Actor Keith Robinson is only in high school, but he is already taking on an iconic role as Jim, the “gentleman caller” in the Boston Children’s Theater production of The Glass Menagerie. The timeless Tennessee Williams’ play is remarkably fresh, timeless, funny, and touching. It deals with such current issues as dysfunctional relationships between parents and children, mental illness, crises of identity, and aging. It also has lost love and broken dreams as central themes. The Boston Children’s Theater production is beautifully acted for actors so young in three of the main roles, and adult actress Kate Miller as mother Amanda Wingfield is obviously a savvy veteran of the stage.
Artistic director Burgess Clark was brave to tackle such a prestigious and revolutionary work of theater with such a young cast. But one of his main creative goals was seeking to challenge the young actors in his charge. He has more than accomplished his mission here. I am sure that they will remember this remarkable training opportunity for the rest of their lives.
Keith is confident and natural in the role of Jim in a performance well beyond his teen years. It’s full of promise for a long and rich career in the theater. See him tonight in The Glass Menagerie, and in future productions at the Boston Children’s Theater.
Reel Mama: How did you come to be involved with the Boston Children’s theater?
Keith: My first year in high school, I heard through a friend that she was doing the Boston Children’s Theater program over the summer. They do a summer studio, and she gave me such glowing recommendations towards the program that I thought I had to go. So I auditioned, and I immediately fell in love with the community that they had there. And I really just loved everything about it so much, so I dove in head first, and I’ve been doing shows there ever since.
Reel Mama: Which shows have you been involved with at Boston Children’s Theater?
Keith: I started out with The Drowsy Chaperone, and then I did A Charlie Brown Christmas. I did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Legally Blonde, and a play called On the Verge. Then I did 1984 and Cat in the Hat. Most recently this past summer I did Carrie, and now we’re onto The Glass Menagerie.
Reel Mama: What is the story of The Glass Menagerie?
Keith: The Glass Menagerie is all about a family living in the 1930s. It’s an autobiographical piece, or semi autobiographical piece, by Tennessee Williams, and it’s about his life. He struggled with his relationship with his mother and his sister. [The character of] Laura [in the play], who is his sister, struggles with a lot of social anxiety and a very oppressive mother, Amanda, played by our lovely friend, actress Kate Miller. Amanda is very domineering over Laura and has a lot of ideas about how she wants her to live her life.
And so Laura, being very socially anxious, does not fit into a lot of those ideas that Amanda has for her, which is a lot of the conflict in the play. I play Jim, the gentleman caller. Amanda makes Tom, who is the so-called Tennessee Williams of the show, get a gentleman caller for Laura because she won’t be married. And I play that gentleman caller. What happens after that is pretty magical, and Laura and Jim really connect. And so if you want to find out the end, you’re going to have to come see the show.
Reel Mama: There are several themes that you mentioned that are really current. What is your perspective on The Glass Menagerie, some of its themes, and how it might be relevant to an audience today?
Keith: I know numerous people personally in my life who have social anxiety and deal with that on a daily basis. And this can be a really close glimpse into what it’s like to live with that. The way that Burgess Clark, our art director, has portrayed Laura is in a way where you’re able to see truly how afraid she is of some things and how much the world around her scares her. And so that can be really tough for a lot of people. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to in the show.
Also, being in high school myself and knowing a lot of people whose parents have ideas for them that they might not exactly fit into, and are dealing with the same sort of conflict that Laura is dealing with, which can be really tough. I think it leaves a lot for people to relate to.
Reel Mama: Tell me more about yourself, your background, and your aspirations for being involved in the theater in the future.
Keith: As I said earlier, I jumped in head first [at the Boston Children’s Theater], and I really discovered I have such a passion for theater. The staff here, including Burgess, our director and Toby Schine, our executive producer, have really guided me to come to the conclusion that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I do want to pursue this professionally and in college. They’ve really helped me all the way throughout the journey, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
I truly feel very at home on stage, and there’s not a feeling in the world like when you’re up there and knowing that you’re entertaining people and hearing people laugh or cry. The power of theater is really something that I think everyone should experience at some point in their lives.
