Work Samples

That's showbiz, kid: Rigors of auditioning, training challenge children


A group of parents leaned on each other and the door, literally pressing their ears to the wood. From behind it, they could hear their kids singing:

“The sun will come out, tomorrow.”

Over and over. Each kid got a line or maybe two, then filed out of the room, knocking some parents off balance and stepping over and around other girls with the same dream as theirs — landing a role in a national tour of “Annie.” It was not Broadway, but everyone in the room saw it as a big step in that direction.

The casting director called out a group of names, and the elementary-aged gaggle gathered around her.

“Thank you so much …” the short speech started, and it ended with many girls running down the hall in tears. Their audition was over.

Those tears are part of what prompted Jennifer Baldacchino’s initial response to her daughter: “No.”

Or more accurately, “No, no no, no, not this business.”

The Glen Rock mother of two had just been asked by her elementary-aged daughter Gabriella if she would start taking her to auditions for professional productions.

“It’s a hard life — and to start that at 9,” said Baldacchino, whose brother was an actor for many years. “Then I just said to myself if she wanted to play soccer, I would do it.”

Baldacchino is recounting this story five years later from Cleveland, where her younger daughter Alessandra is now playing young Allison in the musical “Fun Home” on its national tour after spending time as an understudy while the show was on Broadway. They will spend the next six months bringing the show to more than 20 cities across the country.

Both of Baldacchino’s daughters have found some of the elusive success in a business where talent and drive is often not enough.

Alessandra, 10, spent her early days getting taken around to older sister Gabriella’s dance and singing lessons. She wanted to try, too, and showed talent of her own. Soon Baldacchino was driving both of her girls in and out of Manhattan for auditions.

“The stage is like their soccer field,” she said. “I wouldn’t deny them that, so just because I have this preconceived notion that I don’t want them to get hurt, because they might be too tall or too short or too young or too old or too skinny or too fat. That can happen on the soccer field. You’re too small or you don’t score enough goals.”

Around North Jersey, sports parents know the drill — weekends are devoted to games and tournaments, weekdays are practices and special training or instruction. But there’s an alternate world of drama where families’ lives are upended as well with just as much focus, sacrifice and time.

“Talk about the physical commitment and the time commitment it takes to be the star of your basketball team or football team, the hours they put in the gym, their bodies have to be strong, really have to be focused and trained — everybody understands that,” said Mark Hoebee, producing artistic director at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. “People don’t understand that the life of a musical theater person – like a dancer or a singer – they have to do the same thing. That’s what people don’t connect. They think you just show up the first day of rehearsal and you’re the star of the show.”

In the world of the Broadway-hopeful child, the goal is not college or a career years from now. The hope is to become a professional at 8, 10, 12 years old, when opportunities abound for kids in Broadway shows such as “Matilda,” “School of Rock” and the upcoming “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” To get there typically requires singing and dance classes, acting workshops and community theater. For some that can also mean joining a chorus like the one at bergenPAC’s Performing Arts School.

That all comes with a cost — including being in a youth production at a local theater, which could cost the family $300 or more for the experience plus the cost of tickets and program ads. Paying jobs offer a range of possibilities. While a spot in “School of Rock” on Broadway might earn the child performer nearly $2,000 a week, a seat on the bus of a non-Equity national tour might yield less than $500 a week and put a parent and kid on a bus for six months.

The lessons and local productions are often mixed around a string of auditions and rejections that might cripple most adults. Both Baldacchino girls have dealt with plenty of disappointment.

“It was a learning experience for them, as painful as it is,” said Baldacchino. “They definitely have learned how to handle rejection. I think they handle it far better than any adult would because they have so much going on in their lives.”

Children in North Jersey are lucky enough to live not only in close proximity to Broadway but in an area with an abundance of quality community theaters that often boast working professional instructors. The long list includes Porch Light Productions in Glen Rock, New Vision Players in Fair Lawn, Garage Theatre Group in Teaneck, Bergen County Players in Oradell and Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes, among many others.

Then there are the regional theaters such as bergenPAC, NJPAC, Mayo and the 2016 Regional Theater Tony winner, Paper Mill Playhouse. All of them run classes for kids who just want to perform recreationally and more intense training for those looking to make a career out of it.

