For our annual Back Stage spotlight on young performers, six of our writers spoke with representatives of different segments of the industry with whom kids will have to work. Agents, directors, managers, producers, casting directors, and union reps—as well as parents and kids themselves— each give their unique industry perspective on the do's and don'ts of how to go about having the best experience possible pursuing a career in this business we call show.
So You Want to Be in Showbiz—Canvassing Parents and Kids
By Esther Tolkoff
All of the parents and young actors Back Stage spoke with agree that the kids themselves must love to perform and want a career as a child actor or it just won't work.
"Someone once told me your child has to lead you to it; you don't lead the child," says Nancy Anton. And so it was after Nancy took her oldest son, Jason, on a 7-year-old suburban child's "activity"—auditioning for The Missoula Children's Theater when it passed through her Westchester area. Jason landed a small part and was smitten. He asked to go to auditions, began to work professionally at the Westchester Broadway Theater, and learned about agents and managers. He asked his mother to take him into the city, and for the last seven years (Jason is now 14) has been appearing in commercials, on television, and in dinner theatres.
Initially, says Nancy, "I didn't know what I was doing," so she and her husband, Rich, learned lots of the don'ts. But, in time, auditioning became a fact of family life. Jason's younger brother, Scott, age 12, is in the feature film "Harrison's Flowers" (playing Harrison's son, Cesar), while even younger brother Kevin, at the ripe old age of seven, works in commercials and dinner theatre.
Quinn Shephard, also 7, plays the character of Cesar's sister in "Harrison's Flowers." Her delight was obvious as she sauntered down the red carpet to the New York opening, smiling at the hordes of cameramen calling, "Over here, baby," as they sought her attention. Quinn and Scott agreed that the brouhaha was "fun." Quinn's parents, Michael and Laurie Shephard (Laurie is also an actress), say this feeling of "fun" is a must. Quinn's mother whisked her off to bed early from the post-screening party because Quinn was tired. Both children's families took them out of the theatre during the movie's rough war scenes.
Do Let Your Child Be a Child
The biggest "do" of all, says Laurie Shephard, is to "remember that your child is a child. The reason for everything should be explained—from what the character's situation is to what an audition is. Money should never be made an issue to them. We have a college fund for Quinn, but a child must not be burdened with such talk. We make as big a fuss of her public school plays as any professional appearance. She knows this is what she does, and another child might do sports after school." Shephard initially sent agents snapshots of Quinn with a cover letter. "That's good enough for a very young child."
Connor Paolo, 11, plays the role of Nathan four nights a week (Equity's limit) on Broadway in "The Full Monty," alternating with Aaron Nutter (and each understudies the other). Connor also led his parents. When Connor was six, performance artist Michael Counts spotted him wandering from actor to actor in his company's (Gale Gates et al) version of "Ulysses," presented in a Brooklyn gallery. Counts liked what he saw of their interaction, and subsequently used Connor in performance pieces at Federal Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other New York venues. Later, Connor, a Manhattanite, was approached in the street and offered a chance to audition for the film, "Stepmom." He got a callback and was bitten by the bug. His parents then went all out to support his efforts.
Do Be Practical and Have a Plan
Each of the parents Back Stage spoke with made the point that a child's career requires a huge time commitment from both the child and the parents—shuttling to auditions, running lines with the child, and traveling out-of-town (or even out of the country—"Harrison's Flowers" was shot in the Czech Republic) for long stretches. Parents must also watch out for the child's interests on both the business and personal levels, and stay alert to balancing schooling and working.
Connor's parents were knowledgeable about "the business." Colin Paolo writes screenplays, as well as scripts for live industrials. His wife, Julia Mendelsohn, Connor's mother, is a classical pianist and a vocal coach. They feel planning a child's education is a definite "do." Connor studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, both places where "managers and agents attend showcases." His parents asked around to choose Connor's agents: Ellen Gilbert (legit) and Bonnie Shumofsky (commercials and voice-overs) of the Abrams Artist Agency. He studies with coach Peggy Lewis and attends New York City's Public Performing Art School, which, Connor notes, "is very flexible about letting kids go to auditions, but you've got to make sacrifices. Sometimes you'll skip being with friends because you're working. Sometimes you have to pass on an audition because you've got a test in school. You need a lot of discipline if this is what you want to do."
