Harker Conservatory candidates and other performing arts students had an intense weekend in late October, first attending a college workshop in the afternoon and later a workshop held by a pair of casting professionals on Friday and then putting the new information to use at a Broadway casting call held on Harker’s Blackford campus on Sunday.
Lisa Schwebke ’04 was the catalyst for bringing the events to Harker. As a Harker Conservatory certificate graduate, Schwebke knows Harker has a robust performing arts program and the space to host a professional casting call, so she put her former employer in touch with department chair Laura Lang-Ree about hosting the casting call.
Lang-Ree cleared the way for hosting the Sunday event, and brought Schwebke in to host a 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 she has gotten from her job after realizing she didn’t have to be on stage to be in show business, and how she actually likes the casting side better than performing. Schwebke, who lives in New York and attended New York University’s Steinhardt School, interned and apprenticed at Bernard Telsey Casting, but then went on to work as a talent agent with the Gersh Agency.
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.”
Harker’s combination of academics and performing arts training have stood Schwebke in good stead, also. “What I do now involves math, which I never, ever thought I would do as a professional, and, in college, I stuck with [non-performing arts classes] because of Harker – they taught me how to balance academics and performing.”
In her current job as an assistant talent agent, Schwebke represents those seeking roles on stage, “figuring out where our various actors fit, whether it is film or TV or theater, then, consulting with those hiring to fill their needs,” she said. 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 than 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.” Her immediate plans are to stay put at the talent agency, but “I’ll see what comes up. I’m not saying no, anymore!”
Friday 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 colleges, 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 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, on the big day, 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 were 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., and many seemed used the routine of signing up, settling at the picnic tables and sitting quietly 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. Since those auditioning were all children ages 7-10, each was escorted back to her parent by an intern when she left the room after trying out.
“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. “We had a lot of talented girls. It has been fun to see this community. There are a few girls I am excited about that I think will at least go into the mix to be called back later this year in New York.”
Hoffman said the company seeks one or two girls to actually play Annie, plus understudies, “and children grow, so over time, may grow out of the role,” said Hoffman, so Telsey takes note of those who may grow into the role, too.
Though show business is supposed to be a tough business to survive in, “I don’t think my job is hard!” said Hoffman. “I’m lucky that I love my job. I was one of these girls when I was little. It is fun to see their enthusiasm and to encourage their love of performing and singing; I think it is really hard to foster that and support people.”
Having the casting call at Harker has been a win-win all around, said Hoffman. “Harker has been a beautiful facility. Coming from New York, we’re usually in smaller rooms and it has been fun to be in larger spaces. And this is the first audition we have done where the waiting room is outside, with picnic tables.
“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, who also had high praise for Lang-Ree. “She was really supportive of this event and in being a host for it,” Hoffman said.
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.”
Harker may get lucky a second time, this event went so well, said Lang-Ree. “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.”