room for improvement. Originally drafted in 1968, it’s not fit for purpose now, but we all have to pick our way through it, and, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d rip it up and start it all over again. It would be far too time-consuming and expensive, however, and no government will engage with that. The hardest thing about it is that children are licensed by the borough in which they live. If I’m licensing a show like Oliver! at Drury Lane, where we had 150 children across the week, that included dealing with 80 different local authorities.
“If you take children overseas from the UK, they are licensed by the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court. When they go overseas, they’re supposed to abide by the rules in this country, however some countries also insist that they are licensed in their country as well, and the two are not always compatible. For example, when we took Les Miserables to Paris, I licensed the children through the City of Westminster and we had to license in Paris, as well. In this country, children are expected to go to school a day after a performance. In France, they’re not allowed to. So after a performance, the children would go off and visit an amazing museum. In the UK, this was educational, but in France, it was recreational. You’ve never seen anything like the schedule I had to work out, but we got there. It was fine but those are the kind of issues you face. You need to remember that I consider myself to be really lucky and I love what I do. I passionately love it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t work this hard.”
Kim Allen, Elite Chaperones director
Kim Allen operates Elite Chaperones, a London-based company providing children’s chaperones and tutor/chaperones for theatre, film and TV. Allen is head chaperone at the Royal Ballet and has worked with the teams on Billy Elliot since 2005. Allen explains how the needs of a dancer may require different disciplines for the chaperone.
“Dance students are used to a very structured regime and nutrition is a huge part of their day, when rehearsing or performing. Ensuring they have enough healthy snacks and drinks and nutritious meals are all part of my job, to ensure they can perform to their optimum ability. For instance, I arrange special menus for the students when they perform at the Royal Opera House.
“Also, first aid training is essential – ballet can be hazardous business. A child may continually say they are fit to perform, when you know they are not. You need the presence of mind to be able to take a child out of a rehearsal or production, and be resolute. The welfare of the child is paramount.
“I worked on Billy Elliot from its inception in 2005 with a fantastic team of chaperones, and the show was a very happy one. I personally chaperoned up to eight performances a week, covered daily rehearsals all over London, ran technical rehearsals and oversaw many cast changes. Some 500 ballet girls passed through the stage door and about 43 Billy Elliots.
“I think most people would be surprised to know that once a child is handed over to you at the stage door and they are in your care, they cannot go anywhere without you. They are accompanied everywhere inside the theatre until they are handed back to their parent or guardian.
“The industry changed when the new regulations were introduced in February 2015 – The Children (Performances and Activities) (England) Regulations 2014. These new rules have been streamlined and are now much easier to understand.”
Isobel Richards, chaperone
Isobel Richards is a chaperone, working predominantly with children in film and TV. Recent work includes Joe Wright’s Pan and forthcoming movies A Monster Calls and Genius. Richards collaborated with Jo Hawes to work on the recent production The Sound Of Music Live!
“Pan was a very large cast of children for a film. I mixed between working with main cast kids and working with extras. For some of the days I was working with the extras, we had 60 to 70 boys on the shoot, which logistically is crazy. We had classrooms set up that would have 15 kids in, with two tutors, and they would spend a lot of their time in lessons, in their costumes. Then we go on set for half an hour, they do their thing, then everyone goes back into class.
“On a film set, the kids know their own importance, because they know that they are the one and only. In theatre, you’ll have more than one child playing the part. They are the ones that you have to work with. You can’t send them off because they’re not behaving or because they’re not doing very well at school. Film is also more disruptive to their day, because we film during the day, whereas, with theatre, kids can carry on with their normal schoolwork in the morning, and go to work in the afternoon. Theatre kids also know exactly what they’re going to do because they rehearsed it, whereas in film, they’re working in the moment on the day.
“I think production companies are realising how important it is to have chaperones. When I first started six years ago, they still used parents a lot. Also, I think film production companies are using more chaperones because they realise that they then get a better performance out of the kid. Kids treat it more professionally, because they’re not with their parents. They’re not having the little arguments that you get when parents and children together. Production companies are realising that they need to have chaperones on site because it makes everything smoother.”