When Connor had simultaneous shots at roles in both "To Kill a Mockingbird" (a limited run at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C.) and "The Full Monty," his parents felt that "Mockingbird" would provide better training. They noted that Connor was able to develop his character, starting with the initial readings, and, says Colin, "We felt replacement auditions on Broadway would bring the 'Monty' opportunity again." And it did.
Don't Take Rejection Personally
As for the "don'ts," a major one all the children learned is not to take rejection personally. As Connor put it, you have to just "let auditions go." "You've got to have a thick skin," adds Jason Anton. Their parents had explained, and the children clearly got it, that the rejection is not about them. Casting directors may have been seeking someone with a different color hair, or who is slightly shorter. Scott landed the role of Cesar by chance. He was tagging along at his brother's audition and was spotted as the age and type needed for the part.
Quinn's first role was in a commercial for Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and she has done several commercials since (represented by Jan Jarret of Jordan, Gill & Dornbaum, Inc.). Quinn says her mom, and later the director, explains the scenes, and "then I just do it," instinctively. She loves to improvise, but "if the lines are important, I like to memorize them so I won't keep looking up and down instead of at the camera." After making this observation, she returned to happily playing "fetch" with Puzzle, a dog who was present during Quinn's chat with Back Stage.
"You can't be shy," offers Jason Anton. He, Connor, Quinn, and Scott clearly do not have that problem.
There are other "don'ts," of course, and Nancy Anton feels she's learned them all. "A snapshot will do at first. Don't spend a lot of money on pictures. And you can get agents' names from the phone book.
"Be aware of the commitment involved," she stresses. When she first signed with a manager, she declined auditions on days her son was tired or wanted to go to a friend's birthday party. This led to friction. She attributes her clash with the children's first manager to her own ignorance of how things work. "This is a business. I learned you must discuss with a manager what is expected on both sides, though I must confess that as we got more into it, there were times I did indeed do the 'bribing the children with food' thing and loved the vicarious excitement." Rochelle Shulman of RKS Management and agent Barry Kolker of the Carson Organization currently represent the Anton children.
Each of the children interviewed enjoys all aspects of the business in different ways. Connor says, "Voice-overs are easy and they're fun." He and Jason love the theatre. Quinn's bubbly descriptions of her experiences show she enjoys commercials, film, and theatre. And Scott says that in the movies, "You don't have to be nervous, 'cause you can do it again if you mess up."
Talking with Personal Managers
By Amelia David
Whether you're a young performer, or you'd like to turn your dreams of performing into reality, it helps to get advice from professionals. To give you the inside scoop from a manager's point of view, Back Stage asked Arline McGovern (Goodwin & McGovern Theatrical Management), Shirley Grant (Shirley Grant Management), Michele Donay (Michele Donay Talent Management), and Eileen DeNobile (Noble Talent Management) for some young performer "do's and don'ts." With experience in the business ranging from 18 to 25 years, each has clients who have starred (or are starring) on Broadway, TV, film, cable, and commercials.
Do It Because You (and Your Family) Love It
Our panel agreed the only reason to start or stay in the business is because you want to. When it's no longer fun, then it's time to temporarily take a break, or leave. As Eileen DeNobile observes, "I think the do's and don'ts for kids are the same as for any actor—it has to be fun! I know I love my job and I want them to love theirs." These managers all say, thankfully, that they're seeing more kids dragging their parents in, as opposed to the stereotypical stage parents who push their child.
Kids also need to consider their family's feelings, as the rigorous scheduling demands of a showbiz career affect everyone at home. Ask yourself if someone can and wants to be available to get you to your appointments. Auditions can come five days a week, often with less than 24 hours notice. The "sides" (lines you'll need to learn) are usually available the day before; it's expected kids will arrive prepared while still keeping up their school work. "It's a commitment from the kids, and especially their parents, who have to be ready, willing, and able to work with us and be prepared to be flexible," adds Eileen DeNobile. "Know what your family can handle." Shirley Grant confides, "A lot of kids call us up for themselves now, so we screen families first. Parents need to be honest. I'd hate to do an interview in the office and find I really want to work with that special child, only to find the parents aren't as available as they need to be." Many managers like Grant only see the child, not the parent, during the initial interview/audition. It quickly becomes clear if the child or the parent is more interested in the business, and if the child is outgoing, talkative, confident, energetic, friendly, and cooperative (hopefully with parents to match).
