*There are many actors, young and not so young, who have aspirations of being on Broadway. “The Great White Way” is recognized as the epitome of success for thespians; and it has a lure beyond comparison for any serious actor of both musical theatre and straight-up dramatic works. And its no surprise that many actors who are now film successes continue to do theatre on Broadway.
It takes a combination of skill, timing, chutzpah and a big stroke of luck to get on the Broadway playing field. And when those elements come together baby, you had better be ready!
This is where the Broadway Dreams Foundation comes in. The national nonprofit training program gives aspiring professionals the opportunity to work with acclaimed actors, directors, dancers and other industry insiders in a one-week training intensive that enables them to prepare for that lurking “big break” opportunity. In addition, the performers are also seen by Tesley + Company, Broadway’s premiere casting agency.
EURweb was the only media outlet at the Invite Only L.A. stop of BD’s 2015 Summer Tour training session on this day; where film and theatre actor, Taye Diggs, who is now starring in the Broadway production “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and choreographer Spencer Liff (“So You Think You Can Dance”) joined other esteemed faculty members to work with 40 local performers who had been awarded the opportunity to train in an intensive one-week session that culminated in a Broadway-style revue.
Journalist and EURweb contributing writer and editor DeBorah B. Pryor, herself a tenured former stage actor with a degree in Drama, spoke with several faculty members – including dancer Ariana ‘Ari’ Groover, a former Broadway Dreams student turned faculty member, who has since worked on the Broadway stage as a direct result of her association with the foundation.
“It’s come full circle. I started with this,” Groover tells Pryor, as they both sit in the rehearsal room next door to a lively session being taught by Taye Diggs. “It’s been almost 10 years. It started in Atlanta…and within this time-span we have been able to get…Philadelphia, Atlanta…Omaha. And then it started branching out and now we’re here in L.A. We are going to Toronto, Park City, Aspen and…New York for the first time this year.”
Groover has a fascinating back story. She was homeless three times before the age of 18 and came to BD with a full scholarship. She was called personally by BD’s executive director and co-founder, Annette Tanner.
DBP: It seems like that would’ve been first stop, since it is where Broadway is.
AG: Right. And a lot of people say that. But I think they try to save NYC for last so that people can see what it’s like to be in the Big Apple. I actually had a week intensive in NY and it was really nice. There has been some cities where we’ve had 80-90 students, and years before that, about 100.”
AG: Normally within the first two days [of the workshop] we do auditions and set up which pieces we’re going to do for the show. By the third day we at least know what we’re doing and we start rehearsing…putting pieces together. Within that time we have Master Classes. They get their head shots taken…They even sit and talk with each other, get to know each other.
DBP: Is there a fee for the class?
AG: Yes. There is a fee.
Sidebar: The fee is $895.
AG: Broadway Dreams is trying to get at least 50% of the students to attend on scholarships. In 2014, 43% of all its participants received full or partial scholarships from BDF.
Ari, 23, was in the Broadway production, “Holla if You Hear Me,” based on the life of rapper Tupac Shakur. She got the role after being discovered by director and Broadway Dreams faculty member Stafford Arima (Allegiance, Carrie), who had put her in an off-Broadway show called “Bare.”
Arima got involved in Broadway Dreams around three years ago, when he was invited to Atlanta, the foundation’s home base, by Tanner, who thought it “would be an interesting fit” for the director.
“So I went down and met with Annette Tanner, who is the executive director, and was immediately taken by not only her spirit, but her sensibility,” he shares with Pryor. Arima has an intensely passionate and thoughtful personality, and continues, “Her sensibility with regards to an educational environment that isn’t about everybody getting a gold star…I came from a generation where if you didn’t do the best drawing or the best science project, you didn’t get a gold star.”
Two years ago, Arima, 46, was offered the Artistic Advisor position with Broadway Dreams Foundation.
“We’ve moved into a generation where…everyone gets a gold star. Everyone says ‘you’re the best’ and ‘you’re the greatest’ and I believe that in the business of show, it’s called show business…there is a reality for an artist to understand; especially a performer, that there are thousands of other hopefuls standing in line wanting to audition for the 12 parts that are in that play or musical.”
