It all started with the Wicked soundtrack. During her long commutes to work 10 years ago, Erin Rothman sang along with the infamous Broadway cast while she was pregnant with her daughter, Anya. Anya wasn’t even 3 years old when her parents took her to the theater for the first time, and after hanging on the performers’ every word and movement in the British musical Oliver!, she was hooked.
When Erin asked her daughter if she was interested in performing in a show herself, the answer was a resounding and unsurprising “Yes!” Her first experience on stage was with Black Box Players, a non-audition community theater that allows everyone who registers to have a part. Anya made her debut as a Hoo in the production of Seussical the Musical when she was in kindergarten. Now 9 years old and full of energy and passion for being on stage, Anya has traveled out of state to perform in professional shows, and her dream role is Elphaba, the lovable green lead in Wicked.
“I just really like theater a lot,” Anya says simply. “I love singing, I love dancing and I love acting.”
The rising fifth grader has lofty goals for sure, but even at a young age, she understands that joining a Broadway cast doesn’t happen overnight.
“You can’t just go out for a big professional show at first,” she says. “It’s very unlikely that you’ll start out with a big one. Start out with local things and work your way up.”
Which is exactly what she did, and what she says she’d tell an aspiring young actor who wants to get started. When Anya had a couple shows under her belt and started learning more about performing on a professional level, Erin wanted to encourage her daughter to follow her dreams while still keeping her grounded and realistic.
“You have to do a lot of training, and kids do a lot of lessons in preparation for that,” Erin says. “We didn’t want to be like, ‘No, you just can’t do it,’ but there’s a lot involved. We wanted to get an idea of how competitive kids are and what level you have to be at.”
After discussing the potential commitment with her family, Anya auditioned for the part of Gretl in a professional production of The Sound of Music at The Millbrook Playhouse in Pennsylvania when she was 7 years old. She went in with an open mind and the wise-beyond-her-years understanding that not getting a part she wants won’t be the end of the world, but she did get the part, and thus spent the summer before third grade as the youngest member of the Von Trapp family.
“She had a ball with that, and she just kept doing more shows,” Erin says.
Luckily for Anya and other local kids who have aspirations of joining the pros, there’s a company in Charlottesville that helps young performers learn what it takes to do this for a living. Anya attends camps and takes classes at DMR (Dreams Made Real) Adventures, a local theater company owned by professional actor Melissa Charles.
“She really has an innate understanding of what it means to be an actor,” Melissa says of Anya. “Sometimes I just sit in awe of her.”
Professional acting is a whole different ballgame from local theater, with more competition and more on the line. It’s a tough industry to break into, with a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection, but Erin says that’s not what makes her anxious for her daughter.
“I sometimes worry, are they going to be friendly and welcoming? Or is it going to be really business-like?” Erin says. “To my great happy surprise, every [professional show] that she’s done has been amazing, and far exceeded our expectations. People have just been so kind, welcoming, supportive, friendly. I think that’s part of why we allow her to continue to pursue it at this level. It’s just been very positive, and she learns a lot from these experiences.”
Anya will be the first to tell you what she’s constantly learning and gaining from being onstage.
“I really do think it’s making me a better person,” she says. “You get to actually become someone else, but it’s not like you’re losing your real self. You get to put a bit of you into it. You get to find out about other people, and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Anya’s most recent role was Sweetie Pie, the 6-year-old friend of the main character in the musical production of Because of Winn-Dixie, and she felt a kinship with the energetic young girl.
“We both like bouncing and jumping around, and we both love dogs,” she says. “There were actually real dogs in the show—it mixed theater and dogs at the same time, and it was just awesome.”
Anya and her mom spent weekdays in Delaware during the production of Because of Winn-Dixie, while her dad and brother stayed behind in Charlottesville. Rehearsal was long and intense, and she spent her free time staying caught up on her school work, FaceTiming into her classes when she could and e-mailing completed assignments to her teachers.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Erin says. “It’s just that she loves it so much.”
Give her a hand
Melissa Charles was a shy, introverted kid who felt uncomfortable in her own skin. Now a mother, teacher and business owner, she says being on stage, both as a child and an adult, has given her the confidence and ability to express herself that she lacked when she was younger.
“It’s funny. For people who are shy, it’s almost like when you’re in the spotlight, you don’t feel like people are watching,” says Charles, who’s had a career as a professional actor in theater, TV and commercials. “It feels like you’re existing in the world in a way you’re meant to be.”
Charles, a UVA grad who returned to Charlottesville nearly three years ago with her family, is the founder of Dreams Made Real (DMR) Adventures. DMR offers classes and camps for kids, and has produced dozens of plays and musicals. It also includes a youth leadership program, which gives students the opportunity to work with a mentor and get hands-on experience with everything from lighting design to choreographing.
And while Charles loves teaching and working with young performers like Anya, she believes strongly that in order to progress in the field, the kids need access to other professionals too.
“I do everything I can to bring in experts from the field, whether it’s casting directors or Broadway performers,” she says. “What has advanced these kids so quickly is having access to these guest artists.”
Details about DMR and upcoming classes are listed at dmradventures.com.—L.I.