Don't Get Ahead of Yourself with Photos and Classes
So how do you get started? Our panel stressed they can see the same "spark" in a mailed snapshot, so don't immediately invest in professional photos. "I like to give it some time before asking for professional photos to see if the child even continues to want to perform," says Eileen DeNobile. Arline McGovern adds, "I'm one of the few managers who believes you don't need a professional photo for commercials." All felt children up to five don't need a professional photo. Sears was mentioned unanimously as a fine place for getting photographs. All agreed that "kids should look like kids," natural, with no fancy hairdos, costumes, or backgrounds. They're turned off by, as Shirley Grant describes, "10 year olds made up to look like 20. It's just terrible." Arline McGovern also cautions, "The snapshot should be just of the child to be interviewed, not a family/group photo, and it should be a front facial view without a hat or props, which make it harder to see the child." Although older kids and teens, especially for legitimate theatre, film, and soaps, will eventually need a professional black-and-white headshot (and you'll need to keep your manager supplied), our panel cautioned no one should be asking you up front to spend money on photos or acting classes. Michele Donay advises, "If someone wants you to get photos, have them give you a list of names you can then choose from, to avoid anyone getting a kickback." Most of our panel enjoys reading personal letters with photos and felt it helped spark their interest.
Do Find a Balance Between Professional and Life Experience
For infants and toddlers, a resume should focus on what the child is capable of doing physically. For kids and teens, our panel agreed that getting school, camp, community, and regional theatre experience adds more than resume credits. Observes Eileen DeNobile, "There's no learning like learning on a stage." McGovern feels, however, that this should be done before you seek management. "Once you're signed, you might not have the time." Shirley Grant points out that she's also found special kids with no resume credits. McGovern finds, too, that the more kids read at home and put themselves on tape, the more comfortable they'll feel. She adds that kids don't need to be "good looking or pretty."
Having a balance between performing and your life (school, friends, hobbies, sports, etc.) is also important. McGovern continues, "It's the kids who have a balanced life that do best." This balancing act can mean clients want to take time off. If so, you must make sure you "book out," which means alerting everyone that you're unavailable for auditions or work. It's frustrating and embarrassing if a manager gets you an audition only to find you are unavailable, so keep them informed. Whether it's for the wrestling team or to star in the school play, etc., most managers believe in "letting kids be kids." Still, our panel suggests you should try to work with them on the timing. Be aware of things like winter "pilot season" (TV pilots generally cast from January to the end of March) and other peak audition times.
Don't Lose Perspective on Your Abilities and Manners
As far as training is concerned, our sources agreed that younger children should avoid training in order to remain "natural." There were different opinions as to when this should change. Michele Donay cautions, "When a child has been in the business for a while, if they aren't getting work by then, classes can just be another way for someone to make money off them." Shirley Grant believes "Broadway roles need great singers. I believe singers should be training even at a young age." She also likes older kids to use coaches. Eileen DeNobile finds that she pays more attention to those teens whose resumes show extensive training. She advises, "Younger kids don't need to be polished, but teens must focus on perfecting their craft and studying." She also observes if a child is at an age when there are fewer auditions available, then that's the perfect time to study. Michele Donay believes children need to show their acting skills by 10-12 years old, but this needs to be their own talent, rather than something a class provides.
Our panel also shared audition bad habits to avoid: chewing gum, running around the audition office (instead of reading or coloring quietly), and arriving unprepared, late, or even too early. Have consideration for other people's time. Let your manager know if you're running late and never be a "no show." As Arline McGovern explains, "You're taking that time slot from another performer and wasting room time someone paid for in this economy." She adds, "With me, two strikes and you're out. Stay humble and grateful even after successes. I've seen kids who don't—and no one wants to work with them."
Eileen DeNobile adds, "Different auditions need different 'reads' [i.e., requirements]. Don't assume you can just cross over. Because you've had the patience for a five-hour commercial shoot doesn't mean you have the discipline and focus to do a film or be on stage." She suggests film needs a natural reading, while commercials should be upbeat. Sitcoms need high comic energy, while theatre calls for a bigger audition, because it involves working with an audience.
Finally, our management panel cautions you to look for a personal manager willing and able to give you his or her time, both on the phone and in person. You can find a diverse list of managers in this issue of Back Stage, and you'll find the Ross Reports also does an annual managers list (call 800-745-8922 for information).
Advice from Directors & Producers
By Catherine Castellani
What do directors and producers wish young performers would do? What do they wish child performers and their parents would not do? People who work with young people say they find the experience energizing and inspiring, and the suggested do's and don'ts that follow are rooted in a real regard for kids and their talents, as well as compassion for the hard work and time commitment these kids' parents devote to their kids' careers.
