If I ever have to get bad news, I hope it’s from someone like Nora Brennan. She’s the children’s casting director for “Billy Elliott,” and about as big hearted and warm and attentive as possible. Faced with a phalanx of more than 140 girls at the open auditions for the show last month, she was welcoming, encouraging and supportive.
But, of course, few of the more than 140 girls who showed up would ever get beyond that one-day audition. Consider this, to even be considered to move on in the process. Brennan says, the girls have to have good skills in ballet, tap, movement, and they need to be able to handle the rigors of doing a demanding show eight times a week. Plus schoolwork. Plus a life.
It’s a big order, but the girls I spoke to at the audition seemed prepared to do it—as did their parents.
I’m no expert (Though early in my career I worked in theater, casting and stage management), but even to the untrained eye, it was pretty clear that some of the girls were not likely to make the first cut. But watching Brennan at work, no one would know. Sitting behind her in the big Broadway theater, I watched as she and her assistant shuffled the girls’ dance cards to indicate those they were interested in. But as Brennan came up to the stage after each combination, one would think that each of these girls was a star. And Brennan made magic for these girls. Watching them beam and work as hard as they could was wonderful. In the harsh world of adult auditions, one would never see something like this. Sometimes a terse “thank you” without even a glance is all hopefuls get as they’re sent on their way.
The reality at the “Billy Elliot” auditions is that some girls are more skilled and talented than others. Some of the talented girls might not be the right type for the roles, and there are any number of factors that could move a girl to the next level—or not. Any adult actor will freely admit that while you may not be right for one show, you’re right for another and learning to deal with the competition, the success and the rejection is part of growing up in the business.
There’s an important lesson for parents and caregivers in this. None of the girls on that long line or that stage were required to be there. They were there because they wanted to be there. They had done whatever they had to do to get there, and their parents had supported them—and gotten up at the crack of dawn to be there. Still, only the girls were on the stage. There was nothing parents could do at that point other than wait, hold the dance bags and hope for the best.
We talk to many parents who are trying so hard to guarantee that everything will be “perfect” for their kids. They micromanage play dates, monitor activities, talk to teachers and coaches when their kids aren’t having the perfect experience. Many of them run themselves ragged trying to protect kids from the difficulties and disappointments that are inevitably a part of life.
It’s very frustrating—because they can’t do it. What we can do is prepare our kids to the best of our ability, but they have to fly on their own. Many parents can’t bear to see their kids disappointed or not get what they want, but that’s an inescapable part of life. Helping our kids to deal with success and disappointment when they are young is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
That was certainly one of the gifts the girls auditioning for “Billy Elliot” had gotten. They knew that their chances were slim, but they were doing it anyway. They were willing to engage in the process, and they knew that the outcome was largely out of their control. They were as ready as they were going to be, and watching these little girls leap and tap across that stage giving it everything they had was a real inspiration. (Even the parents weren’t allowed to watch.)
My mother used to say that no experience is ever wasted, and I believe that. Some of these girls may go on to have professional performing careers. Most will not. All of them, however, will know what it felt like to put themselves out there in pursuit of a dream, relying only on themselves. That lesson will be invaluable no matter where life takes them.