Improv-Blog – The Benefits of Improv Class for Young Actors

For young actors, life is like one long improv. One person says something and then somebody responds, and away they go into the next moment that makes up their complex and exciting lives.

All smiles after an hour of improv games! Top, from L-R: Shacha Temirov, Liam Barnett, Jen Rudin, Remi Simon, Lauren Camadeco (Amazing Associate Teacher), Jonah Verdon, Gabrielle Kaufman, Casey Gleicher, Adam Dorfman Bottom, from L-R: Leighann Deluca, Stephen Sayegh, Meg Donnelly, Tyler Backer, Caroline Bednar

All smiles after an hour of improv games!
Top, from L-R: Shacha Temirov, Liam Barnett, Jen Rudin, Remi Simon, Lauren Camadeco (Amazing Associate Teacher), Jonah Verdon, Gabrielle Kaufman, Casey Gleicher, Adam Dorfman
Bottom, from L-R: Leighann Deluca, Stephen Sayegh, Meg Donnelly, Tyler Backer, Caroline Bednar

This past weekend, Jen Rudin Casting and Coaching launched our first improv class for young actors, ages ten and up. It was a huge success. The students explored various characters and accents; their laughter incessant. To add to the fun, I shook my tambourine (a nostalgic prop from my own experimental theater days, natch) as we transitioned from scene to scene. The tambourine mixed with sounds of laughter created a beautiful cacophony.

In my many years working with young actors in the audition room and teaching audition workshops, I was amazed how quickly the students loosened up, let go, and began to laugh and create.

Here’s are a few observations on the improv benefits for tweens and teens:

Yes, that’s my tambourine on my lap!

Yes, that’s my tambourine on my lap!

  • Improv is like baseball or soccer (sub in your favorite team sport here). It’s competitive and fun. But like any sport, you have to focus and keep your head in the game if you want to be a good team player.
  • Kids love to let loose and be creative.
  • Improv is so freeing for an actor. It’s a great release from the usual audition process that demands young actors to memorize script after script. No doubt: sometimes it’s nice to create your own script and characters instead of having to always stick to a written text.
  • Team skills and being a good team player will help you advance in life whether a young person chooses to stay in acting or move on to another profession.
  • Improv is a confidence builder for teens.
  • Improv creates community.
  • Improv demands that you listen.
  • With improv comes laughter.

And finally, I had a great time too. Maybe shaking a tambourine has similar benefits for people my age!

NBC’s Growing Up Fisher – Catching up with Eli Baker

If you haven’t had a chance to watch NBC’s new comedy Growing Up Fisher, set your DVR for Tuesday nights! Created by DJ Nash, the show is honest, fun and heart warming – a rare combo in today’s saturated TV world. And you’ll soon fall in love with twelve-year-old star, Eli Baker, who plays Henry Fisher, the son of TV vets JK Simmons and Jenna Elfman.

The ads are on buses and subways all over NYC!

The ads are on buses and subways all over NYC!

I first met Eli Baker in January 2013 when he took one of my on-camera audition workshops. Pilot season was just gearing up, so the class was aimed to help young actors get ready for TV pilot auditions. I was blown away by Eli’s smarts, natural charisma and acting talents displayed during the class.

Discovering young talent is one of the best parts of my job but not an everyday occurrence. I’ve been thanked in Playbill bios as the “Jewish Fairy God Mother” from some of the Broadway talents I’ve found and cast during my seven years as a Casting and Talent Executive at The Walt Disney Company. But when it comes to young talent, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve met a young actor who is 100% ready to book a role. But that day, the stars aligned when I met Eli. This Fairy God Mother was suddenly back in action.

When the workshop ended, I pulled Eli’s mother, Jessie, aside and told her to please call me the next day. I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone and recommend Eli to my fellow casting colleagues. First I rang Marci Phillips, head of ABC Primetime Casting. Then I sent Eli and Jessie over to meet Kerri Krilla and my agent friends over at CESD Talent Agency. CESD signed him on the spot, and he literally started going in to audition for every single pilot that was casting at that moment.

Exactly a month after taking my class, Eli booked the NBC Growing Up Fisher pilot. David Schwimmer (who was directing the pilot) and DJ Nash (the show’s creator) called him personally with the life-changing news. Eli and Jessie headed out to LA. The pilot got picked up and now Eli’s in the middle of shooting season one. The rest, as they say, is history.