Broadway Dreams approaches celebrities and shows them the benefit of being a part of the program: helping kids and adults in the community who may not otherwise have the opportunity to study or perform in a professional medium.
“And I think they love it! The celebrities love what it stands for. The fact that we actually have a program to keep the arts alive in today’s time (because they’re taking it away i.e. out of the schools).”–Ari Groover
Ari pointed out some of the celebrities that has helped in the past.
“Like Titus Fergus from ‘Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt’. He’s amazing. He has definitely helped with BD a lot. Billy Porter, who is in ‘Kinky Boots.’ Lena Hall that did ‘Hedwig’ (the role that Taye Diggs is in now in) in the original cast.”
The students, in the performance that happens at the end of the intensive, do excerpts from popular Broadway shows like Chicago, All That Jazz, and The Wiz, as well as original pieces.
Pryor got to speak with two of the students in the 2015 program. Karin Wallis, 28, who entered the program through a scholarship was referred by a church member and mentor.
“I’ve always loved the arts. I’ve always wanted to perform but never felt like I was good enough to be in the industry because I didn’t think I had the ‘It Factor.’ And everything is so competitive nowadays because you have so many talented performers who are triple threats. They can sing, act, dance; they can do it all. So I kind of tried to steer away from it. Go onto a different avenue, but I knew I didn’t really want to do it. I was just doing it because I didn’t think I was good enough (to perform).”–Karin Wallis, Student
Wallis, who went to West Angeles Christian Academy‘s performing arts segment, said she always performed growing up. She enjoyed doing the Christian and Black history programs at West Angeles. And as a student at St. Bernard, a Catholic school with many teachers who had a passion for the arts, she got to perform in big musicals, plays and concerts.
“It has always been a dream of mine to be on Broadway. Whether its in a lead role or just a chorus ensemble. Just be on stage.”
Wallis, who has a smile that lights up the room when she walks in, says if Broadway isn’t in her future, singing and ministry is where she will go.
Twelve year old Christian, who attends the LeConte school in Los Angeles, and will soon be in 7th grade, says he was inspired by his dancer-singer parents to be in show business.
“But the musical that inspired me was Dreamgirls,” he tells Pryor. “It was the first musical I saw and I was like, ‘Wow, I really like this.’ This is interesting.”
Christian says seeing the musical led him to do “research” on many “back then musicals.”
“I did a whole project on them actually,” he adds.
When asked what kind of musicals did he research, Christian says, “Like research on the musicals that were top box office. Musicals that were classics.
DBP: Being in musical theatre is quite different than just being a straight actor. Do you think it was because of your parents that you want to be in musical theatre?
Christian: “Well, I started off just being an actor. But then I started singing. I started finding my vocal range…and recording myself so that I could improve.”
Christian is extremely articulate for his age. And I couldn’t help but notice how precisely he spoke as I watched as his little mind worked to form the exact words to capture the essence of what he was feeling. With challenges such as jealousy and bullying so prevalent in school for children his age, I asked if this was a problem for him.
“Well, not any bullying, but a little bit of struggles,” he admits. “Like, in this business people are naturally going to try and break you down. But you’ve got to just stay up and stay on yourself, and know that these people’s opinion doesn’t matter.”
Both Karin and Christian made it to the Broadway style culminating performance at the end of the intensive week. The show was held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills to a full house.
I do have to admit my disappointment at the small number of African American and other students of color represented in the extremely large cast. I believe there may have been 3 or 4 tops. But the performances were very well done.
Wallis appeared in a few musical numbers including an excerpt from The Wiz, and Christian was featured in a small bit that had him basically on and off the stage rather quickly. Ari Groover was fabulous and featured as a dancer with her student performers in several bits.
To learn more about the Broadway Dreams Foundation and possibly get involved visit their website.
DeBorah B. Pryor is a former professional stage actor and tenured journalist. She coaches professionals in the field of communications privately, and occasionally teaches her original public speaking classes at UCLA Extension. She is currently preparing her “Being UN-apologetically You” speaker’s tour.