When 11-year-old Tori Bates boarded a plane from Sarasota, FL, to New York City with her family this summer, auditioning for the national tour of Annie was the furthest thing from her mind. It was her first time in the city, and she was there to take part in the Broadway Artists Alliance’s summer intensive for young performers. By the time she finished the workshop, Bates was returning to her hometown with a big secret: she had been cast in the title role. So how did it all transpire?
During her last few days in New York, the Broadway Artists Alliance informed some of its participants that there was a national open call for Annie and that they were encouraged to audition. “I was asked if I wanted to audition, and I thought, ‘Oh sure! That would be a great experience.’ I actually thought to myself, ‘I won’t get Annie, because I don’t look like Annie—but maybe an orphan,‘” says a giggly Bates on the phone from Sarasota.
Her mother, Jennifer Bates, says she was careful to keep her daughter’s expectations low. “[I told her]: ‘I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience; I think you should try it. Go and have fun, but just know that there are going to be a lot more nos then there will be yeses. I don’t want you to get your hopes up,’” she says.
However, three days later, at her third callback for Annie, Tori was asked to read for the famed title role—the little girl with big dreams and a heart of gold. “[When] they told me to read sides for Annie, I thought, ‘How did I get sides for Annie?’” she recalls. “That night I got a call saying that they would like me to be Annie, and I started to cry. My mom started to tear up. I was so happy.”
“I was sobbing,” corrects her mother. Tori had come to New York with her parents and younger brother, and the entire family received the news on the final night of their stay. “The four of us were in this tiny hotel room, and we all just burst into tears. We were shocked. We couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” says Jennifer.
“We’re just so honored and humbled,” she continues. “Tori doesn’t even have an agent yet. It’s just truly a Cinderella story.” Her daughter’s casting is exceptional for another reason—as the tour prepares to kick off its third year this November, she will be the first bi-racial actress to play the lead role.
Annie’s director and lyricist Martin Charnin says it had little to do with her looks, however; Tori was a natural choice for the title role. “She was right on the button. She knew exactly how to deliver the lines. She had a sense of humor, and she was the right kind of spunky—that’s vitally important for the lead,” says Charnin.
“I’m always looking to do as much color-blind casting as I possibly can,” he continues. “We’ve had African-American, Asian and Hispanic orphans. This [just happens to be] the first time we’ve had a bi-racial actress [play Annie].” The director says he was immediately impressed by the young actress, by both her natural talent and her ability to respond to direction.
“It’s so natural to her,” says Jennifer. Tori has only been performing for two-and-a-half years, having caught the acting bug after playing the Young Kangaroo in Seussical Jr. at the Players Theatre in Sarasota. “She hasn’t been doing it for years, but it’s just something that she truly loves.”
For the young star and her family, it’s a dream come true, although unexpected. “We went up there for a vacation,” says Jennifer, “and we came home on that plane knowing that our lives had just changed—our daughter’s life had just completely changed.”
For more information on the Annie national tour, visit AnnieTheMusical.com.