This article originally appeared in the winter 2011 Harker Quarterly.
This October, a unique combination of events conspired to give performing arts students a at a hitherto unexplored area of their craft: the Broadway casting call.
It started when Laura Lang-Ree, K-12 performing arts department chair, was contacted by Lisa Schwebke ’04 about hosting a talent search she was associated with. Casting for a Broadway revival of “Annie” is underway and the West Coast casting call for the lead role and her orphan buddies needed a place to audition hopefuls.
Schwebke, a musical theater graduate of the Harker Conservatory certificate program, had interned and apprenticed at casting agency Telsey + Co., which was holding the casting call, and she now works as a talent agent with the Gersh Agency, who would love to place some of their talent in the show. Lang-Ree and the Telsey representative worked out the details and the deal was done.
The payoff was that Harker Conservatory certificate candidates and other performing arts students had an intense weekend in late October, attending a college casting workshop Friday afternoon, a workshop on casting in general that evening, and putting the new information to use at the casting call held at Blackford on Sunday.
Schwebke was up to bat first. She hosted the Friday afternoon discussion in Nichols Hall with students in Cantilena, an upper school choral group, and the Advanced Scene Study, Choreography and Study of Dance classes.
Schwebke, perched on the edge of the stage, spoke about the satisfaction in her non-acting job and how she actually likes the casting side better than performing. A Manhattan resident who attended New York University’s Steinhardt School, she noted the training she received while getting her Conservatory certificate has helped her virtually every day of her career. “The discipline and foundation in the arts I learned [at Harker] comes into play every single day of my life,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gotten that training anywhere else.”
Her best advice for current Conservatory candidates is to “be open to all the possibilities. I really didn’t understand that there were options other than to be an actor, and I’m having so much more fun doing what I am doing now that I ever did when I was acting. I loved [acting], but to help other actors and to use different parts of my brain that I maybe wasn’t using on that track is such a treat.”
That same evening, Schwebke and Telsey casting director Rachel Hoffman teamed up for a Conservatory-sponsored workshop, “How Broadway Casting is Done.” They discussed the difference between a talent agent and a casting director, gave tips to the students about following different courses in college, and answered the students’ various questions about “the biz.” Twenty-five Conservatory candidates attended the workshop.
“It was great,” said Lang-Ree of the audition workshop. “It was a unique look at the business of casting; not only could my students gain information about casting and understand it in a whole different way, but they got to show their stuff as well. I had a couple of students prepare their work to show it to Rachel for feedback. That was very informative not only for the students who were brave enough to do that but for the students watching. You learn so much by observation in the arts,” she said.
Then, Sunday, 30 Conservatory candidates in two shifts helped manage the flow of tiny hopefuls to and from the audition rooms, as Hoffman and two of her New York colleagues finished up a yearlong search for the next cast of “Annie,” being revived on Broadway next year.
Gathering in the Blackford campus’ outdoor eating area, the morning shift of 15 interns was instructed on how to help those auditioning to fill out the proper releases, where the prospective Annies and orphans would go first, and where to take them when they moved to the second round or were through for the day.
Those trying out for parts began arriving at 8:30 a.m., settled at picnic tables and passed the time until called.
“The amphitheater is the holding room,” said Alice Tsui, grade 11 and a theater certificate candidate. Once called in, hopefuls “go in one by one and sing to them. It is very exciting,” she added.
Interns first led those auditioning in groups of eight to the initial try-out room, helping build energy and confidence by having them skip or weave between the poles along the walkway. While waiting outside the auditioning rooms, interns read parts to cue those auditioning, high-fived those exiting and gave advice on speaking with emphasis.
“I thought it would be a really good experience,” said Tsui, “especially because it was a real Broadway audition. I thought it would be a great chance to see what goes on beyond the walls of high school and it has been fascinating.”
“Auditions went great,” said Hoffman. “Having the casting call at Harker has been a win- win all around. Harker has been a beautiful facility. The interns have been fantastic. I think they’ve had fun and they have been great.
“I love that high school kids are the interns because little girls that age always look up to older girls, so they have been fantastic about being encouraging; a big part of this is to encourage self-esteem in these girls. The interns have been fantastic at that throughout the day!” said Hoffman.
Lang-Ree was on cloud nine with all the outside expertise flowing to Conservatory candidates. “It has been an incredible opportunity to have that kind of one-on-one contact with live theater on Broadway,” she said. “It has allowed students to see the business from a very personal point of view.”
Between the Friday afternoon session, the Friday evening session and Sunday’s casting call effort, “ interns have had an opportunity to see the business from multiple sides, and that is something that is really important to the Conservatory teachers,” Lang-Ree said.
“While we all understand that passion and joy of performing and we all still perform ourselves, there is something about knowing that there is more to being in the arts than being the one shining star on Broadway – that there is this whole world open to them to remain in the arts their entire lives in directing, casting, stage management or even being that star on Broadway.
“This whole process was so successful from our end, and hopefully from Telsey’s. We all got along so well they may return in February for a workshop and we hope to piggy back on that. This is a home run for us and a home run for them, so we would do it again in a heartbeat,” concluded Lang-Ree.