A Primer for Parents

For our annual Spotlight on Young Performers, Back Stage talked with talent agents and personal managers on what it takes for young people to have a career in the performing arts. Choosing which type of professional would work best for your child is an important first step. A talent agent is franchised with any or all of the performing arts unions and is licensed by the state; personal managers are unregulated. Personal managers are typically more hands-on in guiding a young person's career -- have fewer clients than an agent and give individual attention to everything from what roles are best for building a child's career to handling business issues. A talent agent will also advise on some of those questions -- when and how to get professional headshots done (usually not until the child has actually booked some work) and will arrange auditions -- but will be less involved in guiding a child's overall career. There is also a cost difference: a personal manager normally takes a 15% commission, while a talent agent takes an industry standard 10% commission. It's not unusual, if a child reaches a certain level of success, to be represented by both a manager and an agent.

Back Stage also spoke with a casting director, two parents with four kids between them in the business, and 13-year-old Theatre World Award-winning actor Mitchel David Federan of "The Boy From Oz." All our interviewees responded with a wealth of practical advice on how to go about deciding if a career in the performing arts is right for your child, and how to get started and thrive in that most competitive of worlds -- show business. Their top ten pieces of advice appear throughout the article.

Jason Bercy, Talent Agent

Agent Jason Bercy of Gilla Roos Ltd. has had clients who've appeared on "As the World Turns," "Law & Order," and the Nickelodeon TV network and in movies such as "This Revolution," an independent film with Rosario Dawson that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

According to Bercy, for young people just starting out, parents might want to consider speaking with a manager: "A manager can help develop a young person and be helpful in getting young people ready to meet agents." Often, he says, a manager will even introduce his or her clients to an agent. Beyond this, a manager can also be helpful in "getting them into a class, getting their headshots taken."

For young people, headshots are not a requirement for approaching an agent, Bercy says; a snapshot will do, but the pictures should be accompanied by an outline of vital statistics and special skills, along with any performing experience. He understands that young people may not have a lot of the latter, but he stresses that there are ways to get it. They should "try to get involved with as many things as they can -- local community-theatre productions, school and camp plays, etc."

Bercy has similar views on training when considering potential clients. Experience, while valuable, is not necessary, especially for younger performers. He adds, though, that if someone in his or her teens wants to pursue work in theatre, he will look more closely for singing and dance training or community theatre experience. But ultimately, "if they're great, I might take them on even if they don't have training or experience."

After photos and supporting information have been submitted, if there's interest in representing the young person, he will call and set up an appointment. At this initial meeting, the potential client can expect to read from "a commercial and/or a TV scene." And if he or she has a musical theatre background, "I'd want to hear them sing."

After this portion of the meeting, Bercy will conduct a short question-and-answer session, "just to get to know their personality." During the meeting, he is looking for an "outgoing, friendly" child. If he finds the young person standoffish or shy, he might take that as an indication the child is there because the parent is driving the process and the child's heart is not really in pursuing an entertainment career.

After meeting with the young person one-on-one, Bercy will meet with the parents to make sure the relationship will be beneficial for all parties. He needs to ensure that the parents will be supportive of their child's career and dedicated to helping him or her pursue it. This means, for example, taking appointments, getting the child to them on time, and so on.

The parents, he says, can use this part of the meeting to get a sense of the agent and the way he or she works. Some things for a parent to consider include, "Is the agent someone who hasn't got a lot of kids who are the same 'type' as yours? Is the agent someone who you believe will be easy to work with and who will push your child?" It is also important for parents and agent to share a similar perception of the child's "type." For instance, if the parents see their son or daughter as "cool" and "hip" but the agent considers the child to be "quirky," the relationship may not be an advantageous one.

Most important, Bercy says, is the child's desire to pursue theatre, film, and television as a career and, in particular, his or her motivation for doing so: "If you're getting into this, do it because you enjoy it or love it. Not because you want to be a star overnight."

-- Andy Propst

Randi Mollo and Donna Mollo, Personal Managers

Almost every parent thinks -- or at least dreams at one time -- "my child is so adorable, talented, and bright, she would be a natural for showbiz." Wishful musing aside, parents need to do their homework to find out whether a star is indeed ready to be made, and who can help make that possibility a reality.