Do Be Honest About Desire Level and Don't Resist Change
Desire creates motivation. The stronger your desire for an acting career, the greater your motivation to overcome the setbacks that are inevitable in this business. In speaking to producers and directors who work with young performers, the importance of true desire is emphasized time and again. First, the child actor himself must have a strong desire to perform and participate in the business. If that desire is there, the parents responsible need to ask themselves if they can genuinely support and encourage their child in this pursuit, and to what extent. It's one thing to allow and support an after-school theatre program for your kids. It's another thing to take half a day out of your schedule to escort your children to a commercial go-see.
"This business is fraught with hurry up and wait," says Deyna Vesey, creative director and co-president of Kidvertisers. "It can be rigorous. Do you really want to do this? Does your kid really want to do this? Certain kids really do want to be in front of the camera, but some are pushed." How strong is your desire?
With children, things change, and change fast. A child pursuing professional work will need new headshots at least every year. That is only one of the expenses of pursuing an acting career. Finances certainly have an impact on desire, and what worked for your family one year may not work the next.
Beyond physical changes, kids change emotionally and mentally. Vesey has seen this at Kidvertisers many times. "Recognize when your kid's attitude has changed. Just because a kid loves this at age 10 doesn't mean they won't be freaked out by the whole business at 11," says Vesey.
Do Learn Professionalism and Don't Vent on the Job
Kids are not born professionals. They need guidance, support, and, occasionally, admonishment. Theatre is a wonderful environment for a kid to learn about courtesy, promptness, and getting along and working with others. Elizabeth Lucas, a director who has worked frequently with children, says that children she's worked with can be "every bit as professional and well-behaved as the adult members of the cast." Kids learn from the director, from the other actors, but most especially, they learn at home.
Being a professional means honoring commitments. This isn't easy for a kid with homework on top of professional demands. Time management is rarely a natural talent of seven-year-olds. Kids usually need help developing self-discipline and managing all the demands on their time.
Kids can be quickly overwhelmed. "I wish kids had less homework than they do. Kids seem to be so overburdened!" says Janine Trevens, executive and artistic director of TADA! The TADA! program produces high-quality productions, provides training, and requires a commitment of at least a year from participants. When taking on long-term projects like this, it's important for kids to understand that choosing theatre might mean saying no to other fun activities.
Disappointment is an inevitable part of the performing arts. You audition for a play and you don't get cast. Or you get cast but you don't get the part you wanted. Or maybe you just don't agree with the director's approach. Every actor has had these experiences and feelings. The worst thing a performer can do is to complain about the situation to fellow actors, the director, or the producer.
"Let kids express any anger or fear to parents, not the director," suggests Trevens. Feelings are natural and real, but they're also messy. Teach kids when, where, and with whom it's okay to vent their frustrations, and when letting it all out might lead to hurt feelings and resentments.
The more opportunities you get to perform, the better performer you are likely to be. Lucas has worked with children in a summer-stock setting, and was impressed by their artistic development. "When a kid grows up in the environment of summer stock, doing six or seven shows a year, they get pretty good!"
Do Be Yourself and Don't Be Afraid to Take Chances
Casting can be a mysterious process. It's not always clear why one person is cast and another is rejected. Especially in the commercial realm, a certain look may play a bigger role in casting than an actor would like. The temptation is to try to figure out what "they" want, and somehow be that. This isn't a good state of mind for anyone, and can be very damaging for young kids. Vesey says, "When we hire, we're looking for all kinds of kids. Some people think you have to have the perfect Norman Rockwell image to get cast, but it's not true."
Lucas says, "If I'm bringing a child onto the stage, it's because I want the child to be a child. Sometimes you see a child who is so coached, so polished that there is no spontaneity." Whoever you are, be yourself.
Directors try a lot of things during the rehearsal process. Some work and some don't. Actors collaborate in this discovery process by trusting the director, trying new things, and bringing their own imagination and inspiration to the group. "Kids are taught in school to try to give the right answer. It takes a while for them to learn that in theatre it isn't that way," says Trevens.
So do take a creative chance, and do your artistic homework. And don't argue with the director about every piece of blocking or suggestion. Give it a try and keep an open mind.
Do Be Prepared and Don't Be Uninvolved
"Bring your lunch," says Vesey, "and lots of toys." Vesey has seen parents come all the way from Philadelphia for a New York shoot. Being involved in this business takes a lot of time, and a lot of patience. Be prepared for everything to take longer than is reasonable. If you are schlepping small children to go-sees and commercial auditions, be prepared for tears, hunger, sleep, and boredom. Little tykes couldn't care less that they're in the office of a powerful producer. If they don't have the teddy they need, they will throw a fit.
