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By LINDA BUCHWALD
This season, Broadway is practically a kiddie convention. There are currently eight Rialto shows featuring child actors, including Annie, The Lion King, and Once, and with the musicals Matilda and Pippin opening soon, there will be even more youngsters on the boards.
And behind every child actor, there's at least one child guardian. Sometimes called "child wranglers," they're the professionals who oversee a young performer's backstage life, making sure homework is done, entrances are made, and lines are memorized.
As a sign of how vital these people are, Actors' Equity stipulates that Broadway producers must provide guardians for actors under 16, and the wranglers themselves officially unionized last summer.
But for all their responsibility, child guardians are typically unsung heroes. What does it take to work with kids backstage?
Lisa Schwartz, the child guardian for the musical Once, describes the job as a cross between stage management and babysitting. Schwartz was a production assistant on Once when it appeared at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, and when the show transferred to Broadway early last year, she was scheduled to follow in the same role. However, that would have only given her a job through opening night, and when she was offered the job as child guardian, the contract was open-ended. Since loves children---having worked as a camp counselor, swim instructor, and babysitter---she said yes.
Jill Valentine, one of two child guardians on Annie, trained as an actor, but decided she didn't want to follow that career path. Annie is her fourth Broadway show as a child guardian. "My experience learning to be an actor has proved invaluable in this experience," she says. "It's helpful to be able to speak the language of actors and understand what directors are asking for, so that way if the director is giving direction to a seven-year-old who doesn't necessarily understand what's being asked of them, I can understand what the director is going for and translate that into seven-year-old talk."
Schwartz says the majority of child guardians come from stage managing and acting backgrounds. "What I've noticed is that no one goes and says, 'I'm going to be a child wrangler,'" she adds. "You fall into it."
A child guardian arrives at the theatre shortly before the children's call time. The parents sign their children in and then hand them over to the guardian at the stage door. Schwartz works with two six-year-old girls---Eliza Holland Madore and Ripley Sobo---who alternate in the role of Ivanka, the young daughter of Once's lead female character. Both girls have to be at every performance. Schwartz helps that day's performer with her costume, and then all three pass the time before the first cue by playing games and drawing. When one child goes on, Schwartz has to bring both kids down with her, and whoever is not onstage will stay with her until they all can return to their dressing room. Whoever isn't working that day can leave in the middle of act two, and Schwartz stays with the other child until the end of the show.
Schwartz says the children who work on Broadway get used to the crazy schedule of staying out until eleven. "Watching the kids I've worked with stay completely normal kids has been really great. Because kids working like this is not normal," she says.
Valentine works with another child guardian, Amanda Grundy, but at the moment there is no industry standard for the number of children per guardian. Annie started with one and then added another because of logistics with exits and entrances. Matilda will start with four.
Annie features nine girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Valentine usually works with the girls playing Annie, and Grundy oversees the orphans, who have all their scenes together. "It's never the same two days in a row," says Valentine. "The kids always make me laugh one way or another. They are so funny and honest."
Show breaks at Annie are spent making crafts, playing games, watching movies, and doing homework. Productions are also required to provide tutoring (in most cases, a child guardian is not a tutor) from the rehearsal period through opening night. After that, children go to school during the day or do online or home schooling. A child guardian's workday ends after the children sign autographs and are handed back to their parents at the stage door. Sometimes child guardians work outside the show, accompanying children to events like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
For both Valentine and Schwartz, the most rewarding aspect of the job is watching the children grow and develop as actors and people. "They learn a lot from you," says Schwartz. "You learn a lot from them."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.
Photo of the "Annie" cast by Joan Marcus