Finding a talent agent or manager is often a step in that direction. Donna Mollo, who, with her daughter Randi, owns Mollo Management, based in Hewlett, Long Island, says the first thing parents must understand "is that you don't pay for anything until your child is making money. Too often parents are under the false impression they have to pay up front to get their child auditions and work. Licensed talent managers, like ourselves, and agents don't work that way."

She believes it is critical for parents seeking representation for their child to do their homework carefully: "This means parents need to be certain the people with whom they choose to work are licensed talent managers or agents. They should also ask how many children are represented by the agent or manager and how long they have been in business. There are a lot of scammers out there."

Mollo Management, which represents close to 300 young people ranging in age from 3 to 30, recruits talent from metropolitan New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Some clients who have made great strides include David Gallagher from "Look Who's Talking Now," Michelle Trachtenberg of "Harriet the Spy," and Lindsay Lohan, who starred in the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap." Children and young adults represented by the firm sign a standard three-year exclusive contract. Like most other managers, the company charges a 15% commission.

Donna Mollo says the best way for a parent to get her attention is to send a snapshot of the child.

Advises her daughter, "Don't spend a fortune on professional photographs to send to a manager or agent. Start with a snapshot that shows your child's character, potential, personality. If a manager decides to sign your child as a client, he will give you suggestions about professional photographers within your budget."

If she sees something in the snapshot she believes shows the child has potential, Donna will contact the parents and arrange for a meeting with them and the child, usually in New York City. Several sets of parents and children participate in these meetings. There, Donna and Randi speak with the children individually. Donna estimates that out of every 100 children she sees, only 10 or so make the cut.

Randi stresses that a successful career takes talent -- and more: "Your child has to want to do it. Mom or Dad won't be there holding his hand when he goes into an audition. Parents also have to understand the time commitment the audition process takes. Children have to get to auditions on time, and there can be a lot of auditions announced on short notice. A parent needs to be available for these auditions, which usually take place after school, between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m."

Should parents seek a manager or an agent? The Mollos say having a manager usually means that clients have more opportunities for auditions because "agents may work with fewer casting directors and other [professionals]. We work with everyone, so we have more access to auditions. We advise our clients about what might be best for them -- legit, commercials -- and which auditions they should consider and which they should skip."

-- Claudia M. Caruana

Sherry and Mitchel David Federan

Thirteen-year-old Mitchel David Federan is an unusual professional kid: While he loves Broadway, he doesn't want to leave Ohio. Last September, Mitchel finished a run of "The Boy From Oz" on Broadway in which critics heaped praise on his performance as Young Peter Allen: "A pint-sized fireball of energy who brings down the house," said The Hollywood Reporter. He received a Theatre World Award, plus Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for best supporting actor in a musical. Having just finished shooting an ABC Family channel pilot, "Just a Phase," Mitchel is happy to be back in seventh grade in Solon, Ohio.

Mitchel started dancing as soon as he could toddle -- his mother, Sherry, owns a dance studio. When he was 7, he entered a competition in Ohio and one of the judges, a Rockette, suggested he audition for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.

Despite her training in dance, Sherry admits that before the opportunity came up, she hadn't even thought about theatre for her son. But after the Radio City show played in Mexico City, Mitchel landed an agent.

He was a natural, and he quickly developed a singing voice. The national tour of "Annie Get Your Gun" was "an opportunity to see the country," says Sherry, who accompanied Mitchel, along with her mother-in-law. Sometimes her other son, Tommy, would join them. Tommy, says Sherry, is Mitchel's biggest fan.

It is important to Sherry that Mitchel learn and grow from each experience. Playing a chorus member and understudying Winthrop in Susan Stroman's production of "The Music Man" on Broadway was an opportunity to experience New York; playing Young Peter Allen was an opportunity to originate a role: "We wouldn't have done it if it had been another chorus role. We would never take a role unless it was something new to learn and beyond what he did before. I never wanted him to feel like it was a job and ask, 'When can we get "the out"?' "

"The out" is something Sherry learned to have written into a contract. She advises stage parents to realize that they can ask for certain things in their contracts: "The first time we were involved, we didn't realize that we could ask for him to come home at Christmas -- until after Christmas in Mexico City. We always ask for more days off."