"Family support and understanding is important," says Trevens. It seems obvious, but kids do need to know that they are what's important, not the career. They also need to know that their ambitions are respected, and their family believes in them. Putting your kids first also means being aware of what is being asked of them by producers and directors. Most professionals who work with children like kids and understand their special needs, but there are stories of kids being worked outrageous hours—being treated like little adults—which is not appropriate. Stay involved, ask questions, and listen to your child. If something doesn't sound right, speak up.
Above All, Do Have Fun
If your child is joyful and enthusiastic about the work, you're on the right track. If it stops being fun, stop. It might be fun for a while, then not fun, then fun again. That's normal. There may be times when the mood of the moment is sour, but the overall experience is still good. There may also be times when a commitment has been made that has become unwelcome or inconvenient, but the bigger lesson for your kids may be to honor a commitment no matter what. The people who work the most closely with kids agree that the overall feeling has to be fun, light, and enjoyable, for parents as well as kids. You deserve it.
Catching Up with Casting Directors
By Simi Horwitz
Casting directors have seen it all—from pushy parents to over-prepared kids to, indeed, under-prepared kids. They know what they like and, conversely, what they don't like. Admittedly, there may be some variation. Still, a degree of consensus is evident among the casting directors with whom Back Stage spoke. For parents trying to get their kids into the business, here are some casting director do's and don'ts.
"Parents should provide kids with information about an audition before they get there," says casting director Mark Simon. "Youngsters should have read the scripts and know what the story is about, as well as something about the character they're auditioning for. Child actors should have some general idea of how the scene should be played. But they should not be over-coached."
Simon, who has cast kids in such shows as "Beauty and the Beast," "Parade," and the upcoming Carol Burnett-Carrie Hamilton play, "Hollywood Arms," is impassioned on the subject of over-coaching. There is virtually nothing that turns him off more in a child performer.
"When youngsters are over-coached—and that can include anything from how they should stand to how they should read a line—they often cannot be directed after that. They've simply been over-programmed. What we really like to see is the natural child when he comes to read."
Simon adds that whenever he encounters a youthful actor who has been over-coached—which often expresses itself in fussy stage business—"I'll give the kid a brand new scene and tell him to read from that."
Do Present a Natural Appearance
Simon and the two other casting directors we talked with are gung ho on the subject of seeing the real—unadulterated—youngster throughout. That means the child should both sound and look like a youngster. "I don't want to see miniature adults," Simon emphasizes." Girls should not be wearing makeup.
"When we were auditioning kids for the Carol Burnett play," he continues, "They all looked like they were auditioning for a Gap commercial. They all looked like young, hip Britney Spears—and it was all wrong."
Jamibeth Margolis, a casting director with Johnson-Liff Associates, echoes the viewpoint. "The youngster should be dressed the way he would be if he were going to school."
Nonetheless, she believes that kids should have some idea of what the costumes look and feel like. But under no circumstances, she emphasizes, should the young actors come "dressed in character. We don't need or want their preconceived notions." Margolis is the casting director for "Les Misérables"; earlier, she served as casting director for "Miss Saigon."
Appearance, of course, is only part of the equation. Simon, Margolis, and Sharon Lieblein—a Los Angeles-based casting director for Nickelodeon's "Brothers Garcia" and "Taina"—offer a host of do's and don'ts to parents hoping to get their kids into the business.
Do Let Your Child Decide
The most important consideration, all the casting directors concur, is the young performer's desire to be a performer. There is just nothing worse than a kid who clearly doesn't want to be acting and is fulfilling some parental fantasy, notes Simon. And you can always feel the negative vibe.
Not unlike the put-upon adult, a child who is uninterested—or worse, angry—"won't laugh or make eye contact. One of the most unpleasant auditions I ever sat through was with a youngster who read the lines with his back to us," recalls Simon. "You cannot push kids into doing what they don't want.
"Before you take a child to an audition for a commercial or TV show or professional production, help him get started in a school play or community theatre," Simon advises. "It's important to find out if this is what the kid wants to do. Otherwise, acting can quickly become another example of last year's hobby."
Simon makes the point that child actors had better want to act, especially in light of the competition and rejection that are inherent in the industry at all ages. They also need resiliency, especially if they're on the road in unfamiliar towns. And even if they are performing in New York, much rescheduling is called for.
