When Hollywood asks Toronto for stage advice that’s something . . . but there’s nothing on the continent that equals the Toronto Children Players
ROW upon row of starry-eyed faces; small girls and boys perched on the edges of chairs, tense with excitement; older boys and girls and a
smattering of grownups sitting more at ease but with an air of pleasurable expectancy . . . this is the audience. Backstage—small girls and boys, and bigger girls and boys, disguised as princesses and princes, ducklings and gnomes, fairy queens and bad-tempered kings . . . these are the players. And for two and a half hours Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium ceases to be tne Eaton Auditorium. It is Fairyland.
Sixteen times a year, when the Toronto Children Players take over, this transformation takes place. And, say the youngsters, audience and players alike, it should be 60. They can never get their fill; they want more and more. Having outgrown two homes—Hart House and the Margaret Eaton Theatre—they are now straining to capacity the facilities of the Eaton Auditorium.
A more well-behaved audience and a more enthusiastic group of players would be impossible to imagine. From the moment the house lights dim, the proverbial pin could fall without being heard. There might be Oh’s and ah’s when the curtain rolls back to disclose a woodland scene peopled by small red gnomes, but there is no chattering, no fidgeting. There are squeals of delight when the three duckling sisters, Dilly, Dally and Dolly, make their entrance, but there are no cries of terror at the appearance of Boom Boom, the big bad bear, for Boom Boom is wearing a straw hat and, after all, nobody could be frightened by a bear that wears a straw hat. Even when he devours Dilly and Dally, despite the fact that the gnomes built little homes to house them safely, the audience feels that things will work out all right. And, of course, they do. Aided and abetted by the gnomes, Dolly, the remaining duckling, feeds Boom Boom so much macaroni (and he’s so very greedy!) that he overeats, and swells and swells and swells until . . . pouf! . . . BANG—he bursts, and out tumble Dilly and Dally.
And thus ends the first half of a typical program such as is presented four times a year—four performances of each show—by the Toronto Children Players. The play, “The Duckling Sisters,” written by Paul Conover, a former player, now a student at Toronto University, was presented for the “extreme age” groups of under seven and over 20. The second half of the program caters to the tastes of the more “sophisticated” eights to twelves.
During intermission the audience has fun. A friendly master of ceremonies leads in community singing. There are no laggards—everyone sings, and heartily, “London Bridge is Falling Down,” “Three Blind Mice,” and, to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell,” “Did you clean your teeth today? Did you clean your teeth today? I ask you as a personal friend, Did you clean your teeth today?” It is surprising that some enterprising writer of radio advertising hasn’t used
this as a commercial. Just think of the possibilities!
After the songs the children stand and are told to s-t-r-e-t-c-h and s-t-r-e-t-c-h, and indulge in a short session of calisthenics. Thoroughly refreshed, with most of their surplus energy used up, they are now ready for the next play.
Backstage there is just as much fun. No chaos, no nervous tension. Scenery is shifted, props put into place, last-minute touches given to costumes and make-up; players receive their last call and take their places in the wings, ready for their cues The little ducklings who scampered off stage as the curtain fell on their last act and rushed to their dressing room to change dike professionals the children never appear in costume once they have left the stage) are now stealing out to see the next play from the front. This is to be “The Dancing Slippers,” the story of the five beautiful princesses who steal from their bed at night to go dancing with five handsome princes who live in an underground palace and are under the spell of silence. Marriage with the princesses breaks the spell and they all live happily ever after in approved storybook fashion.
The stage sets for this are quite lovely. A magnificent canopied bed, with pale pink draperies, in which are discovered five beautiful princesses fast asleep, brings an audible gasp from the audience. And the underground palace, with silver trees and furnishings, and five handsome princes clad in purple, who move gracefully to the accompaniment of music especially composed for them, bring a spontaneous burst of applause.
Perfect Fairy Tale
THIS play, written by Susan Goulding, daughter of Dorothy Goulding, the director of the Children Players, has everything that goes to make up a perfect fairy tale. A bad-tempered king, father of the princesses, played by a 12-year-old, complete with ermine robes and crown and whiskers, a ragged beggar woman who miraculously turns into a fairy queen, a faithful servant, a comic guard, a brave young soldier, and, of course, the five beautiful princesses and five handsome princes.
