When the school year begins, and the curtain rises each weekday on the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home. 11-year-old cast member Oscar Williams, who plays “Christian,” the Bechdel family middle son, will already have put in a full day of work--school work that is.
It’s double duty for kids like Williams who work on Broadway. From 8:15 AM to 2:46 PM Williams attends school at the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), and then performs at night. On Wednesdays, he leaves school early for the matinee performance.
Such long days may seem hard and stressful, but such professional children are, by their nature, very driven, Fun Home child guardian (often referred to as the "wrangler") Vanessa Brown says. “These are kids who get things done.”
It’s the job of a guardian to supervise children in a professional environment like the theater. “We make sure they are a safe, functioning cog in the wheel, not just for them, but for their parents,” Brown says. Parents are not allowed to accompany their children backstage, and they are asked to take an incredible leap of faith entrusting them with guardians backstage, Brown says.
Williams tries to finish homework before he goes to the show, but uses parts of his offstage breaks to finish any leftover work. Still, Williams has had to stay up late to finish a project or homework. But PPAS is equipped to handle the schedules of children working on Broadway. If necessary, Williams says his teachers are flexible with deadlines. Originally from Vermont, Williams says, he finds it easier to fit in with the kids at PPAS because of their shared interest in the arts. “Most of the kids [at my old school] did soccer and sports, but I like to do theater...I’m terrible at sports...But I like playing soccer now, because the kids play at my level.”
Preparing for the new school, Williams says, seventh grade is going to be wild. He expects a lot more work, which he says high schools will review when the time comes for him to apply.
Jackson Demott Hill isn’t exactly excited for the new year either. Hill attends middle school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and alternates between playing the roles of “George Llewelyn Davies” and “Peter Llewelyn Davies,” the sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, who inspired Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, in Finding Neverland. “I am not looking forward to getting up early every day. I do enjoy school and seeing my friends, but it does get difficult because I do get tired,” Hill says.
The hardest part of juggling his two jobs,---school and Broadway--is keeping up with schoolwork, especially on days when he has to leave for a performance or rehearsal, Hill says. It takes a lot of coordination between his parents and teachers. When Hill misses classes, for a matinee or rehearsal, his mom gets the classroom work from his teachers, and then they review together.
Zell Steele Morrow, who is 8.5- years-old, plays “John,” the youngest Bechdel son, in Fun Home. Originally from San Lorenzo, CA, he is home-schooled now and is looking forward to "classes" beginning again in the fall. His fourth grade teacher from his school in California, Corvallis Elementary School, sends him his school work. His favorite subjects are math, reading and art, inspired by Fun Home cartoonist, Alison Bechdel.
“I like my subjects, and I get my work done really fast, like done, done, done,” Morrow says. Morrow prefers being home-schooled because, he says, if he is home and taking a test, no one can copy his work. And he is always learning, performing in Fun Home. “Vanessa [the guardian] helped me learn my state capitals,” Morrow says.
Before shows open and they are in rehearsals, children are provided with with tutors for at least three hours a day. The goal is to keep kids on track with their school’s curriculum, so that they will be fully up to speed when they return to their normal school once the production is open.
Lauren Hirsch is the head guardian of 13 child cast members, 12 of whom, age six to 14, appear in each performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, the story of British schoolteacher, Anna, and the king of Siam. While the children are being tutored, they learn in what Hirsch described as a one-room school house. There is one lead tutor, and an additional tutors who specialize in certain subjects, for all of the children.
The production team values the children's’ education as much as it does their performances, Hirsch says. But, during rehearsal, balancing completing tutoring hours and working on the production can be especially challenging. Hirsch often says, to directors for example, “You can have them [children] now, but you can’t have them later.”
Amaya Braganza, who will be 13 years old next month, plays another one of the children in The King and I. The key to balancing school work and Broadway performances is getting a lot of sleep, she says--more than eight hours every night. Also home-schooled, Braganza says she enjoyed being tutored during rehearsals because she was able to socialize with all the other kids. However, it was harder to concentrate than when she is working one-on-one with her mom to complete her week’s lesson plans.
Both Brown and Hirsch encourage children to attend regular school when they can in order maintain a sense of stabilizing normalcy. But Hirsch says homeschooling may be an easier option for managing a Broadway schedule.
Caroline O'Connor is the child guardian for Finding Neverland. She encourages families to consider all of their options for schooling children on Broadway. “One size does NOT fit all.”
School is just a part of the deal kids have to make in order to be on Broadway, Hirsch says. But what they get in return, Braganza says, “I’m doing what I love, with the people who I love.”
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