Kids juggle sports, homework, friends to pursue theater dreams By Monica GinsburgActors on stage at the American Girl Place perform the musical "Addie."
When 14-year-old Mallory Baysek appeared in the Light Opera Works regional premiere of "Ragtime" last spring, her lead role as Little Girl was just one of the parts she was playing. In addition to performing in her fourth back-to-back professional theater production, the eighth grader played on her school basketball and volleyball teams, a traveling softball team and earned straight-A's at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville.
Theater is nothing new to Mallory, now a freshman at Naperville Central High School. She has been performing with children's and community theaters in the western suburbs since she was 7, following in the dancing footsteps of her sister Courtney Clark, a recent graduate of musical theater at New York University.
Although Mallory has had more success than many child actors, her experience is typical of those who make a commitment to the performing arts. Long days at school and at rehearsals, little time with friends and lots of support from family make up the playbill of a budding star.
In the past year-and-a-half, for example, Mallory has moved up to more demanding professional theater roles that have given her new acting opportunities but also have taken her further from home. In the case of the 1,000-seat Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, where "Ragtime" was staged, it meant an almost daily three-hour round-trip commute for rehearsals and performances with mom Marilyn behind the wheel.
A juggling act To make it all work, the young actress often rose at 4:30 a.m. to finish homework and attend before-school team practices. After school, Mallory either had a game or a team practice, immediately followed by rehearsals. When rehearsals ended at 10:30 p.m. or later, Mallory would change into her pajamas, take out her contact lenses, and fall asleep with her blanket and pillow on the car ride home. The next morning the homework-school-practice-rehearsal cycle would begin again.
"If I had 45 minutes before a game, I'd try to use it to do my homework," says Mallory. "I learned to make use of my time in the car to do homework, review my lines, eat dinner, or even just find 10 minutes to close my eyes. Every spare minute was put to use. By the end of the school year, I was getting burned out but I forced myself to get through it. I loved it all, I didn't want to drop anything," she says.
Working with a casting agent, Mallory also squeezed in dozens of commercial and film auditions. She appeared in a national print advertising campaign for Dell Computer, had a voice-over part in Dinner With Friends at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and played the title role in "Lilly", an independent film made by students at the Columbia College Graduate Film School.
"It's tough juggling everything and sometimes we get worn out," says Marilyn, self-described super-chaperone and chauffeur. "After ‘Ragtime,' we were at the worn-out point. There was no down time and no free time with friends. We agreed to take this past summer off so she could have some down time and get ready for high school."
Marilyn says some flexibility in her job as a special events coordinator at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, and a spouse that can pitch in with the driving, helps her manage the load. And she acknowledges that a more demanding academic and athletic high school schedule may force her daughter to cut some activities.
"Mallory is so motivated and so disciplined," she says. "I'm in awe of her. I never had that maturity at her age, but I didn't have the passion either. When a child has passion, they find a way to make it work."
Listen to your child Depending on the child, a passion for performing may mean taking some drama or dance classes as part of a children's theater program. For others, it may be auditioning for school plays. Still others may have bigger dreams. Whatever the goal, the level of involvement has to be determined by the child.
"You can't push your kid in this business," says Carrie Kaufman, publisher of PerformInk, a trade newspaper covering the theater and film industry in Chicago, and The Kids Book: A Parent's Guide to the Business of Child Acting (PerformInk Books, Ltd., 2002). "It's like soccer, baseball or ballet. If your kid is interested, it should be really fun. Having said that, the stage is also a great experience in discipline. You get to hang out with adult actors, learn the business and you have to be there every night."
You're not in it for the money
Theater is a competitive business. Companies can go entire seasons without staging a play with a child part, and, despite the notoriously low pay, it's not unusual for dozens or more young thespians to compete for high-profile roles.
Mallory Baysek was up against 35 other performers for her part in "Ragtime." Community theater groups regularly attract 100 actor hopefuls for open-call auditions. Recently, more than 200 girls auditioned for 15 spots at an open audition for "Circle of Friends: An American Girl Musical." And top talent agents report receiving an in-box full of letters every day from aspiring stars (see "Do you need an agent?").