It is only to be expected that any of Mrs. Goulding’s daughters should be able to write a fairy play. Steeped in an atmosphere of plays and play acting almost from birth, this sort of thing is second nature to them. Dorothy Goulding herself, who has directed the Children Players for the past 12 years, became an ardent follower of the theatre when, at the age of six, she saw her first stage presentation, a Mother Goosç extravaganza. Brought up in a strict Methodist family, where things of the theatre were taboo, this was the only show that she did see until, at the age of 13, she was taken to the play, “Anne of Green Gables.” But Mother Goose had done the trick. From then on
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Dorothy Goulding, who was then Dorothy Massey, her sisters, and her brother Denton spent much of their time playing charades and acting out scenes from storybooks. During school holidays they were joined by cousins -—Vincent, now Canadian High Commissioner, and Raymond, who has since become world famous for his work on the legitimate stage and in films. ! Mrs. Goulding recalls with amusement the Christmas that Raymond starred in “Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks.”
In her teens Mrs. Goulding spent much of her time in London and New York and there saw the best there was to see in the theatre, and her love for it grew. Her early marriage—she married at 18, became a mother at 19—put an end to any personal ambition she may ; have had, and it wasn’t until her children—four girls—had passedthe baby stage that she was able to | resume her hobby. Then she wrote and j directed plays in which her own | children and small nephews and nieces j took part. These were presented at i home before an audience of relatives ! and friends. Lorna Sheard, then directing the Children Players at Hart House, saw one of these performances, was filled with admiration and asked Mrs. Goulding to assist with the Hart , House productions. Later, when Mrs. Sheard left to live in Montreal, Mrs. Goulding was persuaded to take over the direction of the Toronto Children Players.
Apart from a short course in stage direction taken in Vienna, Mrs. Goulding has had no special training for the work she is doing. But she has a definite flair for it. Her productions always have a professional smoothness and finish. This she may not regard as a compliment. She has no great opinion of the professional theatre of today. “Too often,” she is fond of quoting, “it is nothing but an exploitation of art.” It is, it seems, increasingly difficult for real talent to make itself felt. “It is a pity,” says Mrs. Goulding, “that a girl’s legs and a hoy’s profile have come to mean more to a casting director than an ability to read lines.”
About the Children’s Theatre, though, she is enthusiastic. “In drama,” she says, “we learn to develop the spirit of co-operation without the competition necessary in games. In a public performance children soon learn that the success of a play depends on everyone who works in it, from the child who plays the leading role to the one, invisible to the audience, who has some cues to remember backstage.”
Children gain in many other ways from taking part in plays. “The shy child,” says Mrs. Goulding, “is able to forget himself while ‘being’ another person; the forward child must tone down and fit in with the rest of the group. And,” with a twinkle in her eye, “I find that in a play boys and girls work together without any of that sense of inferiority on the part of girls and superiority on the part, of boys which is almost always present in games.”
A mother herself, an astonishingly youthful one—in appearance far more like a sister to her four grown daughters —Dorothy Goulding has a deep understanding of children. Quick to spot insincerity and resent it, children readily respond to Mrs. Goulding’s very evident sincerity and honesty. She never attempts to “win” them, and she neiier talks down to them. All are treated as intelligent equals. A gay camaraderie exists between them. At a class when the children have been told to express fright, Jimmie enquires, “Are we to be terrified or horrified, Mrs. Goulding?” “Oh, Jimmie,” cries Mrs. Goulding, “don’t be so beastly technical!”
Dorothy Goulding follows no particular method or technique in directing. “I’m always experimenting,” she says. “I never start two plays in the same manner.” She always has a sure-fire success and never yet have the reserve funds had occasion to be drawn upon. The Toronto Children Players are self-supporting. The reason for their long life is that their plays are a labor of love. They have never been commercialized, and most of the work is voluntary. The price for tickets was set originally at 25c. and has never been changed. This was as low a price as could be charged in order that the performances could pay for themaelves. This they have always managed to do. Enough funds are kept in reserve to stage one show, and a second should the first one prove a catastrophe. There is little danger of this, though, as long as Dorothy Goulding is at the helm. There are enthusiastic youngsters to provide players and audience, and kindergarten teachers to attend to the distribution of tickets.
