Child Stars: Reaching for the Sky with Both Feet on the Ground
Written by Bree Coven Brown
Has your kid caught the acting bug?
Does she show star potential? Or are you the only one who thinks she lights up the room?
Seattle has a wealth of professional theaters and training programs geared specifically for kids and designed to nurture budding talent. We even have a few child stars of our own. (Remember Karan Brar, from last year’s movie "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"? He’s from Bothell.)
But where do you start? And how do you keep your kids grounded as they reach for the stars? We asked the leaders of some of Seattle’s top programs — and some Broadway babies themselves.
From Seattle to L.A.
Jimmy Nixon is founder and executive artistic director of Broadway Bound in Seattle, which mounts full-scale productions performed entirely by kids ages 5 to 18. “We get 1,400 kids a year,” he says. “Of those, maybe 10 will go on to pursue theater professionally."
Nick Robinson is one of those kids. He got his first professional gig at age 11 in "A Christmas Carol" at ACT in Seattle. But his mom, Denise Podnar, remembers that, even at age 2, “he was never just watching a movie, he was acting it out.” As he grew older, his parents encouraged him to follow his interests. They enrolled him in Broadway Bound. He grew up in the program, as did his younger sister and twin brothers.
Nick is now 16, with a starring role on ABC Family’s "Melissa & Joey." Says Podnar, “We had no idea that it would go as far as it would . . . but he kept getting shows, working full-time through middle school.”
It’s a dream come true, but there are trade-offs. “Take warning: If you’re successful, it’s exciting — but not easy,” Podnar says.
She commuted between Seattle and Los Angeles for a year so that Nick could do the show. In August, the whole family moved to L.A., which means a new school for his siblings and relocating his father’s job. Podnar admits, “It really affects the whole family . . . everyone has to be on board.”
There were smaller sacrifices along the way, such as missing out on middle school dances. Eight shows a week means you’re always busy on Friday nights and, she says, “That was hard for him.” Nick also had to leave his eighth-grade graduation early to perform in a show.
“Will he have regrets? I don’t know. He’s missed some childhood experiences. It was hard leaving Seattle and school and coming to L.A. . . . but I think he would look back if he never did this and regret that,” Podnar says.
From the mouths of (Broadway) babes
The kids of Broadway’s "Billy Elliot" seem to think it’s worth the sacrifice. The Tony Award–winning musical, now in its third year on Broadway (the show played The Paramount Theatre in Seattle last spring), employs 23 children.
Eboni Edwards, a 10-year-old in the current Broadway cast, says, “I’m not able to participate in after-school activities, and I sometimes can’t go to my friends’ birthday parties. That stinks, but it’s worth it, because I have a lot of fun doing Billy Elliot, and it’s such an amazing experience.”
Cameron Clifford, 11, made his Broadway debut at age 8. He loves performing, “but I do miss seeing my family at home and dancing at my dance studio with my friends.” Still, he says, he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out, “because this is an amazing experience that not everyone gets to do.”
It’s important to remember that even though it’s exciting and glamorous, show business is still work — long hours on the set and as many as eight live shows a week. Tade Biesinger, 11, plays the lead role of Billy Elliot on Broadway. “My day is so full of work, it doesn’t’ allow for much downtime,” he says. “I don’t get as much time as I would like with kids because I’m dancing in a dance studio or in rehearsals all the time.”
Podnar says it’s important to maintain a balance between an acting career and normal life: “Focus on school, chores; keep communication open and talk about how it’s going.”
So, if your child shows glimmers of talent, where do you start? Podnar notes that the road isn’t always clear. “Sports are integrated with school. There’s a path, you get to this level, then do this next. It’s hard with acting — everyone approaches it differently.”
Karen Sharp is the education director of Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), the second-largest resident theater for children in North America, with a drama school that enrolls 3,400 students each year. Her advice? “Get kids into classes, encourage their opportunities for creative play, encourage them to see professional work and provide an outlet for their creativity. . . . It’s a muscle you have to use and exercise.”
She says the best place for beginners is creative drama class (ages 3 and a half through grade 2), where they use imagination, voice, body and ensemble to tell a story. SCT’s Creative Arts for Small Thespians (CAST) starts at age 4 and continues through age 7. Core acting classes are available to kids starting in the third grade.
The rest of us
Of course, not everyone can be a star. What about the kids who have the desire, but not necessarily the talent to back it up?
Theater class can still improve their self-confidence. Nixon says Broadway Bound has “no requirements except a desire to show up and give it your best shot. Regardless of whether they ever are truly blessed with ability beyond their youth, it will always be their accomplishment to own.”
Seattle mom Victoria North has three kids enrolled in SCT’s drama program. Her daughter Walker Caplan, who has also performed on SCT’s main stage, has found her passion, says North. “All our kids have developed self-confidence, presentation skills and have had a lot of fun.”
Bree Coven Brown works for The Seattle Times and has written for New York Magazine, Seattle Weekly and Seattle Magazine, among other publications. She is a mom and a former child actor.
Local camps and classes for kids