‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ director enjoys working with young actors

Nichelle “Nicki” White doesn’t appear nervous as she starts to read from the page handed to her by “The Emperor’s New Clothes” director, Stephanie Ong. After a brief, but animated reading, White of Pine Bluff said she doesn’t care what part she plays.

“Really,” she reinforces her last comment.

White has little experience except a few productions in high school but decided to give the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas’ April children’s production a try.

“It sounds like fun,” she said.

Before departing the small reading room, she tells Ong, “I’ll do anything, even work behind the scenes.” Later White found out she was playing the part of Ivan, a minister.

Ong said she had already read through the script and knew what she was looking for in each player and what she hoped that actor would bring to the character.

For her, it’s mainly about their memorable stage presence.

“I look for projection and movement and personality,” and, she admits, “It can be an intimidating process” for newbies like White.

Ong, who works as a teacher’s assistant and an art teacher at Arkansas River Valley Montessori, said she enjoys working with young kids.

“Even though some kids may not be able to read, Frederick [Price] came up with some scenarios, such as a surprise trip to Disney World, that he explained to the kids and asked what their reaction would be. Often, younger kids have some advantages because they use their imagination and are less learned in acting,” she said.

Price is the production’s prop master, and Briana Thompson is stage manager. Her daughter, Kennedy, and son, Briar, are part of the chorus.

Forty-three people of all ages tried out for 25 spots, including adults, teenagers and children.

Ong said, “I was pleased with the turnout. It’s an all-volunteer cast and crew. They do it because it’s fun.”

Between learning lines, drive time, rehearsals and production play dates, it’s like a part-time job.

Besides learning a craft, the children and teenage cast members learn about commitment to the production and other cast members, Ong said. It’s also a real commitment on the parts of the younger cast members’ parents. The parents often help learn lines, wait off stage and provide taxi services.

For many it was a first audition, but Ong said there were a handful of people she worked with as director on the sold-out production of “Oliver” last year.

“We’re still close,” she says about the “Oliver” cast members and herself.

Prior to the musical, Ong admits she’s had very little experience. In addition to directing a few small productions at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock while working on a theater arts degree, she was assistant director for ASC’s 2013 production of “The Hobbit,” and taught theater camp last summer.

Ong said perhaps her greatest asset as a director is her organizational skills.

“There’s a big difference between a musical and a straight play,” she said. A musical includes learning lines, as well as choreographed dances, music and singing.

“This show is only 45 minutes but it requires a lot of physical comedy. It will be demanding, even for those with small parts,” she said.

ASC’s Executive Director Lenore Shoults said, “It was pure joy working with Stephanie on “Oliver.” The show was outstanding and the feedback indicated that people loved working with her. In fact, she built a great community around the production.”

Shoults said it’s Ong’s inner self that shines through and engages others.

“The team and the vision she put together [for “Oliver”] was beautiful,” she said..

Shoults was also pleased with Ong’s performance at summer camp.

Shoults said she was thrilled to have Ong at the center and that she was directing the production.

Written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in Copenhagen in 1837, the story centers around a promise made by a couple of weavers. They agree to make the emperor new clothes that are only visible to the smart and those fit for their rank.

Of course, the silly and gullible emperor can’t admit he can’t see his own clothes, and it takes a child to point out the truth — that the emperor is wearing none.

“It’s a timeless classic, and can be set in any era. In a time [like today] when labels are so important, I think we need to revisit this message … and because of our mission, learning is at the heart of everything we do,” Shoults said.

The last performance of the “The Emperor’s New Clothes” will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.

The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas is at 701 S. Main St. in Pine Bluff and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 1-4 p.m. For more information, call 536-3375 or go to: www.ArtsScienceCenter.org.