Don't Apply Pressure
Simon warns that acting "takes motivation and flexibility on their [the kids'] part. And that comes from a secure and encouraging family life. And generally, we have observed the best young actors come from precisely that kind of family."
Margolis agrees, suggesting that she is especially concerned about the way the audition is presented to the child by the parent. If it is not handled properly, the whole experience can be devastating and, worse, scarring.
"It has to be viewed as a good experience, whether or not the kid gets the job," she asserts. "The parents should explain to the youngster that even if he doesn't get this job, the experience of auditioning may help him get a job the next time around. And auditioning can be a way to boost a kid's self-confidence."
Says Lieblein: "It is so important for auditioning youngsters to have other things going on in their life besides the next audition. The audition should only be one of many things that the kid is doing."
That doesn't mean young performers should arrive at an audition so relaxed that they've had no preparation. On the most superficial level, they should know they'll be going into the audition alone. Parents must wait in the room outside.
More important, "Kids should know something about the material they'll be auditioning for," says Lieblein. "I'm not saying that they have to have a script memorized—unless it's sketch comedy—but they shouldn't get up there to read and fumble along."
Adds Margolis, "The young performer should know something about the character he is auditioning for, and with 'Les Miz' [as a case in point], he should have memorized the song he will be singing at the audition and know what the words mean. Generally, he should be familiar with the music throughout the show."
Lieblein believes youngsters are well served if they are encouraged to "take their time at an audition. If after a reading, they feel they could have done it better, they should say so. I will almost always give someone a chance to read again. I am also very open to kids' questions about the character. If there is something they don't understand, they should say so. Although I do try to make kids feel as comfortable as possible, I don't have time for chitchat. And some casting directors don't like chumminess at all. Kids should be encouraged to feel out each situation individually."
Don't Presume, but Do Ask Questions
But as much as Lieblein is receptive to questions and intelligent comments from the young actors, she is turned off if parents "feel free to ask casting directors questions that presuppose the kid has the job way before he has been cast in it."
That is not to say that parents should come unprepared. They should have a list of questions ready, just in case their kid is in the running for a role.
"If the show is going on tour, parents should ask, 'What towns will be visited on the tour? How long will the tour last? What are the terms of the contract? What is the salary? And what provisions are being made for housing and schooling?'
"Parents have to realize that if his child gets the job, an adult is going to have to be traveling with him," continues Margolis. "We encounter a lot of parents who have thought through none of these issues, including the effect a kid in a show [on tour or on Broadway] will have on the whole family."
But the most serious problem, from Margolis' viewpoint, is a parent who does not follow directions. "When we indicate that we are looking for a kid of a certain height, for example, we are serious about that. You'd be amazed how many parents bring down their children regardless. They should know we send them home, and all it succeeds in doing is disappointing the kids."
And, warns Lieblein, a related mistake for parents with a youngster in tow "is showing up at a casting director's office without an appointment." That, to paraphrase Whitney Houston, is the greatest "don't" of all.
Wisdom of the Agents
By Michael Lazan
According to Jan Jarret, the quite relaxed and personable agent with Jordan, Gill & Dornbaum, Inc., there are three reasons that parents might want to get their children involved in the entertainment business.
The first—and really the best—reason is when your children themselves express an interest to you. The second reason, "also an excellent reason," is when parents invite their children to try entertainment because they want to expose them to a variety of different stimuli. The third reason, of course, is the Jungian formula whereby parents express their unfulfilled desires through their children.
This last reason, which naturally is frowned upon by agents, is not quite as common as you might think, according to Jessica Schoenholtz, an agent with Generation TV. "Kids really need to really want to do this," says the youthful but sharp Schoenholtz, who is very earnest in tone. She adds: "Most parents are not really pushy, and if they are, the kids are not good and they will resist."
Don't Push Your Child
Children who are receptive only when parents are around are also not likely to succeed in persuading agents to represent them. "The parents will be in the waiting room—you'll really have nothing to do with the child," says Jarret. Of course, there are some parents who will insist on being with the children, making it easy for the agent to choose candidates. "We eliminate more children because of poor behavior on the parent's part than on the child's part," she says.
How to proceed if you choose to pursue this path for the right reasons? The usual way is sending a picture, with as much of a resume as possible, and the photograph does not have to be professional. "The most important thing is a recent, clear photo, unposed, very natural," says Schoenholtz. "I do open all my mail, and I bring in a choice few," says Jarret, who has gotten "100 pictures a week for 17 years."
