The elegant Peter Sklar peruses a roomful of eager children and their parents. The experienced child star finder has come to the Paige Conservatory of Performing Arts on School Street to give some expert advice and scout for possible future stars.
“I will do my best to change the lives of the kids here in ways they don’t normally think of,” promises Sklar.
His presentation on the evening of March 25, aptly called “So You Want to be a Performer…,” is an interesting mix of classiness, cleverness, firm testing and gentleness. Every now and then he zeroes in on a single child in the large crowd, challenging whether she or he meets the 6-year-old bottom age limit for attendance at this workshop.
He peppers the crowd with questions, requesting a show of hands from the children, and then their parents.
“How many of you have heard that to make it in this business you must have talent?” asks Sklar. “Training? Know the right people? Have a lot of desire? Have a lot of passion and desire? Have a lot of luck?”
He explains that with a lot of money at stake, casting directors narrow their search down to a very specific type.
“They don’t have the time to audition a 14-year-old white girl who wants to play a 10-year-old black boy,” says Sklar. “Beyond type, looks become a distant consideration. Too pretty can be a distraction.”
Sklar tells his rapt young audience that a high level of training and talent will simply put them on a level playing field at an audition.
“There’s nothing unusual about a high level of training and talent at an audition,” says Sklar. “It’s essential, but not unusual.”
Going in to audition with less talent and training than the competition puts you at a disadvantage.
Having good connections can get young hopefuls into an audition, he explains, but the people they are auditioning for are probably considering things like their investors, critics, the public, their reputation in the industry, and future box office receipts.
“Luck has everything to do with your career after somebody hires you,” says Sklar. “Now we’ll take a short five-minute bathroom break. Please hurry.”
Like most piano players, Sklar can’t pass up an available piano in the next room. The career musician, who studied concert piano at Julliard in New York, unobtrusively sits down and rips brilliantly through a difficult piano piece.
He starts his second half of the session by informing students they’ll be warned it’s hard to get to New York, hard to find a place to live, hard to find classes, meet expenses, find an agent. None of this is that hard, he says.
“What’s so hard?” asks Sklar. “It’s hard to get hired — hard to get a job. All the advice you’ve gotten has nothing to do with how you get picked.”
Sklar says casting directors have to get it right and they have to work fast.
“If a casting director gets you wrong, the show can tank by intermission on opening night,” says Sklar.
The conventional advice given out for seeking a job in the corporate world is deadly in theater. Giving a firm handshake, a smile, and eye contact, and asking a few smart questions will get you branded as a fake, says Sklar.
“I asked many casting directors what the worst quality is for an actor, and they said ‘fake,’” says Sklar. “You can be stupid as long as you’re real.”
Audiences need to like an actor and believe in that actor or they won’t care, according to Sklar. Casting directors need to find out what an actor is like. How open are they? How real are they?
Sklar said actors need to be aware of any negative feelings they have about themselves, so they won’t try to hide them or overcompensate for them.
“Self-awareness can make you more open — not any happier — but more open,” says Sklar.
He tells the kids that they must take care of themselves because casting directors look for mentally and physically healthy people to cast, not some of the unhealthy kids he says one might see by walking through any middle school.
“Given the choice, we don’t pick people who are sick,” says Sklar. “You have to eat healthy all the time. You have to take care of yourself all the time.”
That’s important as actors in New York struggle with a job, roommates, auditions and rent.
He announced that actors should avoid having a serious girlfriend or boyfriend until they’re at least 25, because it can take away the focus on and hunger for a successful theater career.
Sklar told the kids to “politely and respectfully” ignore the advice of anyone suggesting they make sure to have something practical and realistic to fall back on. Knowing an alternative career is in place also takes the edge off the drive to succeed in theater, according to Sklar.
“Likeable, believable, strong, healthy, focused — we like people like that and we hire them,” says Sklar.
Holding a masters degree in education from Harvard, Sklar founded the well-known Beginnings Workshop in upstate New York in 1984. He is noted for having discovered such outstanding future stars as Sarah Jessica Parker, Reese Witherspoon, Mischa Barton and Rick Schroder.
Following his presentation, Sklar conducted personal interviews with each child interested, to see if any of them might be good candidates for his Beginnings Workshop.
People interested in the Beginnings Workshop can learn more about it online at www.petersklaronline.com.
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