“Our area has really become well-saturated with these after-school programs that help these young students really hone in the craft at a younger age,” said Alexander Diaz, creative director of bergenPAC’s Performing Arts School. “That really preps them as they’re moving forward into the professional spectrum.”

Aspiring actors also must master auditioning — which requires the ability to conquer nerves, select the right song to sing, show your talent and somehow separate yourself from the pack. It’s such a separate skill that bergenPAC and Paper Mill hold classes on it.

Sometimes auditions last 30 seconds; at most it’s a couple of minutes, and there is no shortage of competition. For a main-stage production that involves an open call for kids, Paper Mill will see anywhere between 300 and 500 kids. They will hire maybe four.

“I do think there are a lot of talented kids across the country, but most especially in our immediate area,” said Hoebee. “I think a big part of that is our proximity to New York and Broadway, which is the epicenter for the world of musical theater. People are aware of the possibility of success. If you live in L.A., your kids probably want to be a movie star, right? But on the East Coast, especially where we are, Broadway is a very vibrant and exciting opportunity for kids who have this passion.”

The wealth of community theater in the area fuels that passion. Not even two months before landing her understudy role in “Fun Home” on Broadway, Alessandra Baldacchino was Ariel in Aspire Performing Arts’ production of “Little Mermaid Jr.” at the Preakness Reformed Church in Wayne. Her sister, now 14, has amassed about 25 productions in five years, her mother said.

“Doing the community theater in between allowed them to keep performing,” their mom said.

“Both girls went to performing arts summer camp. So there’s lots of opportunity to do theater, just keeps breeding that love for them and getting them experience and that passion. This became what they did on the side, if it happened. They’ve both been lucky that it happened for them, that they’ve had professional experience.”

Gabriella was in “A Christmas Story” tour that went to Boston and Hartford and did shows at Madison Square Garden. Now she is focused on high school, but her sister is waiting for her return to the big stage.

“Hopefully one day we can do a Broadway show together, that would be really fun,” said Alessandra, who would have been a fifth-grader at Alexander Hamilton School this year but instead is studying online, working with a tutor and FaceTiming her school friends during her six months on tour. She chose to sacrifice a bit of her typical childhood.

“The kids have to want it,” said Baldacchino. “I’m just the taxi that gets them where they have to be. That’s why I always joke with them, ‘If you’re done, I’m happy to stop. If you’re not, this will be the job I continue to have.’ ”

Every young aspiring actor doesn’t hit cattle calls right away, much as young athletes need not spend all their time at showcase tournaments looking for college scholarships. Professional theater can be the goal and offer confidence, friendship and a future, without a youngster having to immediately cross the river into Manhattan.

Pompton Plains 16-year-old Courtney Bulger — who recently was nominated by the N.J. Association of Community Theater for Outstanding Youth Actress in a Musical for her role in Aspire’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” — is focused on getting into college for musical theater. She has done community theater, performed with the Mayo center’s performing arts company and took singing lessons at Linda Benanti’s studio. A junior at Morris County School of Technology in the Visual Performing Academy, she has taken advantage of the area’s opportunities, but her parents have made a conscious choice not to push further.

“We are supportive, but she takes the lead,” Courtney’s mother, Erica Bulger, said. “Right now college is looming.”

Theater parents are key to their child’s success. Hoebee admits that when Paper Mill is casting a main-stage, paid production, it is hiring (and evaluating) parents as well.

“Parents are hugely important in a young person’s performing life and arts life,” he said. “It’s a family commitment, just like it’s a commitment for the kid who’s on the soccer team.”

Just like sports parents, there are arts parents who can have a detrimental effect on the child.

“You have big stage moms — ‘You didn’t’ get it because of this’ or ‘You were flat on this note,’ ” Diaz said. “That’s the worst thing you can do to a kid. That’s the worst thing you can do. What you’re doing is taking them away from the love and passion they can develop for theater, because now you’re scolding them, now you’re telling them that they didn’t do a good job.

“And I’m sorry, but getting up there in front of a panel of people and singing and doing a monologue and putting yourself out there, you’re the most vulnerable you will ever be. For a kid to be able to do that? Bravo and kudos to them.”