Being in New York and on Broadway offered Mitchel new learning opportunities: "He had friends in the show and would go play basketball games in the park -- it was a different and good experience." And Mitchel loves performing. "To be in front of a live audience, the rush is really great for me," he says. "The opening night of 'The Boy From Oz' was a high point."

While the Federans enjoyed New York, they didn't want to move there permanently. Mitchel's father, Mark, could only come to the city on weekends. The Federans talked every day and knew the separation would be only for a short period of time, but "that was definitely the hardest part," says Sherry.

Along with ensuring that each opportunity is a new learning experience for Mitchel, Sherry stresses that she always makes sure there is down time between projects: "As a parent, you want to get them involved in something they really enjoy doing. He's learned a lot, but I also see the other side. He needed balance, where he doesn't do it for a while and gets to come back home."

While Mitchel loves dancing and wants to be an actor when he grows up, "he's experienced what he can as a child actor. It's important for him to get a normal education. Now it's all about movies on weekends, basketball, baseball -- wherever he is, he loves what he's doing." Mitchel admits that he misses performing, but he feels like being home he has "the best of both worlds."

Mitchel advises other stage kids, "Try whatever you can do. Don't specialize." He still loves dancing best, but he wants to do as many different things as he can -- including acting for film and television. Mitchell has appeared on "All My Children" in addition to shooting that pilot.

While stage children earn money, Sherry says, "doing theatre is not moneymaking." However, knowing he was making money encouraged Mitchel to learn about saving and stocks from his uncle, a financial advisor. He even created his own Web page, www.mitcheldavidfederan.com. He's a real self-starter.

But then, most stage kids are.

-- Gwen Orel

Sue Crystal, Casting Director

Casting director Sue Crystal, who has been in the business for 17 years and has cast youngsters in hundreds of commercials and 15 independent features, knows exactly what she is looking for in her child actors.

"I want someone who is able to take direction, is intelligent, doesn't ask questions, and wants to be there." She is passionate that a child performer -- though not an infant, of course -- needs to be professional in his behavior: "When we say, 'Go to the mark,' he'll go there. He'll do what he is told."

She also wants the child to arrive at the audition "appropriately dressed for the commercial" but also looking like a child: "No makeup and no party dresses, unless told to come wearing one." She doesn't like to see kids dressed "in all white, all black, or in loud prints, although bold colors are fine."

She also offers advice to parents who come with their kids to auditions: "I like those parents who are nice, quiet, and stay out of the way. I don't appreciate parents who bother me or question me. I also do the kids' makeup and I don't want the parents to put their two cents in on how they think the child should be made up. Nobody likes it -- not the wardrobe people, not the hair people.

"It's very important for parents to bring their children to the audition on time," she continues. "It's not uncommon for parents to bring their kids very early. They should be there when they are told to be there. And, most important, one parent comes with one child. No brothers, sisters, grandparents, or friends."

But nothing irritates Crystal more than parents who feel free to call her after the audition: "Don't ever do that." She admits that if a parent takes the liberty of calling her, the child will automatically be out of the running, even if he or she had been a contender.

It should be noted that Crystal does not cast on the basis of photos that are sent in cold -- she doesn't even look at them, she says. She works only through managers and agents because doing so usually guarantees a level of professionalism. For example, agents and managers, for the most part, will send professional headshots and resumes. But if for some reason professional pictures are unavailable -- "8x10s, with a resume attached" -- Crystal does not want to see snapshots, not even of infants: "Don't bring anything. I will take the Polaroid here. Parents are given forms to fill out and they should come knowing the child's shoe size and clothing size."

One phenomenon that has never fully died out is the stage parent. They still exist, especially in connection with small kids, and they continue to be off-putting. "No child should be pushed," asserts Crystal. "It's always obvious when a child is being pushed. He's embarrassed; he cries. Older children shouldn't be pushed, either. They have to let the parent know that they want to do the work."

-- Simi Horwitz

Martha Henney and Family: Patrick, Katie, and Lizzie

Martha Henney has three children in show business. Almost-14-year-old Lizzie is set to perform in two upcoming musicals: "Interaction," on Theatre Row in May, and "Sunshine," part of the Kaufman Center Presentations at Merkin Concert Hall in April. Eight-year-old Patrick plays Chip in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway. Twelve-year-old Katie is performing in the "American Girl Revue," playing three different roles.

