CHICAGOANS OF THE YEAR: THEATER

Rachel Rockwell brings out the best in child actors

Rachel Rockwell

Rachel Rockwell (January 30, 2013)

For Chicago stage director Rachel Rockwell, 2012 began with the brood of Capt. von Trapp and ended with the little orphan girls of "Annie."

Be the kids proud Austrians or precocious New Yorkers, Rockwell knows how to wrangle the little darlings. Most of the time when you see kids on a stage, you see them performing gestures and reactions handed to them by adults.

But in the hit Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace production of "The Sound of Music" (which opened at the end of 2011 and attracted huge audiences this time last year) and the Paramount Theatre in Aurora's production of "Annie" (which ends its successful run Sunday), Rockwell's astounding and very rare talents with very young performers lit up these huge suburban stages.

Rockwell, our Chicagoan of the Year in theater, understands kids in theater. It doesn't matter whether youngsters are in her casts, as they often are, or if she is creating theater with adult actors staged for young audiences. Rockwell's moving summer production of "Beauty and the Beast" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was far and away the best family production of the year in the area.

"Working with children is all about taking away their bad habits and getting them to understand and equate the emotions their characters feel to something they have experienced in their own lives," Rockwell said in a recent interview. "Once they are given permission to be honest and relate to each other, they really are more capable of doing that than the phony stuff people ask them to do most of the time. Rather than dimples and hand gestures, I think it's way more interesting to see them scratch their legs on stage and be children."

Rockwell, who is 43 and lives in Berwyn, grew up mostly around Evansville, Ind., and attended the University of Evansville. She began her professional life as a dancer, appearing in national tours at a young age, and later became a choreographer. But during the past couple of years, her talents as a director — a director with big ideas — of major musicals have been very much in evidence in Chicago. It is especially welcome, for while the city long has been home to auteur directors of plays, it has much less of a tradition of similar innovation in the staging of musicals. All too often stagings of these mainstream titles have been copies or reductions of Broadway originals, or shows with very conventional looks and templates. In 2012, Rockwell's attempts to change that reality, mostly through a Chicago style of innovation, really seemed to take hold.

After being a crucial part of the Drury Lane renaissance, Rockwell has been similarly pivotal in the highly successful effort by the historic Paramount Theatre to launch its own subscription season of homegrown musicals.

Rockwell is by no means limited to working with kids. She helmed "Enron" at the TimeLine Theatre, packing the stage with badly behaving adults, and her exuberant production of "Hair" this spring in Aurora featured plenty of naked hippies and R-rated behavior. So she is diverse and, when it comes to kids and theater, she has a specialty. In 2013, she'll stage "The Music Man" in Aurora and "Oliver" in Oakbrook Terrace.

"Kids," she says, "really are incredibly capable. They want to feel like members of the adult acting company. Of course, you also have to be willing to accept that on some days your 6-year-old will be great, and some days she'll be completely out of it."

Rockwell was very much in it. All year long.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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