Girls kill it in Mockingbird

By Dionne Christian

When theatre director Colin McColl finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird to daughter Miro, the 9-year-old declared "I am Scout!" and stunned her parents by announcing she wanted to audition for the role.

Her mother, actor Hera Dunleavy, says despite the fact she and McColl, artistic director of Auckland Theatre Company, are "in the business" they had no idea Miro wanted to act.

"We thought she was too young, but we let her audition for the experience and she turned out to be able to act," says Dunleavy.

Miro is one of three pre-teens who share the role of Scout in ATC's To Kill a Mockingbird, playing now at the Civic. In a sense, all three are following in their mothers' footsteps.

Billie McKessar, 10, is the daughter of singer Fiona McDonald, and 10-year-old Scarlett Featherstone's mothers are Liz Baldwin-Featherstone, an actor and performing arts teacher who runs the agency LBF Kids Talent, and Emma Featherstone, the director of music at King's School and a professional teaching fellow at Auckland University.

Despite their years of experience on stage and behind the scenes, the four women say nothing could have prepared them for the moment they saw their daughters, on the Civic stage, step forward and utter the first line of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Baldwin-Featherstone says she felt physically sick.

"I was flabbergasted by my reaction," she says. "We hold our children close and when they fall, we are there to catch them and protect them and, in this situation, we could not because she was up there on her own so I was struggling with all my instincts to completely trust in her ability to do this."

McDonald, of Headless Chickens fame, says she was more nervous than she is before her own stage appearances.

"If I was a praying woman, I would have said a prayer but when I realised she could do it, I relaxed and she became Scout and I became totally immersed in the story."

Dunleavy plays Miss Maudie so is on stage with the girls, and the boys sharing the roles of Jem and Dill. She says contingency plans were in place if nerves got the better of one of the youngsters or their microphones stopped working and they couldn't be heard.

"I was going to wander on and start talking, just having a chat to calm things down," she says, adding that during production week she couldn't let herself think about the enormity of the role Miro was undertaking.

The girls - and their mothers - are adamant there was no pressure from their parents.

McDonald says she once turned down the chance to sign her children to a talent agency but, when they heard her discussing it, said they wanted to.

Baldwin-Featherstone has 670 children, teens and young adults on her books and there are hardly any "stage mothers" among the parents.

"That perception is a fallacy. We meet, sit down and have about an hour-long chat and I get a sense of who is driving this desire and, I can tell you, it's very much the kids. When Scarlett came out of the audition, her first words were, 'I really want this'."

The girls still get nervous, but are more relaxed than when they started a week ago and are now simply enjoying the experience and their newfound friendship.

To Kill a Mockingbird is on at the Civic until May 22.

- Herald on Sunday

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