Jeff Swearingen: Putting the Fun in Fun House Theatre
If you think children's theater is just about giving a mouse a cookie or putting a hat on a cat, you haven't been to Fun House Theatre and Film, this year's Best of Dallas Best Theater Company. Located in an unglamorous little playhouse behind a Thai restaurant in a Plano strip mall, Fun House, co-founded by Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp, is children's theater as re-imagined by, say, Louie C.K. and Quentin Tarantino.
Swearingen writes and directs most of the shows, starring local kids age 7 to 17. His big hit earlier this year was his own script, Daffodil Girls, inspired by David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, about a troop of cookie-selling scouts getting a lesson in sales from a tyrannical teenage leader. Then he staged Edward Albee's Zoo Story starring teenage boys. Next was The Sound of Fannie, his original spoof of syrupy musicals like Annie and The Sound of Music, with deliciously subversive swipes at The Producers, Cabaret, Chicago and My Fair Lady.
Produced on budgets of tens of dollars, Fun House shows require their all-kid casts to work hard and nail the punchlines and dance steps like older pros. The results are polished performances of remarkably edgy material.
Via email, we asked Swearingen, an accomplished actor and improv comic, what he's up to with Fun House and if the parents of Plano mind their young 'uns playing tap-dancing Nazis.
First, why are you doing children's theater?
Brad McEntire and Jeff Swearingen in Robot and Dinosaur Stop a Train.
I love to make kids laugh. My reason for doing Fun House the way that I do is because some kids dream of being on Broadway or the big screen and I want to help them get the kind of training early that will make them professionally competitive. Doing original works, introducing them to different acting and writing styles is all part of the plan to develop real artists. At their age they can adapt to anything, so why not get them used to jumping over the moon like it's an everyday thing? Especially if it's all their soul wants to do. I am honored to have the chance to help.
The shows you write and produce at Fun House aren't the typical children's theater fare. Do parents ever object to the truly dark (and hilarious) material you have their kids performing?
I am very thankful for the parents of my core group of kids. And I really hope the kids appreciate their parents as well. They are extremely trusting of me. I have had maybe one or two instances where a parent has suggested a rewrite, which I will never do, but they are few and far between and never from my core group. The funny part of it ... it's always a line or an aspect of a show that isn't pushing a boundary really. I will never put their kids in harm's way and I feel like they know this.
Name three reasons kids and teens should do live theater.
I could name a million, but sticking to three, here goes:
- Improved reading. I stress this all the time with kids. There is nothing they should be doing more. I always tell them that it is a fact that every time you read a book you get smarter. I also stress that people spend their whole lifetimes experimenting, learning, succeeding and failing at something, then they write it down in a book and the reader can learn it in a few hours. It's my definition of what you could get out of magic and or time travel.
- Self discipline and responsibility to a team. Theater requires the full commitment to both. The theater artist's path has every true character-building surprise. Surprises like humility, embarrassment, fatigue and mental exhaustion, and the big one: facing the fear of trying to learn our own potential when rejection is around every corner. Learning to face all of these and delivering by deadline time and time again for yourself and others leads to one thing -- perseverance. And that is a trait all kids and adults should have.
- Learning to learn quickly. All actors have a list of skills that they have had to learn for a part. This is awesome no matter what you end up doing. Nothing wrong with being a fast learner.
Is there a play you absolutely could not do with an all-kid cast?
Anything heavy on the hubba hubba side.
What's one you want to do that maybe nobody else would think of doing with kids?
I would love to do the South Park Musical with kids and adults. Would need a tiny bit of editing. But alas, it will never be. Maybe August: Osage County starring Kennedy Waterman and Lizzie Green [two of the best young actresses at Fun House]. We do have some awesome ideas we are working on.
Your latest show, The Sound of Fannie, featured a puppet Hitler, tap-dancing Nazi youth and a spoof of Bob Fosse choreography. Do the kids even know how unusual all that is for children's theater?
Yes and no. They are educated on what we put out there. Like with Fosse, they studied him, [director] Jimmy Chandler taught them everything from the types of moves and why he did them, to the fact Bob Fosse wore gloves because he did not like his hands. The only way the spoof would be funny would be to be accurate. As with our political satires in the past (shows featuring Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro), we used the same rule of thumb with the Nazis as we did with them. Make the evil look like doofs and you are all good. Add music and a puppet and it should take the audience a good 45 minutes of the car ride home before realizing they were clapping along in their seats with the Third Reich. The key is teaching the kids where the comedy comes from, what makes it funny and they then trust the material, even when they know there are some taboos involved.
What's your next project? And when will you be onstage as an actor again?
Our next project at Fun House is my Ultimate Thanksgiving Show, the last in my holiday trilogy about the nuclear arms race. And no, I am not acting elsewhere anytime soon. My schedule has gotten out of hand. I wish I were though.
What's the best part of working with kids in the theater?
Making them laugh. Love it! And the look they have on their faces when they know they rocked it out for real. It's a look of growth and self worth that no one can take away from them. That makes me feel like I have self worth, but I refuse to grow up.