Who gets selected for the interview? It's basically "looking at the face," says Jarret. "In the main, that works." The face is also the emphasis at the interview, where some parents choose to dress their children up in too elaborate a costume. Problem is, agents don't really care if a child is dressed cleverly. "I don't want them to be dressed in fancy clothes, just play clothes are good, and I don't do anything special, I just give them a little script to look at," says Jarret.
Do Consider Acting Classes
For the mail-averse, it's also possible to meet agents through other means. Schoenholtz likes to go scouting at showcases held at the end of a particularly notable acting coach's classes. "The classes may be about five months or so, then they will either have a performance, or kids read commercials, or maybe different skits, sometimes singing. Agents will be invited to attend the performance." Jarret also says she gets many of her clients through this process "from acting classes, regional schools, in addition to recommendations from existing talent, casting directors." Schoenholtz, whose agency receives about 75 phone calls a day from interested parents, was good enough to provide Back Stage readers with the names of two acting coaches who have especially good connections with agencies: Kerry Lea of Acting Creatively and Peggy Lewis of Biz Kids.
There are also conventions throughout the country that allow children to show off their talents to agencies. These conventions, which ordinarily require parents to pay quite a bit of money, come in two different flavors. "There are a handful of reputable scouting conventions. One in Orlando flies in all sorts of agents and casting directors to scout the kids in a sort of runway model fashion," says Schoenholtz. "There are other conventions where the meetings are more individualized, where the parents and kids wait in a long line and eventually get to talk to us and read for us." Schoenholtz notes that parents are likely to have to move to New York or Los Angeles if they are interested in pursuing this kind of work for their child. She adds, "They might want to move to New York for the summer on a trial basis to see how they like it."
Do Have Personality and Smarts
After the interviews and the meetings, the readings and the greetings, whom ultimately do these agents select? They are the children with "outstanding, outgoing personalities and a cute look," says Jarret. "They do not have to be beautiful, can be heavy, have glasses even—but it has to be an appealing package. Then, there's talent. Many children have natural talent, as augmented by lessons in diction, acting, singing, and dancing." Schoenholtz adds, "It's usually natural acting ability, and a lot of personality, and it's always good to have had an acting class."
Though there are some jobs for babies and very small children, most of the jobs are for school-age kids. "For kids under six, there are a limited amount of hours they can be on the sets for TV and film—this is why twins and triplets are used," says Jarret. It is especially helpful if the children are bright enough to read and memorize lines, and take direction to boot. In fact, "most of the kids who do this are bright, and do well at school," says Jarret.
Of categories of children where there may be a lack of talent, Schoenholtz says there is no particular preference for redheads, brunettes, tall or short, black or white, but points to a need for 13-16-year-old males who are "cool," for lack of a better phrase. Of course, not too many 13-16 year old males are all that cool to begin with, which is perhaps the problem.
Don't Be Unavailable to Your Kid's Career
Speaking of cool, it's incumbent on parents to keep their cool throughout this long and often arduous process. It's really a full-time career for a parent, who must travel back and forth to auditions, arrange scheduling and booking, and even constantly provide the agent with new pictures given how children change so quickly. "If both parents work and there's no one to bring the child in, it won't work," says Jarret, flatly. Also, parents have to be willing and able to deal with a particularly tempestuous business with constantly changing schedules and deadlines. "If you are inflexible, don't pursue it," says Jarret. "You will be rescheduled three times, even if your child is a big success."
Parents also have to be willing to deal with annoying disruptions to a child's school schedule. Though, pursuant to law, all agent appointments are to be after school hours, children may miss a fair amount of school if they want to choose the path of entertainment. "In Los Angeles, if you book something, there's a tutoring process that comes into play," says Jarret. "In New York, if you book something, you can miss two days and not get any assigned tutoring."
Lastly, Schoenholtz notes, don't be so desperate to work with an agency that you might be fleeced of your hard-earned money. "You should never have to pay money to be represented by an agency," says Schoenholtz.
Child Actors and Union Protections
By Roger Armbrust
You're a parent with a child who's auditioned and gotten an acting job on stage, television, or screen. When does your child have to join a performers union, and how do you go about helping him or her do that? And even before those two queries may come the question: Why should my child join a union?
Back Stage went to some pros who know.