Though Henney and her husband are not performers themselves, it's easy to hear where her children get that bubbly, outgoing energy. Her enthusiasm is contagious: "We have dinner together every night. Everything out of everyone's mouth is a movie line, or a line from a play they've seen or are working on."

Her children got involved in theatre through afterschool classes. Like the little boy in "A Chorus Line," little Katie tagged along when Lizzie went to her first theatre class, called Dress Up and Make Believe. She was barely two.

And the Henneys haven't looked back. Martha would drive the kids into New York from Connecticut every Saturday for musical classes at TADA! One day she noticed an audition for "American Girl" in Back Stage. Not going to TADA! was "a big no-no," but Martha thought, "Just this once." The directors told Katie they'd love to have her for the part of Michelle, but she needed to learn how to tap. The callback was several months away, so tap teachers came to the Henney house, and when Katie went back, she got the part.

The moral? When opportunity knocks, pull out all the stops. Patrick made his first stage appearance a year ago when big sister Lizzie got a part in the musical "Ragamuffins" and the director needed boys.

Being a stage parent can uproot your whole life. After putting thousands of miles on the car commuting from Connecticut, the Henneys decided to move to New York. For them, the hardest part of being stage parents isn't the competition. Nor is it rejection -- the children know that casting directors are looking for somebody specific to match the picture in their mind.

It's the schlepping: "We do a ton of schlepping and spend a lot of time in the car. There's a lot of time waiting. It's hard on me sometimes -- lugging things around, getting stuff in the car. The sleep issue is tough, too: My son gets to nap; we don't."

And don't expect to have a floor so clean you can eat off it: "The house is a disaster -- it can be hard to stay organized. I've gotten a ton of parking tickets."

One of the most successful strategies for controlling chaos has been enrolling the girls in the Professional Children's School in Manhattan (Patrick is too young): "Katie felt funny leaving school in Connecticut, feeling like her friends didn't like her anymore because she was always getting out early. Here all the kids are in the same boat and they all pull together. The school understands the demanding schedule. The kids are given assignments a month in advance."

Most of the children's friends are now other professional kids they know from school. As for tension between "real life" and show business, "They have been involved with [show business] for so long, I don't think they miss [real life]. Sometimes they miss vacations. They go to musical theatre camps -- their lives are consumed with theatre. When they have a couple of days in a row not doing anything, it drives them crazy."

The "American Girl Revue" in which Katie appears is based on the dolls of the same name: Each doll represents a character from a different part of history, with a few "real girl" characters to tell the story. As Katie has grown, she's played different roles.

The transition from child actor to teen, however, can be worrying: "We had to address that issue. We stepped up what we were doing by signing on with a manager for Patrick and Katie. Lizzie is already 5 feet 4 inches. At a lot of the auditions that Katie goes on, some kids are 20 pounds lighter. She has grown also. I told her she's not going to get the little girl roles."

But the kids love being on stage: "When they get up there, it's everything to them." As for the future, "I want them to go to college, but I don't think they ever want to move out of the house. They've got too good a deal!"

-- Gwen Orel

Shirley Grant, Personal Manager

Shirley Grant likes to believe that what differentiates her talent management company from others is the TLC she offers her young clients.

Grant, who has worked as a talent manager for close to 30 years, says she is always looking for that "special kid. They don't have to be beautiful, but personable, outgoing, and very talented."

Often those "special kids" who make it to Broadway, Hollywood, the soaps, and high-profile commercials are introduced to Grant by word of mouth, especially by other clients. Other times, she and her associates find them at talent shows across the country, and she'll interview them on the spot: "I'm always looking for children and teens with singing ability for Broadway productions and kids who can do voiceover work."

Her clients include children from the age of 4 to teens and young adults to the age of 30. Some of Grant's clients have included Christina Ricci and Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy on "The Cosby Show," and, more recently, Kathleen Herles, who is the voice of Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer," and Cassidy Hinkle, who plays Faith on the CBS daytime drama "As the World Turns."

Parents wishing to get Grant's attention need only send her an engaging snapshot of their child and describe his or her talents. "Professional headshots aren't necessary at this point," she stresses.

"If I see something there, I'll speak with the child on the telephone and, if I'm impressed, arrange to meet with him or her and the parents in my office. I take a lot of time with each child -- at least one hour during this interview. To spend less time," she says, "wouldn't be fair to the child." Grant estimates that out of every 100 children she interviews, she accepts approximately 15. At that point, acting and other lessons -- to help every child achieve his or her best -- might be recommended.

