Born in 2010

Being a children’s acting instructor continues to be a humbling, world-realizing and self-realizing experience. I love ‘em to bits. You get the darling angels that you wish were yours, and you get the caffeine-infused energizer bunnies where everything goes in one ear and out the other, who make you grateful for your own solitude. But here’s the realization that both the angels and the brats make you come to: You ain’t a kid no more. When I first started out teaching the 6 and 7-year-olds, I was in an ‘I got this’ frame of mind. Just think like a kid, listen to them, don’t talk down to them, treat them like adults, they are much smarter than we think, and you’ll be fine. While these principles may be true, there is a difference in energy and perspective, all stemming from the fact that while they were learning to walk for the first time and say their first words, I was on a Metro North train to White Plains for my first job interview. The fact of the matter is, each generation gap is bridged by two different realities…

Your childhood heroes are exactly that: Yours.

Maybe the kids will vaguely know Van Damme, and Ahnould, and Stallone, but they will never be appreciated as heroes. One day during the tweens class we were having a lesson about focus and composure, during which I proceeded to tell a story about Bruce Lee. At one point I paused and said: “You guys know who Bruce Lee is, right?” And silence. Tweens (9-13 years old)… Not a single word. In their eyes I saw an empty stare, their lips slightly parted, a couple shrugging off the question as they continued to gaze into the nothingness between us, while with my peripheral vision I caught Joshua turning to Ethan and whispering “Who?” To me, that’s the definition of a generation gap. The nothingness [gap] into which a child stares when you ask a question about Bruce Lee. There you go, that is a generation gap. As if refusing to accept their silence as a nail in the coffin of my childhood, I proceeded to ask once more. “Come on guys! Bruce Lee! Anyone?” I had lost this round. And it was no use insisting otherwise I would have completely lost them as well. At that moment, all I could think was: “F**k me…”

They know every word. And it’s scary.

Let’s keep it real: back in the day (I use this expression now…), Vanilla Ice was the shit. So I wanted to learn the lyrics to ‘Ice Ice Baby’ (yes, spellcheck, the second ‘Ice’ is necessary). And who didn’t?! Anyone can sing the chorus; but only the cool kids could ‘collaborate and listen’! So how did we learn the lyrics to our favorite tunes? You either buy the song (as in, the cassette, with a bunch of other Vanilla Ice songs that you don’t know and don’t care about) or stand by the radio station that would play it so you could hit the record button. Then all I needed was a paper and a pencil and… Play. Pause [scribble scribble]. Play. Pause [scribble scribble]. Play. Pause [scribble scribble]. Wait, what did he…? Ugh. Rewind. Stop. Play. Pause [scribble scribble]… You know what I’m talkin’ about! Ok, so maybe some liberties were taken during the documentation for bits that were hard to make out and interpret (‘to the extreme I look at Mike and a vandal, line up the stage and watch the champ light a candle’), but goddammit as long as it had a flow and was “sing-along-able”, I was happy! And you know that that piece of paper wasn’t going anywhere! That was 2 hours of hard labor! Straight in the drawer, safe and sound! I didn’t always know where I had stuffed the review sheet for that math test, but the lyrics to ‘Ice Ice Baby’ were in the vault! And what do the kids do now if they want to know the lyrics to a song? Any song. Google ‘ice ice baby lyrics.’ In fact I’m sorry, is your instant gratification not instant enough? Don’t exert yourselves. Just type ‘ice i’ and Google will take care of the rest. There you go… Google loves you, sweet dreams.

One summer’s day we were heading out to acting camp. I’m sitting in a bus with a few other instructors and an army of hyper chatty kid-campers. Great energy. I’m not being sarcastic, I like seeing them loud and happy, calling out to each other from across their seats, forming mini “chat groups” in different parts of the bus, the nerves of leaving home gradually giving way to the excitement of hanging out with your best friends for a week. Who are we kidding, been there… So anyway, at one point one of the girl campers walks up to the bus driver and asks if she can play a song from her iPod on the bus’ speakers. And she puts Iggy Azalea. It was barely 3 seconds in and the elated screams of acknowledgment were near window-shattering levels. Now I don’t particularly care much for Iggy; she’s what my uncle Das would refer to as “a flippin’ tart.” But a part of me was thrilled to see the collective hysteria, and how one song can have the power to bring an entire busload of kids to joyfully concur that this moment right here right now is something that we all instinctively want and should be a part of. Then Iggz starts rapping and, guess what, so did the whole bus. Let me clarify something: the lyrics to “Fancy” are fast; the kind of ‘fast’ that 10-year-old Alex Malaos would have to sit with his piece of paper and work on it a few hours a day before he’s ready to sing it on a bus; the kind of ‘fast’ that he would have to pretend to cough or look away at points where he didn’t scribble anything down because he wasn’t sure what the exact lyrics were because it was very inaudible on his Casio Walkman. These minions knew every word. Every. Word. They knew the pauses, the breaks, the background vocals. This one girl, I don’t remember her name, but every time I thought “She’s gonna lose it now, she’s gonna fumble her words, she’s gonna have to look away to recover…” she just brought it! Full of confidence, full of ‘I got this’, she knowingly (but probably ignorantly) sang about how the intended auditor of the piece “should want a bad bitch like this” and calling her crew to “trash the hotel and get drunk on the mini bar.” And as I observed the hoopla, I couldn’t help but feel confused. Is this impressive? Or is it sad?

