It never fails: there’s always the moment in a student-matinee talkback when someone wants to know about the child actors. After this week’s packed-to-the-rafters performance of The King and I, a high-school senior asked Kelli O’Hara, who plays Mrs. Anna, what it’s like to work with so many kids.
“It’s the best part of my job,” answered O’Hara immediately. She described how the children are typical 6- and 8- and 10-year olds backstage, playing Xbox and such, yet morph into complete professionals onstage. All the while, O’Hara continued, they are earning money “to put in the bank for college.”
The students attended the matinee as part of LCT’s Open Stages program, led by Kati Koerner and Alexandra López. Each year, 2,400 New York City public-high-school students come to performances. On this occasion, the students had three pre- and one post-show workshops. Issues of race and representation were covered. The students and LCT’s teaching artists discussed such subjects as Oscar Hammerstein II’s bitterly ironic lyrics to “Western People Funny” and how Tuptim used the American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin to reflect her own circumstances.
Talkback questions were wide-ranging. One student asked the cast about how they developed the accents for their characters. Ruthie Ann Miles, who is Lady Thiang, explained that she and her fellow wives of the king worked with a dialect coach and with a Thai speaker, who not only taught them about the ways that Thai is a tonal language but where a Thai speaker would place the stress on English words.
Another student was curious about how O’Hara changes in and out of her massive, hoop-skirt outfits. “I have a great dresser named Fran,” O’Hara replied. She also mentioned that her “Shall We Dance” ball-gown weighs about 40 pounds and that all actresses who play Mrs. Anna eventually experience the burden the costume puts on a performer’s back. O’Hara confessed that Hoon Lee, who plays the King, is a great help to her carriage of the heavy skirt by the sensitive way he partners her during their big number.
Lee seemed to appreciate O’Hara’s compliment, while joking a bit about his costar when one of the students asked if the pair are a couple in real life. “Not yet,” Lee cracked. B. Bales Karlin, the production’s 2nd Assistant Stage Manager, who helped conduct the talkback, quickly mentioned that offstage both O’Hara and Lee are married to other people.
Several of the actors thanked the teenagers for their lively responsiveness as an audience. Here are the schools that sent students to this high-energy occasion:
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.