She is quick to point out that not every child whose career she manages becomes successful immediately: "It may take a year or more in some cases, and a lot of auditioning. As a talent management company, we get many more auditions for clients than can an agent, who works with fewer people." Children and young adults represented by the firm sign a standard three-year exclusive contract with a 15% commission on bookings.

Grant, who does not disclose the number of clients she represents, prefers working with children who reside in metropolitan New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, or Pennsylvania: "Some of our clients live in New York during the summer, and this is helpful. In some cases, I have represented a talented client in another state who will come to New York for auditions. One young boy from out of town moved to New York when he was booked in Broadway's 'The Lion King.' "

She adds, "I make it clear to parents when I meet with them that someone has to be available all the time to get their child to auditions. If a parent tells me she works 9 to 5 and can get out of work early to take her child to an audition, I say no. Parents need to realize that this is a very demanding business. They have to be available."

And Grant says she is available for her clients and their parents, who she says feel comfortable speaking with her: "This is something the parent might not be able to do with an agent."

Her greatest joy is calling one of her young actors and telling him or her, "You've got the job." But she also has to console the child who's been rejected for a role he or she was hoping to snare: "I always say, 'There will be another call. The sun will come out tomorrow.' And it does."

-- Claudia M. Caruana

Barry Kolker, Talent Agent

Agent Barry Kolker of the Carson-Kolker Organization has clients appearing in the current tour of "The King and I," and one who is a series regular on "Sesame Street." Other clients have appeared on television series such as "Life With Bonnie" and "Dave's World" and in films such as "The Forgiven."

For Kolker, preparation is the most important thing for young people and their parents as they begin looking for an agent and start the process of auditioning. He stresses that a photograph and an outline of vital statistics, special skills (highly important), and experience (if any) are key at the outset.

The photograph, he says, can be a "snapshot," but it must be current; the excuse "we're getting new pictures" should not be used when approaching an agent. Even if this is the case, "have someone take snapshots so we know what you look like today." A note stating that additional photographs will be available in the future can be attached, he says.

For babies and infants, Kolker says, "parents should not invest in professional photos until they have representation." Even for older children, pictures may not always be needed: "I had one client who didn't have professional headshots until he booked a Broadway show."

After reviewing photographs, should he decide to schedule a meeting or audition, Kolker says he's looking for an "outgoing" child, and one who "has got to want to want to do this." So that he can understand the child and his or her interest in pursuing a career in show business, he will generally ask a prospective client, "Why do you like acting?" and "Why do you enjoy this so much?"

At this first meeting, Kolker will also speak with the parents: This is when parents and agent can see if their personalities mesh. Parents, when considering potential representatives, should look for someone who "wants to get the child out on auditions and who is easy to deal with and you feel you will enjoy working with," as this relationship will become a collaboration on behalf of the child's career.

Beyond preparing to make initial contact with an agent, he says, parents and children should be aware of, and ready for, what is expected of them as the child starts auditioning. Parents should be aware that they are not allowed to sit in while their son or daughter performs. In addition, the rule of thumb is one guardian per child at an audition. "Don't bring the whole family," he warns.

Parents should also know they are responsible for establishing their child's bank accounts and securing work permits, says Kolker. Most important, the parents and child must understand that communication is key. For instance, "if a child is home-schooled, let the agent know, so that an earlier time might be able to be scheduled. We also need to know if you're going out of town and about regular standing conflicts, like a dance class."

While he understands that training will obviously vary depending on a child's age, Kolker says there are certain kinds of classes and experience that a young person will need. For example, as children get older (13 to 14 years), "if they've done a lot of theatre but never done television, a class for on-camera acting is essential so that they can learn commercial technique and on-camera acting in all forms." As a corollary, "if they're interested in musical theatre, make sure they're working with a vocal teacher or a singing coach."

One additional piece of preparation he points to for young people starting out: understanding industry needs. He cites teenagers and musical theatre as an example: "There are very few shows out there when you're at that age. We were very lucky when 'Big' and 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' came along. There just aren't a lot of shows." At the same time, he explains, "casting directors are always looking for kids who are small and can tour."

-- Andy Propst