More than 150 years ago, trains traveled across the United States carrying orphaned and homeless children from crowded cities to the Midwest countryside in hopes of finding them new places to call home. It was a welfare program called the Orphan Train Movement that was deregulated in 1920s, and it is now the focus of Shot in the Dark Productions’ latest play.
Known simply as “Orphan Train,” the period piece drama tells eight different stories from the perspective of the children riding the trains to rural foster homes. Director Kristy Tremayne has produced this particular play many times in the past, so she’s well aware of the true-life history behind some of the accounts.
“They traveled from New York City to the Midwest with kids that were running the streets or were orphaned,” said Tremayne. “Thousands and thousands of kids were put on trains and brought out to find new families. They say there are more than 2 million Orphan Train rider descendants.”
The plot of “Orphan Train” unfolds in eight vignettes. Each story reveals how the children ended up in the Midwest -- some were adopted by small families while others got back on the locomotive in hopes that the next town would provide better results.
“They would bring the kids to a local establishment like a church and those people that wanted an orphan to adopt would come to the church to pick one up,” said Tremayne. “Some of those people that wanted to adopt really just wanted labor and wanted the kids to work.”
She added that the individual narratives in “Orphan Train” give a brief glimpse into United States history. And it also allows the “little actors” to take part in a drama depicting real stories and characters.
There are no anthropomorphic animals or fairy tale characters for the children to pretend to become. Instead, the actors are tasked with telling a mature story.
“It’s a nice experience,” said Tremayne, who added that she isn’t sick of directing “Orphan Train” even after all these years. “I just love it. I love the piece. And it just tugs at your heartstrings.”
Working with the kids has its challenges, but Tremayne is ready for it. In fact, she said it’s easier to direct child actors.
“And I think that the older cast members help the younger cast members,” she said. “I think the younger cast members may be bringing in some energy that our older cast members need.”
However, Tremayne does have to apply different tactics to get her younger actors in the right mindset. Making sure every cast member is comfortable in expressing himself/herself is a top priority. And while it’s important to help the kids when they’re struggling, Tremayne said being too critical won’t help the process.
“We have to talk a lot about what these characters are feeling because most of these actors haven’t felt that,” she said. “When we first met, we talked about things that made us sad and would make us cry. It’s not happy-go-lucky Disney. It’s pretty serious.
"We've got to be real if we want the audience to believe us."