If your child is cast in a professional theater production, he or she will be under contract for several weeks of rehearsals, five to six days a week, for about three hours at a time, as well as the run of the show. Rehearsals are likely to be scheduled in the evening or even during the day, which requires missing some school. Young performers, assuming they are not part of the Actors Equity union, can expect to earn between $10 to $80 a show plus a nominal flat fee for rehearsal time. (It's rare that children join the union, as most theaters in Chicago are non-Equity.)
Community theater companies typically have a less intense rehearsal period and may schedule rehearsals after school or have younger cast members practice at the beginning of evening sessions. While they don't pay actors, they offer kids a chance to perform and build a resume. Expenses are relatively low and might include only transportation to the theater and a $15 Ben Nye student makeup kit. Occasionally, actors may choose to hire a vocal coach which would run $25 and up for a half-hour session. Costumes and props are always provided.
"If a young performer is truly interested in the arts, they'll typically thrive in the rehearsal environment even if it means evenings, after school and weekends. They'll thrive in the challenge of learning lines and learning choreography," says Scott Davidson, director of theater at American Girl Place in Chicago. "The people who it's the greatest challenge for will be the parents. There's a huge amount of organizing and communicating that really falls to the parents. You have to step into the situation with an awareness of the commitment to the company. If you've said your child is available, you need to make them available."
Learning rejection A shot at the stage begins with an audition. Trade newspapers such as PerformInk (www.performink.com) or the League of Chicago Theaters' Chicagoplays (www.chicagoplays.com) publish regularly updated lists of auditions being held throughout the Chicago area. Occasionally, notices seeking child actors may appear in community newspapers and parenting magazines, including Chicago Parent.
Auditions often provide an early lesson in handling rejection — there may be many auditions before there is ever a part.
"There are so many times when you won't get cast, and it's not a personal rejection," says Sasha Clayton, director of education at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. "It can be based on a certain ‘look' the director is interested in and it means nothing about the child as a person or their talent."
"American Girl's" Davidson encourages enthusiastic performers to re-audition and some kids return three or four times before they are cast.
"I encourage the kids to have fun, enjoy the experience and walk away happy," he says. "It's like a job interview. You may not get it but you can feel good about the way you presented yourself. It's an opportunity to stop and assess your performance and strengthen and improve your skills for the next time."
Both parents and children should feel comfortable at an audition. Look for producers, production managers and directors who seem to have the needs of children in mind. This is often a good indication of how kids will be treated if they are cast.
It's a business first Remember that show business is a business first and should be treated like one.
"Don't be late for an audition, know your lines coming in, have a proper resume prepared," says Carole Dibo, director, the Audition Studio North in Chicago, a training ground for young actors ranging from 12 to 17 years old. "Without business skills, you're not going to make any movement."
And when you're not performing, pick up on your training. "Training is part of the life. You're like an athlete that has to stay in shape. Directors look at training as much as experience. If you're training, it means you're committed," she says.
If your child already has mastered the role of temperamental actor, they might want to relearn their lines. "The theater world is a small, close-knit one," says Marilyn Baysek. "If a child is polite and easy to work with, they will get called again. You will see more success if your child understands that."
That goes for parents, too. "Directors tell me they will reject a child if a parent is too pushy," says PerformInk's Kaufman. "It usually shows up in the kid, who might not want to perform or who might act out during rehearsals. The actor should be able to do what he or she needs to do without other stuff going on."
Parents and professionals agree that acting should be part of a child's life, not the entire focus. "Directors want real kids with real-life experiences," says Dibo. "Children need to be balanced and well-rounded. You can't bring anything to your work if you only know the business."
Often, the selection process can help direct children to new avenues including opening the door to a future role, trying a different activity or concentrating on school.