For publicizing the Children Players through the schools Mrs. Goulding gives all credit to members of the Kindergarten Association. “They have done magnificent work,” she says, “and receive no honor and glory.” Their only reward is the sight of quarters clutched tight in chubby, sometimes
grubby, little hands. Quarters that are | often the result of sacrifice and selfdenial on the part of the youngsters, who forfeit candies and other treats in order to attend the Toronto Children Players’ shows. Miss Margaret. Williams, cousin of Alexander Knox, the noted Canadian actor, who has created the part of Wilson in the i movie of that name, is this year’s I Promotion Committee chairman. Under her are nine captains, who superintend t he sale of tickets throughout the schools.
Birth of an Idea
The story of the Toronto Children Players begins with Noreen Dorrien. Fourteen years ago Miss Dorrien, a kindergarten teacher, had the urge to start a children’s theatre that would provide entertainment for youngsters on their one holiday in the week— Saturday. She felt strongly that children need a means of mental recreation. The Nazis, she points out, in their youth program concentrated solely on sports and physical fitness. All forms of mental recreation were cut out, and . . . well, just look at them! She confided her idea of the children’s theatre to her friend, Mona Coxwell. Miss Coxwell took it up with Edgar Stone and Lorna Sheard at Hart House. The idea was put into effect and became an instant success.
In two years the Toronto Children Players had outgrown their home at Hart House and moved to the Margaret Eaton Theatre. In 1942 they moved to the Eaton Auditorium, where they play to capacity crowds. Demand for tickets always exceeds the supply.
Like the audience the players are made up of children drawn from schools | all over Toronto and Greater Toronto. Rich and poor alike receive the same treatment. There is no star system. A child may play Prince Charming in one show, in the next—the hind quarters of a horse. Years ago a little girl once | remarked to young Susan Goulding, I “It must be great your mother being the director. You’ll all get lots of good parts.”
“Yes,” replied Susan, “if mother I needs the back legs of a bear or the i front part of a giraffe you may be sure she’ll call on one of us.”
Children who are interested in ! becoming players get in touch with the director and are given an interview. The interview takes the form of an audition. It is at auditions that Mrs. Goulding displays a remarkable faculty for remembering names. A dozen or more children may attend, all hitherto unknown. As each child enters, Mrs. Goulding greets him—or her—and asks his—or her—name. From then | on the children are addressed by their ; correct names. There is no, “You—the j little girl with the curls . . .” or, j “That hoy with the red tie . . .” It | is, “Margaret,” or “Bobby.” “Betty, you try next,” and, “Billy, do you ! think that you could do that?” This immediately puts the children at their ease and they spring to attention as their names are called, eager to take part.
The first exercises are simple. “Just walk across the room,” says Mrs. Goulding, “sit in that chair, then get up and walk to the other side.” The children obediently, perhaps a little wonderingly, do this. “Now,” says Mrs. Goulding, “I want you to do that as though you were either terribly sad or very happy—you may decide which.”
One child will skip across, sit for a moment, then skip out again. Another will walk with lagging feet and an appearance of dejection. “Very good,” Mrs. Goulding will tell these two. But at the third, “No, Jimmie, that isn’t
good. You were sad with your head, but not with your back or arms or feet. That wasn’t at all convincing. Try again.”
Mrs. Goulding is a firm believer in the art of pantomime and all the children are first taught to do things in mime. They must learn to portray all emotions with the body and not rely entirely upon words.
Eye exercises follow the walking and sitting. Each child stands perfectly still and looks up, down, right, left, without moving any part of the body. Then the head is allowed to turn. “Watch an imaginary person,” they are told, “come in at the right, walk across and pass in front of you, and go out at the left.”
When they have done this successfully each child is permitted to do the same exercise as a “character.” The character must be of their own choice. One bright - faced 13 - year - old girl slumps, her shoulders droop, her eyes show fear, she is abject and cowed. With dread she watches the imaginary figure approach. As it passes where she stands her hand is raised tremblingly in the Nazi salute. Not a word is spoken, but here is drama, and spines tingle a little. Children love tragedy, says Mrs. Goulding, and will more often than not choose sad parts.
One belief of the amateur actor that annoys Mrs. Goulding is: never turn your back on the audience. “It is utterly absurd,” she exclaims. “There are times when we must turn our backs. We can’t all go about the stage as though we were everlastingly backing out from the presence of royalty. Backs can often be really eloquent.” And to prove her point, “Bobby,” she’ll call to one of her boys, “do something, anything at all, with your back.”
