Nine-year-old Lizzy Greene has learned many things in her career as an actress, not least of which is separating a stage role from the way it was portrayed on the big screen. When she talks about Al Pacino’s performance in the 1992 movie version of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, you realize she’s serious about this craft.
Her parallel stage role is Raimi Roma in the black comedy Daffodil Girls, Inspired by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, written by Jeff Swearingen, artistic director of Fun House Theatre and Film, an organization that’s making waves in its approach to children’s theater in North Texas. The play opens tonight for a one-weekend run in the studio theater at Plano Children’s Theatre, where Fun House rents rehearsal and performance space.
“Since my part in the play is very feminine and sweet, and since I had watched Al Pacino like a billion times,” Greene says, “Jeff told me not to watch it anymore because I was doing Al Pacino, not the nice role I’m supposed to be.”
Daffodil Girls takes Mamet’s testosterone-fueled play about a group of men in the cutthroat real estate business, and changes the setting to a Girl Scout-like troupe in which young girls are pretty much doing the same thing with one-upmanship. Instead of the first location at a Chinese restaurant in Mamet’s play, the setting is a lemonade stand, with the Daffodil Girls discussing their annual cookie sale. The big “leads” that they’re vying for is the valuable real estate of that sweet spot in front of the large supermarket, where all you have to do is set up a table, stack your boxes of cookies and start collecting the dough. The plot and characters are basically the same as Mamet’s play; even the character of Blake, added for the movie version (it was played by Alec Baldwin), is in Swearingen’s take-off.
Now, you’re probably thinking “they let a nine-year-old watch that movie?”
Valid question, considering Mamet’s propensity for profanity.
“The parents are gung-ho about it,” says Bren Rapp, Swearingen’s partner-in-crime and the business mind behind Fun House. “When we were pitching the concept to [the parents], most of them did not know what the play was. Out of the eight kids in the cast, six of them were allowed to watch the movie. That’s really the best way for them to know what it is. But on the flipside, it’s rough [for kids to watch].”
But it didn’t bother Greene, whose favorite roles at Fun House include Joseph Stalin and a certain red-nosed ruminant, Rudolph. And those were in the same play.
At Fun House, you won’t find the kinds of shows that understandably dominate much of youth theater, where children play moonbeams, cutesy forest animals and precocious, always-smiling kids.
Since the group was founded in 2011, most of the shows have been written and/or adapted by Swearingen, who has for years been regarded as one of the most gifted comic actors in North Texas, not to mention a whiz at improvisational comedy (he regularly performs with the local improv troupes The Victims and Fun Grip, and co-founded the Alternative Comedy Theatre). The show with Rudolph and Stalin was his The Ultimate Holiday Experience, a bizarre brew of Christmas characters and political figures from the 20th century America/Russia relationship, from Stalin to Reagan to Dan Quayle.
For Fun House, Swearingen has adapted Dracula into Dracula—A Haunted Tale of Dating, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved The Little Prince into the sweet Laughter in the Stars. Most ambitiously, in February Fun House presented a surprisingly good Hamlet with youth actors. Scoff not. It may not have been anyone’s definition of a definitive Hamlet, but for such a bear of a play, the young actors—Hamlet was played by 15-year-old Chris Rodenbaugh—did a more than admirable job with the language and character development.
If anyone had doubts that Fun House could pull off such a feat, they quickly dissolved.
For Swearingen, 34, and Rapp, 42, it’s about teaching kids skill sets that they may not get in other children’s theater educational programs. And while some of these ideas aren’t wholly original—Dallas’ Junior Players puts on a solid Shakespeare production every summer, for instance—there is a level of commitment to children’s education that you have to respect.
“Mamet was a must early on for teaching that kind of realism, and how to speak [in the manner] specifically written by a playwright,” says Rapp, who had the initial concept for Daffodil Girls. “Hamlet was perfect for that too. Our kids were used to paraphrasing or getting their lines kind of close, and because we have a lot of really good improvisers, when they get out on stage, they know they’ll eventually get to [the line]. With Hamlet, it was like, ‘you better know it because everyone watching you knows what’s supposed to be coming out of your mouth.’ ”
An Instant Connection
Swearingen had been teaching children acting and improvisation skills at various places, including Plano Children’s Theatre, and was growing frustrated with the business-as-usual approach.
“I didn’t want to do daycare with the stage moms,” he says. “Some of these kids dream of careers in acting or on stage, and no one’s really preparing them for how competitive it is. You have to teach kids how to be capable, disciplined, how to focus, how to improve themselves.”
He found a kindred spirit in Rapp, who had enrolled her teenage son Doak at PCT. Bren Rapp had done theater herself, including at Southern Methodist University in the late ‘80s, before embarking on a career in sports and entertainment marketing. She quickly noticed Swearingen’s gifts. Being frustrated with overbearing stage parents herself, and with status quo educational models, she asked him what he needed to start his own children’s theater company.
“I’ve had great theater teachers, but I’ve come across very few who can actually act and teach it well,” Rapp says. “A person who can do both of those things and, on top of that, explain it to a kid—that’s rare.”
Rapp wrote up the business model for Fun House Theatre and Film, and they announced the group’s emergence in the local theater scene with a bold publicity stunt: Swearingen and his improv buddies attempted a world’s record in long-form improv, with the ensemble performing nonstop for 30 hours. That was in October 2011, at Plano’s Cox Building Playhouse. Swearingen performed for 28 of those hours. They didn’t set this up with Guinness, so there’s no official world record for this—yet. But people paid money and came and went as they pleased throughout the show (Fun House donated proceeds to various children's charities).