Turn it off!

There once was a time when the teacher had to clap his/her hands twice, say “Quiet!” and the class would resume. I know; I was there. Today there’s more. After the two claps, I find myself constantly calling out: “Turn your phones off please! Put them on ‘Silent’ please! Put your phones away please!” Which begs the question: Why does an 8-year-old have a cell phone? Is it live-tweeting its classroom experience? Is it setting a reminder in its Outlook calendar about getting ice cream after ballet class? I get it. The parents want to be able to find their children, they want to be able to communicate with their children in case of emergency, they want access. Again, I get it. I’m not going to get preachy in the form of “These kids today and their phones…” Truth is, I would also feel like I would breathe much easier if my kid had a phone handy to call if needed. But in the days of two-claps-and-“Quiet!”, our relationship with our parents was based on trust. Our parents trusted us to be responsible enough to let them know where we were; to be resourceful and forthcoming and find a way to get to a telephone and call them to come pick us up or to just “report back to base.” We didn’t have the convenience of technology, and I’m not saying that the convenience of technology is bad. It’s actually great! But don’t allow it to compromise who you are. Convenience makes you lazy. And if you’re lazy, you’re unreliable. And if you’re unreliable, you can’t be trusted. I just hate to see a child feeling helpless without a cell phone. I already see that in adults. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry I didn’t contact you, my battery died, I’m so sorry, I’m lost without it!” No you’re not! We got in touch with our parents just fine, and we were 8 years old! It’s a shame to have your integrity and your credibility being dependent on a device.

Now I could go on a rant about how it’s also a two-way street. About how parents monitoring and GPSing their kids is wrong because it builds up a subconscious lack of trust, and it doesn’t allow the kids to experience exploring and discovering “secret hiding places” and to have a sense of their own social world where their parents don’t need to constantly be butting into. But I’m not a parent… Looking back, I’m actually amazed by how much trust my parents showed me as a child, especially during the summer. Sure, there were the few days of drama where they would drive around the neighborhood frantically looking for me and giving me a good earful while I sulked at the back of the car. But for the most part, I was gone all day, coming back home to eat and then setting out again on my bicycle; arriving back later in the evening, sweaty, filthy, maybe with the odd scrape and bruise. And as she would hear me come in, my mom would just call out to me from the living room: “Shower!”

So would I want to know where my kid is every moment it’s gone from the house? Would I want to “tag it”, as it were? I must admit, I would. I would like to know. Maybe not what it’s doing, but I would like to know where. Then again, I guess that’s how it starts… Alas, I digress.

In retrospect, she wasn’t the sturdiest/safest of swings. But she was a true and iconic childhood companion.

Deal with it

When I asked darling little Carly what year was she born, she responded: “2010.” Instinctively, or rather, a force of habit combined with lack of experience in this sort of dialogue exchange, a part of me wondered if she didn’t understand the question. Or maybe I didn’t pose the question clear enough and I should break it down to her more coherently. Many times children don’t have the social maturity to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, could you repeat the question please?” and they just tend to blurt out any response that pops in their head. 2010… Awww, bless her, she didn’t get it… I paused for a quick moment to rephrase the question, and at the same time, a part of me was doing the math and was trying to make me realize that the response does actually make sense. I took a breath to repeat the question, and I suddenly caught myself and halted at the realization: The question was clear. She understood it. Her response was correct. All this happened within barely two seconds. Carly is 4 years old and therefore she was, in fact, born in 2010. Let’s just let that settle for a moment. 2010…We good? Ok, moving on. I was born in 1980. If you start to do the mathematical comparisons (and we all have at some point), you can just go on forever. Carly is 4, and I’m 30 years older than her. To put it into perspective for myself, that’s like me being 4 years old, and meeting someone who was born in 1950. No more math. The 80s aren’t around the corner anymore. Neither are the 90s. There used to be a time when people were either around the same age as you, or much older than you. That has shifted. And the kids remind you of that every day. You have to start getting used to the fact that 2010 is actually a year of birth. For millions! As is every year. And you just shake that off and keep walking.