Bobby flops into a small folding chair, with his back to the audience. His shoulders sag, his head droops, and soon nods. Weariness and fatigue are written in every part of him. Then, suddenly, he raises his head, he listens, his shoulders stiffen, he sits tense and alert then springs up and rushes off in answer to some imaginary call.
After this demonstration no one could help but be convinced that backs are quite important.
Mrs. Goulding believes that children should not be shown how to act, or taught to imitate another’s acting. She has never acted herself and this, pefhaps, is one of her greatest assets as a director. She explains and analyzes the parts to the children and has the ability to inspire them so that they can work things out for themselves. Under her guidance there is no fear of their ever becoming mere puppets. Children who have come under the influence of her training always give a finished performance. In dramatic groups throughout the city it is quite common to hear, “Yes, he’s good. He’s one of Mrs. Goulding’s boys, you know,” as though that explains it all, and, “Oh, excellent. She’s one of Mrs. Goulding’s girls,” until the uninitiated might think that Dorothy Goulding had a family comparable in size to the lady who took up residence in a shoe.
Too frequent rehearsals for the very young are not wise, Mrs. Goulding says. When things cease to become a game the children grow stale and lack spontaneity. For a recent production of “The Duckling Sisters,” in which there were several six-year-olds, Mrs. Goulding called but three rehearsals. And the play went off without a hitch —no cues missed, no lines fumbled— and was enjoyed alike by players and audience.
The Auditorium staff marvel at the effects Mrs. Goulding achieves with a minimum of scenery and props and the use of clever lighting. Much of the scenery and many of the props she makes herself. She is carpenter, painter and upholsterer all rolled into one. She sticks at nothing. Under the gentle manner and soft voice lurks an iron will. If Mrs. Goulding makes up her mind to do a thing you may rest assured it will be done.
Her daughters have all inherited something of their mother’s talent. Dorothy Jane, the youngest and only unmarried one—the others have all followed their mother’s example and married young—is her mother’s righthand man. Not only has she written several of the plays produced but has also directed them. She is now writing and producing her own radio show, of dramatized fairy stories, which is heard every Saturday from 12 to 12.30 over CJBC.
It is Dorothy Jane, or Dorf, as she is familiarly called by the children, who helps with her mother’s summer work. Three times a week during school holidays Mrs. Goulding invites groups of children to her home in Dentonia Park. There, in the beautiful grounds, they play charades, do rhythmicexercises, learn the art of make-up and scene painting. Sometimes they’ll divide into two groups. Each group, in the morning, will make up a play. The afternoon will be spent in learning parts and improvising costumes. In the evening they will present their plays for each other. Play acting, Mrs. Goulding believes, is good for children and under proper direction has great educational value. Some people argue that acting encourages exhibitionism in
children. Mrs. Goulding disagrees. “Any project like a play,” she declares, “which is dependent for success on the co-operative effort of several people, and consequently impossible for one person to do alone, can scarcely foster individualist exhibitionism.”
For mothers anxious to push their children into the limelight, so that they may make a name for themselves and later commercialize their talents, Mrs. Goulding has nothing but scorn. She is not doing this work to promote precocious child actors, she is doing it because of her deep love for children and her desire to bring more beauty into their lives. The spirit of comradeship and co-operation is what she prefers to foster. This is apparent in the attitude of all the children associated with her. There are no showoffs. They all work together for the good of the cause and thoroughly enjoy doing so. Nowhere could there be less nervous tension than at one of the Toronto Children Players’ productions. There are no signs of petty jealousies, no young prima donna temperaments; a general feeling of fun rules backstage.
As the children become too old to take part in the plays, they help with make-up and props and make themselves generally useful. So well do they do the job, and so well are the children trained, that at the last show both Mrs. Goulding and Dorf were able to witness the entire performance from the front.
Not only do all the Toronto school children who can afford to pay 25c. for tickets enjoy the plays, but at Christmas a free show is given to children from orphanages and charitable institutions. Last Christmas more than 1,000 children attended this special show, many of them coming by special cars from the Loyal True Blue and Orange Orphanage home at Richmond Hill.
The Toronto Children Players have a record in which not only Toronto but Canada as a whole should take pride. There is nothing to equal it on the entire North American continent. Even Hollywood has written requesting ] information regarding its organization | and direction preparatory to starting a 1 similar movement there. And when Toronto can tell Hollywood how to do ¡ things, that, you must admit, is | something!