I caught up with Eli and his mom this week after the premiere. Here are some highlights of our chat:

Jen: It’s so hard for an actor of any age to book a television pilot. Tell me about the process of your pilot test.

Eli: When I heard that I was going out to test in LA, I was excited, ecstatic, and nervous. What would this mean for my life? Was my whole world going to change?

With Eli, proudly holding Confessions of a Casting Director

With Eli, proudly holding Confessions of a Casting Director

Jessie: Eli and I flew out to LA. The test was scheduled for 4 PM. I figured we might as well have some fun while in LA.

Eli: So we went to Universal Studios.

Jessie: If he didn’t get the role, at least we would have a visit to Universal Studios, and it wouldn’t be a wasted trip. The agents called while we were at Universal, and they were flipping out when they found out that Eli was riding the roller coaster and not in the hotel room practicing the lines.

Jen: But you got the role! How did you hear the life-changing news?

Eli: DJ and David (Schwimmer) called me and asked “Would you like to play Henry Fisher in our pilot?” I just fell to the floor and laid on my back, phone in hand, in utter shock. I could barely speak.

Jen: What was the red carpet experience like for you when NBC announced the show’s pick-up during the upfronts in New York?

Eli: Photographers were snapping pictures lie crazy, calling my name. After I finished an interview for E!, I walked over to my mom and saw her with tears rolling down her face. I said “I love you and I promise I won’t change.”

Jen: How about that first day on set?

Eli: I was nervous and excited. I loved doing the scenes and meeting Jason Bateman. Everyone was a family, and I’m really lucky to have such an amazing crew and cast.

Jen: And have you changed?

Eli: I have great friends and they don’t treat me any differently now that I’m on TV. Acting is something I do, but I still have my life.

Jen: Jessie, what’s your best advice for kids who want to break in?

Jessie: For parents, be really sure that your child really wants this. It’s not glamourous. There are long hours. This is crazy hard work. I have never seen a child word as hard as Eli does. He wakes up ever morning exhausted but smiling. He also keeps up with his studies and he’s incredibly humble, grounded and doesn’t think of himself in a different light than he did a year ago.

Jen: Eli, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far from Growing Up Fisher?

Eli: Be nice to everyone. From the people who work at craft services (aka, catering) all the way to the show runner. If you’re not nice, nobody wants to be with you and you won’t get cast. If you’re not nice to everyone, it’s like saying they are below you. And they are working equally hard or harder than you. Everyone on set is equal.

Final last words from Eli and Jessie:

Eli: You have to have your childhood. You have to be normal. Otherwise you have no experiences to draw on from in your acting.

Jessie: The whole thing’s crazy, Jen, and it’s all because of you. You took a chance on him.

I’m one very proud Jewish Fairy God mother!

The Steam Room at Equinox at 33rd and Park Avenue

While Hannah does hair and makeup and enjoys royalty club treatment (clean towels, complimentary Kiehls products, plenty of plugs to charge our phones), I fist-bump myself for coming up with the clever Equinox solution on a rainy cold day. I’m clearly the coolest undercover stage mother EVER.

Post-Equinox bliss, we head back into the rain to the audition. We crowd into an elevator with at least a dozen kids and their parents. I observe the frenzy from behind my purple spectacles. I have immediate renewed empathy for stage moms around the world.

We enter the waiting room. Hannah signs in. I quickly scan the area, searching for an empty bench and avoiding eye contact with any moms I may know.

Hannah and I find seats in the slightly chaotic waiting room and hang with the other teens auditioning for her commercial. The casting assistant (twenty-something, hipster spectacles, definite Brooklyn vibe) organizes groups of three teens at a time to go in to the audition room. I watch stage moms charge phones and push their younger kids around the corner to another casting session.

Hannah goes in to the audition room. I hug her, mouth “good luck” and try to mind my own business, practicing wisdom from Confessions of a Casting Director.

I immediately start to fantasize about her booking the commercial: she could use the money to pay for the college of her choice. Maybe the campaign would run for years! She’d be super lucky, like Paul Marcarelli, who I cast in the famous “Can You Hear Me Now?” campaign for Verizon in 2001. She’d never have to work again! We’d celebrate by buying matching Stuart Weitzman boots…..

OMG. I’d just morphed into a helicopter stage mom. Hold please.

Two minutes later, Hannah emerges from the audition studio. I ask a million questions: did the casting director give any direction, did she slate her name and age with enthusiasm and personality (but not fake and phony), were the kids in her group good with improv?

