When a friend suggested to Heather Sanders that her daughter Piper Harden would make a very cute Tiny Tim in ACT Theatre’s 2018 production of "A Christmas Carol," she thought it might be a fun opportunity. The then-7-year-old had enjoyed acting in productions at Tacoma Musical Playhouse and modeling for print and commercials when she was younger. But this would be Piper’s first foray into professional stage performance.
Piper went to a half-hour audition, where she performed a monologue and sang “It's the Hard Knock Life” from the musical " Annie." She was asked to return for a callback, where she read Tiny Tim’s lines with other young actors under consideration for the show.
Days later, Sanders received a call from casting director Margaret Layne, with some good news: Piper had been cast as Tiny Tim. The second-grader would become one of the youngest children ever cast in ACT’s annual holiday production.
“It was crazy. I could not believe when I got the part,” says Piper, now 8. “It was like, mind blown.”
In its 44th year, "A Christmas Carol" has become a beloved holiday tradition at ACT Theatre in downtown Seattle. The adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous 1843 novella follows grumpy old miser Ebenezer Scrooge on a journey through his past, present and future, ultimately reigniting the true holiday spirit of generosity.
Actors dedicate weeks to intensive rehearsals, then commit to dozens of performances between Nov. 29 and Dec. 28, sometimes twice a day. Seven are younger than 16.
Kelly Kitchens, directing the show for the first time this holiday season, says the child actors rehearse mostly after school under guardian supervision, but otherwise are held to the same professional standards as the adult actors. They are as much a part of the production as anyone else, and Kitchens plans to treat them accordingly.
“They’re all at different points on the journey of how many stories that they’ve potentially told or how much training that they’ve had,” says Kitchens. “But in the end, it’s about reflecting humanity, and I believe everyone is capable of that.”
On a late September Sunday, ACT Theatre held an open-call audition: 40 children between 6 and 15 delivered their prepared monologue, sang a song, and played a series of interactive theater games with other youth actors.
“It is a very efficient process, this casting process,” says Kitchens. “So children who are prepared, have a sense of play and who can live truthfully inside a set of circumstances; those are the ones I think that will bloom in the callback room.”
Twenty-eight youths were invited to return for a callback during the second week of October. Only a handful joined the final 2019 cast.
Tia Kwanbock, 16, who has played Bob Cratchit's oldest daughter, Martha, the past two years, said she learned a lot working alongside professional adult actors. In a party scene in last year’s production, she had to improvise with an adult actor. She was impressed by his ability to commit to speaking and acting like his character, whether it was a performance or simply a rehearsal.
“You’re working with people who are doing what you want to do as equals, which is such a unique experience, and [it’s] incredible to learn from people who are doing what they love for a career,” says Kwanbock.
PIPER HARDEN BY ROSEMARY DAIROSS, TIA KWANBOCK BY PAULA BOCK
Left: Piper Harden as Tiny Tim. Right: Tia Kwanbock as Martha Cratchit.
As a high school student at Seattle’s Lakeside School, Kwanbock talked with the administration about having to miss most of 8th period during the rehearsal process. She had to meet regularly with her teachers, making up any work she missed.
Piper and her family live in Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle, so it took a bit more planning. While it would have been possible to commute to the theater every day, Sanders wanted her daughter well rested for the show, so they rented an apartment on Capitol Hill.
Sanders opted to homeschool Piper during the rehearsal and performance process. Her elementary school teachers sent worksheets and granted access to schoolwork online. Sanders also incorporated the show into Piper’s schooling, making the play script a reading assignment and requiring her to keep a daily journal.
All that work paid off. Piper, who dreams of appearing on the TV show "America's Got Talent" and working as a professional actor when she grows up, said she had a wonderful experience playing Tiny Tim in last year’s show.
“She loved the crowd,” says Sanders. “One thing she said was, ‘We say the same things, but the crowd acts different every night, so it feels different.’ ”
In fact, Sanders says Piper began asking about auditioning for the show again less than two months after the 2018 show run ended.
“At 7, with the first big production, it’s kind of like, well, fingers crossed that it goes well,” says Sanders. “I figured she’ll either be retiring at the end of December or we’ll be in it for the long haul. And here we are. She’s talked about it all year.”
There will be plenty of hard work, important lessons and lifelong memories for the next group of youth actors who have the opportunity to take part in this annual holiday theater tradition.