illustration by Jeanne Seagle
“I wanna be a star!” That’s a declaration that sings with passion and enthusiasm. Deidra Shores once stood on the sidewalk in front of the Orpheum Theatre, gazing at the gold stars that honor actors who’ve performed at the theatre. “My name will be on a star here, too,” the 9-year old vowed.
Now 17, Shores has acted in films, won NBC’s Today’s Kid Reporter contest in 2009, and reported for Black Entertainment Television as well as WMC-TV’s Action News 5. Deidra is one of many local kids who are testing their talent, hoping to one day become a star. But ambitious kids — and the parents who support them — say success requires more than wishing on a star. Here are some tips on how to develop your acting chops.
Sixteen-year-old Suraj Partha’s family moved to Los Angles four years ago to help launch his acting and singing career. Initially, the family intended to stay for the television pilot season, but talent agents vied to sign him on.
His mother, Rajasree, relocated with Suraj and two daughters, leaving behind her husband, Dr. Ranganathan Parthasarathy, to maintain his radiology practice. Suraj enrolled in public school and started acting lessons. Several roles came his way; he played a pool boy in the popular TV series, Glee, and scored a role in Nickelodeon’s How to Rock.
His first big break came in September 2011, when he auditioned for the role of Alai in the film Ender’s Game. Suraj worked with an acting coach to prepare for the audition. When he didn’t get a callback, he assumed the director picked another actor. Three months later, the phone rang. “The director told me he saw my tape and didn’t have to look anymore. I fit his vision.”
The movie, which stars Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley, was released last November. Suraj admits, “Now I’m in love with film and acting.” He originally wanted to sing and record. Suraj had portrayed Tevye in Harrell Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof and sang “America the Beautiful” at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis championship. His vocal coach, Germantown’s Bob Westbrook, suggested the teen develop his acting skills as a way to get singing roles.
At the time, Westbrook suggested exposing Suraj to Hollywood, so the teen attended an iPop!, a Los Angeles convention where he met agents and managers.
“It did scare me in the beginning because you hear about negativity in Hollywood, and my son comes from a good family with values. My advice is not to be afraid,” says Suraj’s mom, Rajasree. “As long as you’re by your child’s side and guiding him, it will work out.”
Fifteen-year-old Sydney Bell of Cordova is an actress and singer who recently portrayed Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker at Germantown Community Theatre. While taking advantage of local acting opportunities, she also pursues Broadway as well as television and film roles.
Every year, Sydney makes at least five trips to N.Y.C. to audition and take classes. Her parents support her dream, noting they would invest as much time and money in competitive sports. Sydney sends audition tapes out on a weekly basis. She uses Skype for long-distance coaching with her acting teacher, Craig D’Amico of Broadway Dreams Foundation, and she trains with Westbrook.
With help from her mother and several talent agents, Sydney has found work. She has a freelance arrangement with a New York agent and Memphis talent agent Lisa Lax represents her regionally. The teen has had brushes with Broadway. At 11, she began auditioning for roles through the Broadway Dreams Foundation. The foundation linked her with casting directors who looked at her audition tapes for Shrek and Little House on the Prairie.
Amy Hanford, the director of the Harrell Theatre, connected her with a casting agent who set her up to audition for a role in Mary Poppins. Sydney wasn’t yet tall enough for the role but was called back to re-audition for the next two years. She ended up as a finalist, but by then she was too tall for the part. However, Sydney did win a weeklong engagement in MusicVille at the Nagelberg Theatre in New York.
Sydney also explores the TV and film markets in Atlanta and New Orleans. She has acted in local commercials, had a lead role on an episode of America’s Most Wanted, and played a choral member in an episode of Nashville. In Holy Ghost People, a film to be released this year, she plays a possessed girl.
The teen jokes about her “in-between stage.” Standing just 4’11”, she’s an inch too tall to play a child on a New York stage. She’s also counting the days until her braces come off. Meanwhile, she polishes her craft at workshops in New York.
Still working towards a star of her own at the Orpheum, Deidra Shores continues to grow her resume. She’s worked with local companies, including the African dance troupe Watoto and Teens in Theatre at Playhouse on the Square.
She was recently an extra in Get On Up, a bio-pic movie about James Brown, and Stoker, a Nicole Kidman film shot in Nashville. In addition, she portrayed a camper who stands up to bullies in the film, Standing Up. Deidra hopes to attend college in Atlanta, where she can pursue other jobs while earning her degree.
“Parents don’t have to be in the audience for every performance,” notes her mother, Vanessa Conner. “If you have a support system, ask someone to occasionally take your child to events. Have someone your child can speak to who doesn’t have an interest in her goals so that she can let off steam.”
Talent Agent Lisa Lax
Lisa Lax owns a regional talent agency. The Lisa Lax Agency represents talent for film, television, print, performance and commercial projects. Lax currently works with 45 young clients. “I look for cute personalities,” says Lax. “Say your kid is cute, mimics commercials, and has a great imagination. He can take a class on how to do commercials, audition for local theatre, and take a drama class.”
Lax recommends the local Indie Acting Studio for commercial classes and the Actor’s School in Nashville for acting workshops. Locally, the market is oriented to commercials; in Nashville, music videos reign. “But the slowdown of the economy affected the Memphis commercial industry greatly and it’s never fully recovered.” However, “The Atlanta, Carolinas, and New Orleans markets offer more film, TV, and commercial work.”
Lax became an agent after helping her own daughter negotiate acting opportunities in Hollywood. “Support your kids and keep eyes open to all their talents. You may hone in on one thing and miss their real passion.”
Vocal Coach Bob Westbrook
Don’t go see Bob Westbrook unless you’re career-oriented, parents say. The Germantown-based vocal coach and talent manager’s roster has included singers Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, and actress Lucy Hale of ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, and Memphian Olivia Holt of the Disney series, Kickin’ It.
Kids should love what they do and be willing to practice, Westbrook says. They’ll also need parental support to get to agencies and auditions. Theatre wannabes should audition with local theater companies; the Mid-South Fair’s talent show also provides a chance to compete. If your child hopes to work in television or film, find someone to help her work on cold reads. Then head to New York or L.A. and participate in a summer program or camp.
“It’s hard to audition from the South with videotapes. You have to have the resources to relocate,” notes Westbrook. “Lucy Hale is from Memphis, and she relocated with her mom. But it can be emotionally draining to have parents separated, and a kid who’s not making much money.”
According to Westbrook, Hale had more than 100 auditions before landing her first plum job. One in 10 of his clients goes on to build a career. In New York, there’s demand for a ‘triple threat,’ someone who sings, acts, and dances. In L.A., it’s less important to have a singing background.
For those who make it, success can be sweet. Westbrook began coaching Olivia Holt when she was just nine years old. She now stars in the Disney XD show, Kickin’ It, and has a contract with Hollywood Records. Keep an eye on her, says Westbrook. “She’s the next Hannah Montana.”