Once we get downstairs and outside onto Madison Avenue, I decide to shut up about the audition. I land my mom-copter.

Our day concludes with Chinese food in Chelsea and we hug goodbye at Penn Station. Hannah’s train gate posts and I send her down the escalator following some final mom nagging: “Don’t forget to eat your leftover fried rice if you get hungry, text me to let me know you got a good seat in the quiet car…”. I take a deep breath. My undercover assignment is complete. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Parents schlep their kids to auditions. And it costs time and money. More details on this can be found in Confessions of a Casting Director
  2. Leave Early and Bring a Raincoat – This is a chapter title in my book
  3. I am one step away from being a helicopter stage mom

Post-audition Penn Station selfie with Hannah Mcceachern

That’s all for now. This undercover stage mother is back to casting.

Notes from an Undercover Stage Mother

Last week I went undercover as a stage mother.

Assignment: accompany Hannah McEachern, age 16, to a commercial audition at 5:20 PM on a Wednesday afternoon in New York City.

Details: Young actress to be picked up from Bolt Bus arriving from Boston at 3:30 PM and dropped off at Penn Station for Amtrak train back to Boston, departing at 7:45 PM.

I got this.

First step: Meet young actress at the bus at 11th Avenue and 33rd Street.

I decide to follow my own audition advice to “leave early and bring a raincoat” from my new book Confessions of a Casting Director. I pack an umbrella in my purse (note for next time: pack a LARGER one) and arrive twenty minutes before the Bolt Bus was to arrive. Check.

Bus arrives at 3:40 PM, ten minutes late thanks to a Brooklyn detour: Really? Young actress steps off the bus, Burger King bag and backpack in tow. She’s tired and dazed. I hug Hannah. Suddenly rain begins to pelt down from the sky. Neither of us are prepared: Hannah doesn’t have a hat and I’m wearing a wool coat. I reach for that small umbrella. Our immediate life raft.

We can’t find a cab (natch) and decide to hop the 34th street crosstown — that bus where you pay on the honor system and are supposed to keep your tickets in case they ask for them. We get off the bus at Park and 34th and of course we got stopped by the bus driver. Neither of us could find our tickets. Less then one hour as an undercover stage mom and we’re already in trouble. Hannah quickly pushes me forward, and we dodge the mean bus driver. Cool! I feel a rush of my former adolescent rebellion!

We have an hour before the audition and two options to take shelter from the rain: Le Pain Quotidien, or the 33rd and Park Avenue Equinox location. I’m a proud ten-year all access Equinox member, so I grab Hannah and usher her into the serenity and quiet of Equinox. I tell the front desk staff she’s my niece, just off the bus from Boston for a huge audition. The entire Equinox reception desk staff are all actors and welcome her to the club.

Anne Frank and the Fault In Her Stars

Anne Frank would have been 85 years old today. She was born June 12,1929 in Frankfurt, Germany and her life came to a tragic end in 1945 when she died in the Bergen-Belsen death camp. She penned her diary during her years hiding with her family in Amsterdam from the Nazis during World War II. Her immortal words appear in the over 45 million copies of her diary and it has been translated into over 50 languages. Our world can never know what she would have accomplished had Anne’s stars aligned and presented a different outcome.

It’s timely that one of the most moving scenes in the devastating new film The Fault in our Stars  (based on John Green’s best-selling young adult novel) takes place at the Anne Frank house. Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, both dying of cancer, are close in age to Anne and visit the museum while on a romantic trip to Amsterdam.

There is no elevator in the Anne Frank house. That won’t stop Hazel. She’s determined to climb every staircase and ladder, dragging her ever present oxygen tank. As Hazel struggles to ascend each narrow staircase and steep ladder gasping for the breath of life, we hear Anne’s most famous lines intermixed:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Hazel wants to reach the top floor of the annex. She is suffocating without oxygen.

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

Both are dying. Both are suffocating. Both trapped.

“i simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death…I think…peace and tranquility will return again.”

We know that Anne Frank is real and Hazel Lancaster is fictional. But sometimes fictional characters can convey similar messages as those of living characters. John Green’s novel and the filmmakers behind The Fault in our Stars are able to take their modern story and use the location of a real tragic figure to pierce our hearts and allow us collectively to grieve. While Hazel dies of a tragic illness—the unexplainable, Anne Frank dies because of human evil. Both are trapped, and suffocating, literally and physically. Together we communally mourn and celebrate the power of leaving behind a legacy.