AUSTIN (KXAN) - It is a time of monsters: Overbearing heat and spirit-crushing drought, a tortured economy, volatile markets, high unemployment and gridlocked politics. Our suffering, it seems, knows no end.
Our children notice. Our insecurities only serve to complicate their own monster-laden lives: Bullying, achievement tests, popularity worries, social media issues.
The kids must also navigate the slippery slopes of discrimination they see in the world around them. Color, race, economic status, it all seems to matter somehow in so many corners of life.
It can be a scary place to be, this childhood, but not at a place called KidsActing.
Twenty years ago, a 12 year-old boy was cast there as a “dog” in a world populated by “monsters.” In this world, monster children dreamed nightmares about frightening “humans” who were said to lie in wait, ready to pounce on and eat unsuspecting monster boys and girls.
In an alternate universe, human kids did their own psychological battles with “ monsters ” under the bed or in the closet.
Then a secret passageway opened between the two worlds and monster and human children slowly embraced one another, bringing their skeptical parents along for the ride.
The play was called “Monsters,” and Kirk German, the dog, can still remember the day he found out he was to be part of it.
“I just remember getting the call that I was playing a dog, which I don't think I auditioned for because the dog doesn't have any lines,” German recalled. "But the dog sings a whole lot.”
German was cast in the role by KidsActing founder Dede Clark.
“The thing I know about Kirk is that besides that he always wore two different color socks, is that he had a beautiful boy soprano voice," she said.
Two different colored socks?
“One of the things that was great for me about KidsActing is it was a place I could come and be myself,” German said. "And I could wear different colored socks, like she said, which is true, I did; and nobody cared about it here. They just thought, 'Oh yeah, that's Kirk; that’s what he does.’
“Whereas at school, I got a, not a whole lot, but I got a certain amount of flak for it. It wasn't embraced exactly, but I did it anyway because that was my own very minor form of rebellion at the age of 12.
"But it was a place where I could come and totally be me and I think that's such a huge part of the gift of what KidsActing is. These kids can grow up to feel good about who they are and to be who they are. It's a precious thing.”
Now, German is back at KidsActing, helping a fresh generation of young actors, dancers and singers, tackle their own monsters in a safe and fun way, helping them learn to accept and love the people around them, no matter what color they, or their socks, are.
After 25 years of directing the company’s summer musicals, Clark wanted a year off to spend time with her only daughter, who will be a senior in high school this fall and then head off to college the following year. She chose German to step in as director and allowed him to choose from among the company’s repertoire of original musicals. He, of course, chose “Monsters.”
“The kids completely loved him,” said Clark. “He's brilliant; I mean he's absolutely brilliant. He's a wonderful director, but he's also fun, funny and respectful of the kids, which is really important if you're going to work here.”
For German, who works in a number of theatrical and music disciplines, it was a truly special opportunity.
“Some of my closest friends are still people who I was in that show with 20 years ago,” he said. “That's one thing that makes KidsActing really special, too, is the friendships that form here. And I can see it happening among this group; they're forging friendships for life.
It's an interesting mix of nostalgia with I guess, joy and enthusiasm in sort of the circle of life stuff, seeing this next generation of kids who are just so happy to be here and are just loving what they're doing.
Clark figures more than a hundred kids have grown up to work for the company in one way or another over the decades.
“Like Kirk,” she said, “they've gone away to college; they've created careers, but they are now here working because there's a love of what they're doing, a love of what they got from it and what they can give back.”
Even those that don’t return often carry with them the lessons they learned at KidsActing. Clark heard from the mother of one of them.
“Her son is a lawyer in L.A.,” she said. “He started doing PR work and then he realized he was just doing this icky PR stuff for people and then he decided, 'No, I've got to be one of the good guys.’
“So he got a law degree and now he's working on discrimination, which is all about this show.
“So you just wonder, what happens in kids’ lives that does set them on a path, whether it's conscious or not at the time. So it makes me so incredibly happy to see how these kids have grown up.”
As the company ran through scenes of the show in the company’s East Austin theatre , a small group of preschoolers enrolled in a KidsActing summer camp sat in the house, eyes glued to the stage, their mouths agape.