"If there's a sense of anxiety for a child, auditioning for stage roles may not be the right outlet," says the Metropolis' Clayton. "Maybe let it happen in an educational setting. Children can reap a lot from school performances, acting classes or theater camps. There are softer ways to introduce children to performing arts."
But can you make a living? Heather LaRocca of Geneva has been managing the busy acting careers of her children, Meghan, 15, and Mick, 13, for seven years. When they go to college, she will insist that they concentrate on something in addition to theater.
"Acting is a difficult career choice. Unless you make it to the next level, you either scrape by or supplement your income with another job. My kids need to have something to fall back on," she says.
While the performing arts may lead to an erratic lifestyle, Rob Chambers, executive director of the Second City Training Center in Chicago, believes training in improvisation, acting, dance and voice can open the door to many related professions.
"There are times when you will make money acting and times when you won't. If you're not comfortable with that, but are good at business, arts administration might be for you. If you love kids, teaching the arts may be right for you. A career in the arts doesn't only mean being on stage," he says.
In addition to gaining a healthy dose of self-confidence, theater skills can translate into life skills, helping children to foster the creativity to look at things in a different way.
"We live in a community, and theater is a microcosm of a community," says David Kersnar, a founder of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater, which also offers acting programs for children of all ages. "You can't just exist in a vacuum. You need to learn to interact, share, and take turns. Sometimes you achieve something greater by adding up the individual parts. These are skills we start teaching at a very young age that can help in any type of professional role, from the stage to heading a Fortune 500 company," he says.
And that would make any parent proud.
Do you need an agent?
If your child is heading for the big time and interested in breaking into film, television, commercials, print advertising or voice-over work, he or she is going to need an agent. Laura Alexander, head of the youth department at Arlene Wilson Management in Chicago, looks for kids who are outgoing, enjoy talking to adults and can separate from their parents.
"I need to hear kids say that this is something they really want to do," she says. "It's a great business if it's the right fit, and not such a great business if it's not a fit."
While the pay is considerably higher than local theater work, so are the number of young stars-in-the-making. Hundreds of kids are likely to be competing for a part in a national commercial, and a slow economy has put the brakes on a good deal of advertising. Casting directors for films and television series typically audition kids in several states. Like theater, it means a lot of auditions, often on short notice.
"If you enjoy the process, that's the key. Auditions should be the fun part," says Sam Samuelson, an agent at Stuart Talent Management in Chicago.
Still determined? Here's how you go about the business of finding, and retaining, an agent:
• Call the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) at (312) 573-8081 and request a list of affiliated agencies in Chicago. PerformInk's The Kids Book: A Parent's Guide to the Business of Child Acting provides a comprehensive list of local agents, classes, coaches and photographers.
• Don't pay anyone up front. Union-franchised agencies, those that are registered with SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), are paid a 10 percent commission on your earnings. "If you don't make money, we don't make money," says Samuelson.
• Contact prospective agencies by mail. Send a few good snapshots with a letter about your child. Include vital statistics such as age, height, weight and parent contact information. If you don't hear anything, resubmit your information in a few months, updating photos or adding any new acting experience.
• Don't call an agent. They'll call you if they're interested.
• Most agents are wary of "pageant" parents. That means kids should attend meetings without wearing make-up and come dressed as they would for school.
• Let your child be a child. "I'd rather the parent says ‘no' to an audition if there's a birthday party or something important," says Alexander. "If you force your child to go, he's not going to want to be there and he's not going to get the part."
• Book out for the season if your child is involved in a sport or another activity. "Go to camp if that's what you want to do. Play soccer. Do well in school. You're only a kid once and there will be many, many more auditions," says Susan Handelman, a Highland Park-based acting coach. "Everyone is an individual. What you bring to a part is you. That's what's special."
• Don't be pushy. "I encourage parents to take a step back and not be too pushy," says Handelman. "Casting agents, directors and producers like to know the parent is easy to work with. Besides having a good kid, that's who they're working with. If the parent is stressed, nervous or anxious, the child is likely to be stressed, nervous and anxious," she says.
Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago-based writer and the mother of two girls.