Child actors face an inevitable reality – growing up. And that inevitable reality means they likely will be out of a job.
Think about it: Have you ever wondered why people obviously in their 20s or 30s were playing teens on a movie or your favorite TV show? Close your eyes for a moment, watch the faces flash by, and at the end of the slideshow, look for the dollar signs.
Child actors are a costly proposition, with productions having to provide tutoring – depending on the size of role – and an adult guardian to follow the kids around in the workplace. No question that it’s a necessary protection to prevent kids from being exploited, but the often razor thin line between profitability and loss means that, if producers can pick between hiring a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old to play 15, they’ll choose the latter 99 times out of 100.
That’s why casting notices, especially in theatre, are looking for actors who are under 4 foot, 10 inches. Once you hit puberty, you enter what is called “the dead zone.”
One of the many challenges of casting a show like Billy Elliot is that you must find boys who can dance, sing, and act – and still look and sound like a boy who hasn’t gone through puberty.
“They come into the show knowing it’s a temporary moment in time,” says Nora Brennan, the children’s casting director.
Over the past five years, Brennan has seen thousands of boys as the children’s casting director for the Broadway and touring productions. Sixteen boys played Billy on Broadway and 19 have performed in the role on the two-plus U.S. tours. The average run for a Billy is nine months to a year.
The physical requirements for a Billy are immense: In addition to being on stage in almost every scene during a 2 hour and 45 minute show, the character does ballet, tap, acrobatics in addition to acting and singing, all in a Northern English accent. As a rule, Billys perform two times a week; when they’re not on stage, they are in tutoring, taking dance classes, and rehearsing.
Later this month, our son will be the 20th tour Billy, which Director Stephen Daldry describes as “playing Hamlet while running a marathon.” Andrea McArdle, star of the original “Annie” — another iconic child role — told the New York Times that, “Physically, Billy is way beyond Annie.”
Ben’s first audition for the role was almost five years ago, several months before the Broadway run opened. Every several months, he was called back — a nerve racking experience for him and his parents — and then returned home with advice for ways to improve.
And he did, even as other theatre opportunities came up. Multiple times, our hopes were raised, then no word. As our son became a teen, Billy was the role that perhaps he was destined not to perform.
In June 2010, Ben was cast as Tall Boy and a Michael understudy — the show has only three roles for older boys — in the Broadway company. For a time, he roomed with one of the Billys (Jacob Clemente) and watched, listened, and learned from the others.
Ironically, it was during the Broadway run that Ben grew into the role, even as we hoped he wouldn’t grow — physically at least — too much. As we watched the other boys cycle through the show, we saw them hit puberty and listened as their voices changed — occasionally painfully.
Last May, he went back for yet another Billy audition and aced it. His dance skills had improved dramatically, especially in ballet, and he was ready. Even though he was growing, it wasn’t too much, and his voice still hasn’t started to change.
But there were more setbacks — the two tours closed, as did the Broadway show — and we wondered again if it was all for naught.
Then we got the news about the new tour, which came through Washington last December and returns to Baltimore during the holiday season this year. Ben was offered a chance to be Michael full-time and train for Billy. Despite an injury earlier this year, he is now actively moving toward the role and is scheduled to be in the show this summer.
“We see how he works, what his temperament is like,” Brennan said in 2010 about the boys she ultimately casts in the role. “Is he determined? Does he give up easily? That’s very important. You need an enormous amount of determination and tenacity to go through the whole rehearsal process. It’s not something that’s done easily.”
She’s right about that.
Read other articles in Glenn’s column Stage Dad.