One is Paul Petersen, once a successful child actor, now a leading advocate for protection of performing children. He's the major child-protection voice for both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), directly involved with Congress and state legislatures nationwide in formulating proposed laws to guard and nurture child performers.
Louise Foisy works with the staff of Actors' Equity Association, concentrating on the production contract, Equity's pact for Broadway shows and national Broadway tours.
Do Be Wary of Non-Union Conditions
Petersen has seen enough performing children suffer to be highly critical of non-union productions and just plain high on union protection:
"The non-union work place, particularly for children, since we have no laws for protecting them in that environment, is a very risky proposition," Petersen explains. "The non-union workplace is fraught with slow pay, no pay, and no recourse if working conditions are not what they should be. There are excessive hours, and no mandatory schooling in many jurisdictions. What's particularly hurtful if a non-union touring company goes out, like 'The Music Man,' is who is guaranteeing that children have adequate rest breaks? Get their education? And aren't being forced to perform till 11 at night and then have to climb on a bus to get to the next town?"
On the non-union tour, nobody can guarantee it. But, notes Petersen, "All these issues have been the subject of bargaining with major players, that is, the unions and the major touring companies. SAG and AFTRA and Equity have bargained for safety in the workplace, for contractual obligations between producers and performers, and we have agreed on contractual obligations governing children. Our contract travels with our children if they're members of our union. State laws don't matter. Our contracts address the presence of a parent or guardian, timely payment, and recourse if the contract isn't met."
With those protections available in union productions on tour, stage, set, or location, how does the parent gain access to them? The process is different for stage than for TV or film.
The federal Taft-Hartley law allows a child to take the first production job-TV show or commercial or feature film-without joining a union. But, if it's for a principal role, the producers are required to inform the unions that your child's been hired. The unions file the information. So when your child takes the second job, the appropriate union will notify you of the need to join, if you haven't already contacted SAG or AFTRA.
Don't Let the Grass Grow
Petersen suggests contacting the union as soon as possible. He notes that contract officers are available for consultation; and the unions also provide workshops specifically to orient parents and child performers to the union and production process. It's important, he says, for both parents and children to know their rights and responsibilities under the law.
That's particularly important because the unions operate under different contracts. For example, SAG has a feature-film contract and a commercials contract. AFTRA's major contract is the network code agreement. While Equity's production pact governs Broadway, other contracts arise for resident theatres, summer stock, and a plethora of other areas. Contract officers at the different unions can guide the parent down the proper course.
Union staff can also assist in registering and paying initiation dues and fees. The initiation fees aren't cheap, and vary according to union. But Petersen notes that the pluses of joining the union will quickly prove themselves to parents. Still, the parent should be prepared for the beginning-fees "hit." For example, SAG's initiation fee is $1,272, with basic annual dues of $100, plus added dues scaled according to income.
Do Investigate First Hand and Don't Go It Alone
Equity's Foisy points out that Taft-Hartley's "first job free" rule doesn't apply to stage performances. Unlike a TV commercial or film, which has a set time frame for production, a Broadway show could possibly extend for years. So child actors need to join the union once they're hired to perform before the footlights.
But Foisy is also quick to point out the advantages of union protection, and notes that Equity's young performers committee, which includes both member actors and parents, "is active with all contracts; trying to improve where possible employment conditions for young people."
Both Foisy and Petersen note that parents can handle the basics by phone and looking at the unions' websites. But both also encourage parents to come to the unions' headquarters and meet with humans. It's best to call and make an appointment with a contract representative. Also, when registering, the union will want to see a copy of your contract.
"A parent or child may have questions about what union membership means," Foisy notes. "Equity can offer them a lot of support. And by being a member of the young performers committee, a parent can participate and meet other parents, and get practical advice."
Petersen adds that SAG and AFTRA also offer young performers committees involved in contract formulation, and assisting parents and child actors. He believes the new member packets that the unions offer are especially valuable for parents, as are the orientation meetings for young performers where the packets are always available.
Petersen, with years of child and adult performance under his belt, has specific advice for parents new in the work:
"Don't try to make this business up," he concludes. "Show business has an 80-year head start on you. They know how to take advantage of naïve and inexperienced people. We've improved conditions, but we're still not where we want to be."
Only with union protection, he believes, will protection for the child actor, and parent, be assured.
All the unions have websites that contain guidance for registering child performers, paying fees, and copies of contracts, and contact information for getting help. Actors' Equity is at www.actorsequity.org; AFTRA is at www.aftra.org; and SAG is at www.sag.com.