It wasn't easy the first time 8-year-old Lionel Ward stepped out on the stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and faced 1,200 people.
"I was a little nervous and scared, but after that it was fun," said the grinning Medford boy, surrounded by five other child actors (corrected from previous version), about to go on as fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
In second grade and adept at violin, karate, knitting and reading Shakespeare, Lionel says he's already made up his mind on a stage and screen career.
"The first time I saw a play, 'As You Like It,' here last year with my dad, I said, 'I really want to do this!' "
Lionel is one of a half-dozen youngsters acting on the OSF stage in front of the large audiences that are drawn to Ashland each season.
His early-blooming career at OSF has brought a raft of changes in the Ward family, says his mom, Loraia Ward. She often reads lines with him and pulls him out of school early or takes him in late, as federal child labor laws require that children have 12 hours of rest before returning to work or school.
"The parents have to be committed to the process," says Ward. "It's very time-consuming for parents. But he loves it, and his school work doesn't suffer. Teachers know there's plenty of education and reading going on here in the theater."
The world-class festival is an "acting university" that offers a huge artistic opportunity, says Jane Hogan, mother of actor Julia Laurenson, 13, of Ashland.
"When she steps on those bricks (at the entry to OSF), it's another world. She had no acting experience and got the job in an open audition. The director said that what he was looking for is high-quality human beings.
"They treat the kids amazingly well. A lot of adult actors have become friends with her and do lines with her. They reach out to her, and she's learned so much from them. She's loved by so many people. It's been such a positive thing. She wants to make a life of it."
Acting at OSF has boosted her daughter's self-esteem and confidence, says Hogan.
"She's so at ease now in front of a room of people making a presentation. She has the ability to manage a lot in her life — still able to work 20 hours a week and go to school full time."
The child actors say they've made plenty of new friends at the festival and sometimes regret having to miss birthday parties and trips outside the valley with family and friends, says Sarah Perry, mother of Jada Perry, 12, of Ashland.
Because of missed school, Jada got a math tutor. But her teachers are "very supportive," allowing her time to make up missed work and giving her a heads-up if big assignments are coming.
Kids may sometimes have to skimp on friendships at school, but the festival is like a new family, with kids as "prized items" whom all the adult actors dote on and get to know well, notes Julia.
"It's really fun being a fairy, because there are so many kids to hang out with," says Julia, who is in her fourth year on the stage.
You might think that young actors have to be heavily mentored and brought along, but quite the opposite is true, says John Risser, OSF's young performers monitor.
"That's one of the great things," he says. "They are so eager, so unbelievably focused and ready to do this. Right at the start of readings, they already know all their lines. It blows me away. Some of them show up knowing more about the play than I do and how several stories in a play intermingle. Yet, with all this focus, they are having the greatest fun of their lives. They're professional and enjoying their whole time here."
Fourteen-year-old Grace Pruitt sums it up: "It's exciting. It can be nerve-racking. But, wow, I'm actually here. Whoa! It's so cool."
Grace had acted in plays at Ashland Middle School and in Kenya (corrected from previous version) before landing her OSF job. Her teachers are supportive of her stage work, which pays minimum wage.
After three seasons at OSF, Rachel Kaiser, 17, says the experience has taught her to run a tight ship on her life and "give that extra push on school. If I've got one hour and homework to do, I know I have to do it now, and I do."
With parents who work at the festival, Rachel says she's gotten a realistic take on theater and isn't ready to jump into a career of it.
"But I've always been intrigued by it," she says. "It's amazing to work with people who love what they do — and just to be around that kind of energy. And standing on that stage speaking to 1,200 people, it's really cool. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of adrenalin."
The youngsters are walking into a sophisticated, high-energy adult world with profanity and talk about sex, both on stage and off, and parents have to be OK with that, says Risser.
"We try to watch ourselves around the kids in rehearsal," he notes. "We talk to the parents and tell them kids are going to hear words they don't hear on the playground, and they say, 'We understand that.' "
Do the children understand all the innuendo and sexy backstory of the Bard?
"Yes, they very much get it," says Risser.
Kid actors are different than adult actors, he adds.
"We get out of them what we need. They do what we tell them to, but they also have their own ideas and will make suggestions to the director, which may seem nervy. Adults would hesitate to do that. But often the director sees they're right and will make the change. It's a very different dynamic."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.