Represent!

At the end of the day, what I think about the younger generation probably doesn’t differ too much from what adults thought of my generation back when it was still “the younger” one. These are facts of social evolution. There will always be something to grunt over about “these kids” in any era. And I suppose “our times” were always the best, so we feel sorry for the generation which is not of our time because we think that they don’t know what they’re missing. But we’re all born into a norm, so I guess this is the norm that Carly has been born into. Being born in a world of internet, google, cellphones, Facebook, instant information, instant messaging, instant downloading, instant everything; this is normal to her. She hasn’t lived in a world without these things. As much as the knowledge of this hurts us a little and causes an internal sigh of nostalgia, these are Carly’s times. Hopefully she’ll make the best of them. Meanwhile, through the kids I teach, I learn to stand proud for my 80s; to start appreciating more the things that they missed out on. Not just values and principles. Everything.

I like to think that each 80s child proudly carries a fanny pack full of memories, as beautiful as Patricia McPherson when she was on Knight Rider (yeah I said it!), and as common as that one kid in every class whose dad drove a car with electric windows (sweet!). I mean playing ball in the street and having to pause every 5 minutes to let a car pass through… By the power of Greyskull, that was fun! Until the ball would go flying onto someone’s roof, in which case, ker-plank!, game over. Today’s kids may argue that the simplicity of it all sounds as plain and boring as an Alex P. Keaton sweater vest, but there’s two sides to every cassette. We knew where to get an adrenalin rush. I think we must have knocked on at least a hundred doors and scrammed without getting caught. I love it when a plan comes together! And while we’re on the subject of pranking, slide that rotary phone over and strategically place your hand over the handset to make your voice sound deeper, because the shit’s about to get real. I admit, I’ve lost my marbles. Specifically, the yellow ones, the blue ones, the yellow-blue-red ones, and two solid monochrome white ones; you know, the rare ones. I remember rolling those china boulders between my fingers… A hobby and an intense competition; two times the fun, wrapped up and rolled into one! I mean what is this, the Wuzzles??! Yeap, those were the days. We can share fraggle rockin’ memories forever, but it gets to a point where, in the words of Johnny Logan: “What do you say when words are not enough?” You don’t. You own it, you cherish it, and you hope Carly’s generation has as much fun as you did.

[MacGuyver theme music]

Kids: Natural improvisers.

The great comedian W.C. Fields once said “Never work with animals or children.” I strongly agree!

The 6-12 year-olds are theatrically immature. They don’t treat their scripts with sacred reverence; they underestimate stage chemistry; they lack comedic timing, they lack dramatic timing; they lack timing… They have minimal spatial awareness, they make eye-contact with the floor, the ceiling, the wall, a moth… anything but their scene partner. Giving them a direction to follow is like playing the lottery – you know you won’t hit the jackpot, but deep down you’re hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Alex Malaos directing a children's theater play

“Mr. Alex, I forgot my script. Do I need it?”

They may forget their lines, the blocking may be –to say the least- “off” at times, many meaningful words may be directed toward the thin air, but at the end of the day, they are being themselves; they are being their quirky, nervous, sweet selves. It’s funny how one of the most important lessons in acting is be comfortable with yourself. The children aren’t self-conscious about delivering their lines with conviction, they aren’t worried if their “good side” is facing the audience, they aren’t concerned about diction and projection…

And that’s what I like the most about teaching improvisation to the kids. My objective is to not let their fears develop into insecurities. Nip it in the bud, drama-style, as it were.

I always tell them: “Don’t try to be funny, as long as you’re truthful. Truth is entertaining. Concentrate! Wherever you are, be there!” And they’re there, in the moment, exposed to the energy of the audience and heat of the spotlights. They react organically; every spontaneous move and adorable awkwardness is clear in their eyes and body language.

And sometimes, just sometimes, within all the nervousness and childlike innocence, the stars will be aligned and a truly sincere and heartfelt moment -which is worth every bit of tremble in their voice and look of loss in their eyes- will emerge on stage for everyone to admire and marvel at. Jackpot.