Reel Mama: So it sounds like you’re really inspired to help audience members or maybe folks in the general public really become theater lovers.
Keith: I think that theater is something that truly is one of the most powerful things someone can experience. I might just be saying that because I’m an actor, but I think it can change people’s lives. I would obviously promote much more that everyone should go see theater because it shares experiences and can give you a new perspective, which is very powerful today.
Reel Mama: Absolutely. I love hearing that, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about your collaboration with Burgess the director and the Boston Children’s Theater. Could you share a little more on how the education program have helped you develop your craft?
Keith: Yeah, of course. So BCT offers numerous programs for young people to help define their skills. I started out not knowing how to sing or dance or act, and they offer tons of classes. I studied with Daniel Blake, who is a voice teacher at BCT. I was part of the senior show choir, which is led by Austin Davy, our executive music director at BCT. And I take private lessons with Burgess, who is the executive artistic director and the director of all our shows here. And that personal attention, that’s one thing that they really focus on here. Every student at BCT gets an individualized education for what they need in theater.
Initially, some people know how to act from the beginning and have been acting since they were four or five. Others like me have zero experience, and they require a little more support from the beginning. But BCT is adamant about really helping everyone grow individually and in particular develop themselves as a person. Because if you’re going to be an actor, you have to be able to exemplify who you are as a person and figure out all of those very specific ideas about what you want to be. Because there are a whole lot of different routes that you could go in the artistic world.
One thing that I think BCT is a really incredible at is helping each kid discover if they want to do technical theater, and they want to be a lighting designer, a sound designer, or do they want to focus more on their vocal training or like me pursue acting in plays, film, or television. They offer tons of opportunities for everyone in those varying degrees.
Reel Mama: Hearing you talk about this is very inspiring. Could you talk a bit more about why you think the Boston Children’s Theater is important to the arts community in Boston?
Keith: Of course, I think Boston Children’s Theater is specifically important to the arts in Boston, because as someone who is under 18, there might not be a lot of options for you to get the kind of exposure that you can really get here. One thing that we’re always taught at the beginning of every show and at the beginning of every class is that Boston Children’s Theater is a professional theater that works with young talent, meaning that they hold us to a professional standard. We run on a professional schedule and are treated professionally. And we’re expected to act like that.
And what’s so important about that is that it trains young people in the greater Boston arts community how to act politely and kindly as an actor in this artistic world and be cooperative when you’re working in such a world where everything is cooperative. You have to be able to work with the other actors on stage and your director and all the technical designers. And in such a cooperative world, you really need someone to help guide you when you’re younger. So you develop those good behaviors. And so in that way, BCT is important, because it’s allowing kids to have the opportunity to learn that and to practice that in a safe and calm community setting.
Reel Mama: I love everything that you’re talking about with the importance of helping children cultivate their love of the arts and passion for that. Is there anything else that might surprise us or anything else you might be able to share about your perspective on The Glass Menagerie and being part of such a powerful production?
Keith: I’d just like to say that I think that overall people should know that in this performance you can truly find herself in every one of these characters, despite there being so few, just four characters in the play. Tennessee Williams expertly wrote these characters to be so relatable. You’re able to see maybe parts of yourself in each character, or all of yourself in one character. I know the character that I’m playing is personally very close to who I am as a person. And that’s something that we talked a lot about during the rehearsal process, playing a character that’s so close to myself. I really think that you truly have to experience the show and find yourself in the characters, because it’s a very relatable story. I think it makes it that much more powerful and that much more connected to you as an audience.
Reel Mama: It sounds like it’s a very timeless work. The audience is going to find a lot that is relevant today. Keith, break a leg!