NATIONAL CITY — Except for her bright laugh, which starts on a happy note and trickles up to a jolly, conspiratorial giggle, 13-year-old actress Julianne Arnall might have been type-cast as an intellectual whiz-kid.
The Coronado Middle School eighth-grader is vice president of the student body and a straight-A student who takes high school math classes and loves English. She is also one of the most confident, charismatic actresses to grace the small stage of Lamb's Players Theatre--most recently in David McFadzean's "Oklahoma Rigs."
Arnall plays a 12-year-old animal-lover, Cally Sampson, in the nostalgic comedy. She gives out the same kind of phosphorescence that brightened last year's production of "The Potting Shed" at the National City theater.
She is so convincing in the part, carrying out her romantic experiment with a reluctant hen and a borrowed rooster, incubating her pet rats in the family's oven, or keeping track of her pet turtle, Eldridge, that you'd never know Arnall the actress hates animals.
"When I first had to start dealing with the rats, I got really scared because I don't like animals at all," she admitted. "(Cally) is probably a little bit more of a tomboy than I am."
After you talk with her awhile, it seems there is very little that passes beyond Arnall's understanding. Part of her analysis of Cally includes a belief that the motherless girl "is searching for something."
And Arnall gives lots of credit to Lamb's artistic director Robert Smyth, who directed her work in both productions.
"See, when you're a kid you don't have a lot to draw upon, you don't have a large frame of reference," she explained. "Robert Smyth is really very articulate; he's very good at expressing what he wants you to do and he has really, really been helpful to me. He knows exactly what he wants and he knows how to get you to do it."
The admiration is mutual.
"I don't want to sound superfluous, but she really is an amazing talent for her age," Smyth said of his youngest "associate guest artist," a title he gives community actors who are regularly invited to work with Lamb's resident company.
"For a 13-year-old, she is one of the most professional, mature performers I've ever worked with. She's got a sharp mind. . . . I think she's a talent that will really blossom, because as an actress she really works. You give her direction, she takes it home, she mulls it over . . . she really relishes the work."
When she was 11, Arnall won an Aubrey Award from the Associated Community Theatres (ACT) for her work as "best supporting actress" in Heartland Theatre's "The Philadelphia Story." It was her third play, although she has been hanging around the theater since she was 2 years old.
Her father, George Arnall, teaches science at Coronado High School. He often took his daughter backstage at high school productions, where she watched her baby-sitters getting ready to go on stage. "It just looked so neat," she said.
By the time she was in the third grade, Arnall was putting on her own makeup for those high school productions, playing small roles in "The Sound of Music," "South Pacific," and "Fiddler on the Roof."
She said she doesn't get nervous once she is on stage. Far more frightening for her was the recent address she gave to a school anti-drug assembly, with "about 3,000" of her peers in the audience.
"It's even harder to get up in front of your friends and peers and speak than it is in front of an audience of adults, because adults, even if you're absolutely terrible, they won't tell you that you are. They'll sort of preserve your feelings, but with kids they'll start throwing things at you."
But the closeness of Lamb's theater-in-the-round can sometimes be disconcerting, especially when there is a woman in the front row laughing hysterically, Arnall said, imitating a cackle.
"Some nights it's a struggle. Other nights it just sort of comes easily. Sometimes if something technical goes wrong, like Eldridge fell out of the cupboard one night . . . your mind goes back to reality and you sort of get thrown off with it.
"Thank goodness he was all right," she added. "I mean, that would have been pretty scary if he came out and he was dead. I probably would have had to cry on stage, I guess.
"That's one thing--the parts that I have played so far have sort of been the comic relief, the happy little kid who goes around (being) precocious, causing trouble. There don't seem to be too many (plays) with kids who really have problems, like who have alcoholic parents or that sort of thing, but I'd like to try and do something like that just to see if I'd be able to. That would be a challenge."
Arnall has more than once relied on a blend of diplomacy and cleverness to stretch her acting horizons.