Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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This week's question comes from Natalie Schirone of Pelham, NY.
Question: I baby-sit for a young girl in Sunday in the Park with George. She shares the role with another young child. They each perform four times a week. Why do some shows make the children share the part and others do not? For example, Kelsey didn't have to share a role when she was in Grey Gardens. What is the Equity rule on that?
Answer: Yes, that is true: In Sunday in the Park with George, two young actresses, Kelsey Fowler and Alison Horowitz, share the role of Louise. Each plays the role four times a week, and each serves as the standby for the other four. But in Grey Gardens, when Fowler played Lee Bouvier, she had the role all to herself, and played it eight times a week.
Other shows do it differently. Mary Poppins uses three sets of child actors for the boy role and three sets for the girl role. In Les Misérables, in both the original and the recent revival, three actresses rotated between two parts, Young Cosette and the much smaller role of Young Eponine. Each night, the third actress was a standby, and would show up to the theatre just in case. One lucky actress got to play Young Cosette three times a week, and the others played it twice each. At night shows, they could all leave after intermission, since their parts weren't in the second act. In the same show, two boys rotated in and out of the role of Gavroche.
A spokesperson for Actors' Equity says that there are no Equity rules mandating that child actors split roles. A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Labor says that the state does not limit the number of hours a child can perform in any way that would require a role split on Broadway. All the state requires is a special permit for a child performer and that the child maintain a satisfactory academic performance (as mandated by the Child Performer Education and Trust Act, which went into effect in March 2004).
So the decision as to whether a child splits the role or not is up to the individual show and its producers, management and creative team. On Grey Gardens the decision was made back when the show was Off-Broadway that the child actors were mature enough to play eight shows a week, according to a spokesperson for the show.
Mark Shacket, a Broadway general manager, says that in general, the decision is made by the creative team, and there are a number of factors that go into it. If the role is particularly demanding, "it may be determined that it's too much for a child to handle" to perform for the entire week, Shacket says. Shacket also notes that if one actor performs all week, there must be a standby child actor who takes time to show up every day but doesn't usually go onstage. Therefore, for fairness reasons, the creative team will choose to split the role, especially if both actors are almost equally qualified. Finally, the creative team also thinks about the needs, skills and personality of the particular actors they're working with.
There are other Equity rules regarding child actors. Everyone who is under 19 years old and has not graduated from high school has to have a tutor during rehearsals. They also get a tutor during out-of-town tryouts (or previews if there's no out-of-town tryout). And if you're on a Broadway tour, you get a tutor full time. And, even on Broadway, for a performer who's under 16, the show is required to hire a supervisor for the child to be at the theatre at every performance.
During rehearsals and previews for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for instance, Alana Serignese worked as the tutor for two of the young performers, a third grader and a fifth grader (the third performer is four years old, too young for a tutor). The tutoring generally took place for four hours every afternoon, Tuesday through Friday. The children would sometimes be tutored during the show when they weren't in the scene, in a large upstairs dressing room.
Serignese, who has worked as a tutor on theatre productions, films and television shows, says schedules can be unpredictable. "You definitely have to be flexible," she says. "You can't assume that everything's going to go smoothly because it never does." When the performers come offstage, she says, "They're still excited sometimes, and they have to sit down, and they're like 'Ugh, school.'" Plus, she says, "You're teaching a bunch of different kids at different ages, all at different grades, at the same time. That can be tricky." And, of course, she adds, "Child actors usually they have strong personalities. But I like that."