Rapp and Swearingen knew that in order to live up to the second word in the term “show business,” they couldn’t ignore the pay-to-play model.
The kids audition to be involved with their shows, and the parents only pay if their little ones are cast. There have been a couple of instances in which kids have declined because they were not cast in the role they wanted, but at this point, after seven shows in a year and a half, the kids and parents who believe in them have stuck around.
“We tell the kids and the parents, ‘that’s not how it works in the real world,’ ” Rapp says. “I do not care that you’re paying me. We do not pull any punches with them when it comes to things like that. Everything is auditions only, and they have to earn the part. We don’t let parents be backstage with him. They have to take care of their own props; there are no mommies helping them.”
"They are little ninjas and they know exactly what to do," she adds, "so if they go to Dallas Children’s Theater or a bigger theater after this, they won’t be surprised by any of this."
Rapp saw this as value that parents are given back for their money.
“If you’re paying me for a kid to be in my show, then you’re not going to have to do anything," she says. "I’m the expert. Jeff’s the expert. The set designer’s the expert. We don’t want you building our sets or making our costumes. You’re paying us to do that and for the kids to learn it.”
Rapp learned these lessons from her own parents; her mother was a concert pianist who played Carnegie Hall at age 15, and her father was a sportswriter-turned-businessman. They instilled in her competitive ideals that go against the grain of today’s mentality with youth education, in which everyone gets an award just for participating (Rapp calls it “clapping for credit”).
To start, her parents enrolled in her an adult mime class. “They said ‘we know you can talk, but if you want to do this for real, let’s see if you can do it without talking,’ ” she says. “I grew up learning some great things about theater because my parents really got it. They did whatever they could to get me into classes for adults, because the stuff that was available for kids wasn’t that great.”
Swearingen, on the other hand, was an unfocused kid whose family moved around a lot. He found himself in trouble more often than not. A scrappy kid with a fighting spirit and a love for comic books (it was his concept for the photo shoot with this story; click the slideshow icon below the top photo to see more), he discovered martial arts and found something he could do well. He learned Kung Fu and other varieties, and competed on the Chinese kickboxing circuit, even making alternate to the Olympic-level U.S. team (it was not an Olympic sport, though).
Being in tune with his physicality on that level is what makes him such a brilliant physical comedian, as anyone who saw him in a couple of plays by former Dallas playwright Matt Lyle—the silent film on stage The Boxer and the hilarious Hello, Human Female—can attest.
Martial arts also taught him a discipline that he uses in his acting and improv classes and physical comedy workshops.
“A great teacher can teach theater or Kung Fu or whatever, but what’s learned is something entirely different,” Swearingen says. “How to be a better person, to be stronger, to be confident, how to apply the discipline to the art form—those are as important.”
“If for some reason [the kids I teach] don’t want to be actors—maybe they want to be an astronaut or a quarterback—then with some discipline, the thought process of improving and growing daily and achieving your goals sinks in. …I have always wanted to do this at a higher level. I thoroughly believe that kids’ ability to learn is amazing; it’s scientific.”
For Rapp, Swearingen’s philosophies could not have been more in tune with her own.
“We are doing something different,” she says. “Our goal is not to find 80 kids and put them all out on stage just to give them performance experience,” she says. “When performance experience is not enough anymore, then comes Fun House, where it’s about the building blocks.”
Shakespeare. Mamet. The Cold War. What could be next—Euripides? Shaw? Equus?
This summer, Fun House will host a Dada camp, culminating with an original Dada show. The skill learned there, Swearingen says, is commitment in performance.
“It’s 100 percent commitment," Swearingen says. "It’s all in the performance; you don’t have the writing to fall back on."
“For Hamlet, I wanted them to do verse and Shakespeare, even though Hamlet is a lighter on the verse for a tragedy,” he says. “For Daffodil Girls, I liked that ultra-realism, that very natural way of speaking, the concepts of interrupting yourself and thoughts changing.”
Daffodil Girls is a concept that theater people and Mamet lovers automatically get. But it’s not just about following Glengarry’s plot; Swearingen keeps the rhythm of the language in sync with Mamet’s.
“The way [Swearingen] wrote it,” Rapp says, “there’s nothing that turns them into bitchy little girls. They play it like the men [in Glengarry] play it. We could replace this cast with little boys, and it would still work. It’s still got teeth.”
And it definitely fits with another of Rapp’s goals.
“I want to do publicly viable entertainment, so that if you don’t have a kid you would still come see the play,” Rapp says. “That’s what we’ve set out to do from the beginning. We now have adults coming to shows who don’t have kids and aren’t coming to see a particular kid.”
Besides, “Where else is a little girl going to get a chance to do something like this?” Swearingen asks.
Nowhere, as Greene—that nine-year-old Pacino aficionado—knows.
“Jeff teaches us all the skills that David Mamet [presents] in his plays,” Greene says, noting that the language has been tamed. “That whole monologue that [the character Ricky Roma] has with James Lingk…[Swearingen] takes bits and pieces of that monologue and puts it into the play, but he makes it more appropriate for us.”
“He won’t use bad words, but he’ll use words like ‘moron,’ ” she says. “Jeff is actually a good, clean guy.”
◊ This summer at Fun House, look for the Dada show and a “junior” version of Matt Lyle’s play with the popular character of Blork, called Hello Little Human Female. You can also watch Swearingen playing a dinosaur in Brad McEntire’s new play Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train, presented by Audacity Theatre Lab at the 15th Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center (more on that here). Swearingen also regularly performs with the local improv troupes The Victims and Fun Grip.