Natalie Watts wants to be a Broadway star. And, even though she’s only 8, she’s getting closer to her dream.
Already a stage veteran, Natalie has played Young Simba in “The Lion King,” Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” and now is taking on her biggest show yet, Baliwick Repertory’s production of “The Christmas Schooner.” It’s a musical that tells the story of a ship that sinks on its way to bring Christmas trees from Michigan to German immigrants in Chicago.
“I think this show’s going to become my most favorite because it’s a step closer and closer to Broadway,” says Natalie, who plays the role of Mary Clare, a young Irish immigrant who awaits the ships coming in to the docks.
Mitchell Hollis, 11, of Lake in the Hills, also has a part in “The Christmas Schooner,” playing the role of young Karl Stossel, the son of a man who sails on the ship from Michigan. He has been acting since he was 6, and he has dreams of acting until he is old.
“I like it because I get to be somebody else,” he says. “I don’t get to just be me.” Making his debut
While Natalie and Mitchell are stage veterans, 11-year-old Ben Labaschin is making his professional debut playing the part of Chip in The Marriott Theatre’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.” He has never had any professional acting or singing training.
“The most exciting part about acting is that every time when you act, you’re going to be a different person,” says Ben. “A different personality.”
Acting is a lot of work. And it can be a daunting task to have memorize pages of lines. But Ben’s mom, Susan Labaschin, says he never asks for any help with his lines. He learns them by himself.
Also, Ben studies his role. He had never seen “Beauty and the Beast” before the audition. “I watched it [after] and looked closely at the parts that I was in, how he acted, how I act, how I can make that part better, how I can fit it into the play,” he says.
Ben, who attended theatre camps in the summer, says he’s not afraid.
“It feels like I’m doing the thing that I do best,” he says. “And it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
Mitchell says he takes characteristics from his friends to relate to the characters he has to play. In one audition, he played a blind boy.
“I have a friend that’s blind and I understand how it can be very confusing and frustrating,” he says. “And I talk to him about that.”
All three child actors share a passion for acting, but juggling everything can be difficult. Each child has his or her own method of coping with school, rehearsals, dance steps and conveying character.
“It gets kind of annoying sometimes,” says Ben, fifth-grader at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Northfield. “I fall asleep in school sometimes.”
Natalie, a third-grader at Jackson Elementary, says she has the same problem. “I have to sit down and force myself to stay awake,” she says.
Mitchell says he finds a way to just keep focusing and get his work done. “My teachers aren’t very scared because I’m a straight A student,” he says. “I’m really glad that I’m doing that.” Lots of responsibility
Being a child actor surrounded by adults can be a little unnerving, but the children say they learn a lot from older actors.
“You can be anything you want and they let you be that person. They just give you advice,” says Ben.
“It’s fun because they teach you new stuff,” says Mitchell.
The children are being paid for their work, which means they need to learn financial responsibility as well.
“I’ve indoctrinated him with the importance of saving money,” says Labaschin, Ben’s mom. “The first thing he said was when he gets paid he was going to put it in his college fund. He’s very mature when it comes to money.”
All three actors agree that being on stage is the most exciting part about acting; they all said they never get nervous.
In her advice to future child actors, Natalie says: “No. 1: Don’t be shy when you’re on the stage. It shows. No. 2: Have fun when you’re doing it ‘cause that shows, too. You need to just be up there with all the confidence you can muster up. If you have fun, your audience has fun.”
Uttama Patel is a Chicago Parent intern and a student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.