When we go to see a play or musical, we expect to enter a world of suspended reality. For this reason, watching adults perform the roles of children may not register as strange in the moment. But after the show we may ask ourselves, for what purpose are adults cast in much younger roles?
The infamous teen flick/cult classic Mean Girls follows Cady Heron, a high school student who has recently moved from Africa to an American public high school. There she meets “the Plastics,” a group of mean girls who rule the school. Hijinks ensue. The key concepts here are not the hijinks, but the high school setting. The ringleader of the malicious Plastics, Regina George, was played by a then 25-year-old Rachel McAdams. In the movie, the character is 16—that’s a nine-year age difference. In the warp speed of puberty, that’s a “totally bogus” gap.
Huge age gaps between actors and the characters they play isn’t an isolated trend—think of almost any smash hit starring teens and the actors will be in their twenties, occasionally even pushing 30. These casting age gaps are in no way exclusive to TV and movies. Kids and teens are everywhere in the media, be it on the silver screen or live on stage. And across genres, the casting age gap is startlingly prevalent. There are some obvious reasons for this—teenagers are often gangly and awkward, and by casting people in their mid- or late twenties, the acne and braces can be edited out without any post-production or makeup department headaches.
…age dissonance in casting can set a standard of beauty that is nigh impossible for many teens to achieve, which can contribute to long-term issues with body image and/or self esteem for the kids in the audience.
But there are also some troubling implications—for one, age dissonance in casting can set a standard of beauty that is nigh impossible for many teens to achieve, which can contribute to long-term issues with body image and/or self esteem for the kids in the audience. Also, there’s the chance that the age gap can impact the ability of an actor to capture the youth experience accurately—if older bodies are playing younger people, the chance for an actor to play a role in telling their own story is lost.
A lot of a character’s impact, however, depends on the actor. Brynn Williams, a Broadway actress who starred as Sandy in Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical, is coming to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre from July 31–August 11 with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She plays Violet Beauregarde, a bratty twelve-year-old with a penchant for blowing bubblegum and spitting snark. Williams said that in taking on her role as Violet, she not only alters her speech patterns and energy, but even the small details—like the way she’s standing—in order to accurately capture the essence of a kid. “The Golden Ticket winners have qualities that transcend age…who are very prideful or very greedy,” she stated. “What we [actors] do is we take that energy and put it in a kid form.”
In this role, Williams felt that having a child played by an adult actor is beneficial. “People are more forgiving of kids,” she said. “If a kid is being nasty, there’s a little more tolerance that goes along with it. If [the Golden Ticket winners] are played by adults, it really zeros in on how this isn’t okay behavior.”
Arika Matoba, who will play Marcy Park in Village Theatre’s upcoming production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had similar feelings. In Spelling Bee, Marcy is a grade schooler. “Anyone, at any age, can play those child-like characteristics,” Matoba said. “A lot of us feel like kids sometimes…if you can tap into that, then it doesn’t really matter what age you are.” While she acknowledged that the casting of older people as younger characters can impact audience perception, she felt that “everyone knows that you’re not a kid, but they’re there with you for that hour and a half of the show.”
In theatre, one must check a certain amount of realism and disbelief at the door to engage with the medium, so adults taking on bite-sized roles can be considered along as part of that. However, it does raise the question—why are adults cast in these roles in the first place?
Brandon Ivie, the director of the upcoming Spelling Bee, felt that he needed people who could “play child-like characters…but still keep it grounded in some kind of reality.” He said that he treats casting the child roles just like any other, and that to cast somebody who couldn’t take the role of a kid seriously would damage the production’s credibility as a whole. When asked what he was looking for in casting the show, Ivie said, “adults that have a youthful energy to them, a joy, an optimism, without being caricaturish or juvenile or…treating the material and characters as ‘lesser than.’”
…the age dissonance between the casting of Charlie and the other kids in the play helps to emphasize the good qualities possessed by Charlie, which are often associated with kids in general—innocence, goodness and a sense of wonder.Brynn Williams
Ivie also pointed out an unfortunate stigma in theatre, especially musical theatre, against productions that feature predominantly young actors. It’s different than in TV or film, where there are a variety of critically acclaimed shows featuring young actors—think Stranger Things. But on stage, it’s different. For one thing, “as soon as you see a kid on stage, you think about Annie,” Ivie said. As well as other associations to “cheesy, corny musical theater.” These stigmas color the casting decisions made in shows, as productions that feature kids are categorized as “family shows” or pieces of fluff, rather than being treated as valid, respectable productions.
But every production is different. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, the role of Charlie is played by age-appropriate actors—three of them, in fact, all of whom play the role on different nights. Williams said the age dissonance between the casting of Charlie and the other kids in the play helps to emphasize the good qualities possessed by Charlie, which are often associated with kids in general—innocence, goodness and a sense of wonder. The casting also serves to contrast those good things with the negative quirks and traits of the other kids, who are all, in their own unique and terrible way, bratty, spoiled and generally rotten. Also, Williams said the age gap among the actors helps to amp up and emphasize Charlie’s cuteness factor. So in this case, there are young actors involved in a production largely populated by young characters, but the kids are cast deliberately, with awareness of the impact that the age gap in casting can have on the audience.
Given that theatre is a medium inherently reliant on a suspension of disbelief, the casting of adults in these young roles, when done with thought and care, can actually have a positive impact on the production. It’s important to acknowledge that there can be harmful impacts to age dissonance in casting—it all depends on the needs of an individual show and role. So next time you see a kiddo or a teen played by somebody clearly pushing 30, think carefully before you chuckle—is this casting beneficial to the production? Is there a reason a kid isn’t up there? The casting dissonance is probably an intentional decision, so ask yourself—does the casting work for the show? If it does, maybe the whole thing isn’t “totally bogus” after all.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now playing at Broadway at The Paramount through August 11; tickets are available online. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at Village Theatre’s Francis J. Gaudette Theatre September 12–October 20 and then travel to their Everett Performing Arts Center location October 25–November 17; tickets will be available on August 7.
Hannah Schoettmer is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Butcher Papers, a youth-focused literary magazine, which can be found online at butcherpapers.org. She is also an active writer and participates in several other arts-centered activities around the city of Seattle.
This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access non-profit.