BWW Interview: Anya Wallach of RANDOM FARMS AND STAGESTRUCK at Random Farms Kids' Theater
The Random Farms Kids' Theater, a not-for-profit organization that puts young people center stage, is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a commemorative production of Annie, Jr.
It was founded in 1995 by a then 16-year-old high school student, Anya Wallach (now 36), who formed the theater in her parents' basement. Anya started the theatre as a way to increase access to the arts for her and her friends.
Over 1200 young people perform with the theater each year in the dozens of musicals staged at the historic Tarrytown Music Hall in Westchester County, NY (45 minutes from mid-town Manhattan).
Random Farms has become a launching pad for over 100 alumni who have gone on to land roles on Broadway, Television, Commercials and Film. Some of these names include:
TONY-nominated Jennifer Damiano (Next to Normal)
Aidan Gemme (Tomorrowland, Finding Neverland)
Rachel Resheff (Orange is the New Black)
Noah Unger (Boardwalk Empire)
Zachary Unger (Newsies)
Dahlia White (100 Things To Do Before High School)
Mateo Lizcano (Dora The Explorer)
In conjunction with the anniversary, Wallach is releasing a middle-grades fiction book series called Stagestruck, closely based on her experiences starting a theater as a teenager.
The first book, Curtain Up! (Sleeping Bear Press; $6.99; Paperback; ISBN-13: 978-1585369249) follows 12-year-old Anya who, after failing to make the cut for her middle-school soccer team, decides it's the perfect time to pursue her true passion: musical theater.
BWW recently sat down with Anya Wallach to discuss the anniversary, first book and the beginning section of the Stagestruck series!
BWW: Ok, I am interviewing Anya Wallach. You are the Executive Director of Random Farms Theater in Elmsford, NY. I just finished seeing a wonderful production of Annie,Jr. with a very talented group of kids who sing, act, and dance with real professionalism. I was quite impressed! Especially since the Tarrytown Music Hall is big and intimidating. The kids really coordinated themselves nicely!AW: (Laughing) make sure that all goes in the article! BWW: I will! I've seen a lot of children's theatre productions throughout Westchester and I have never seen Random Farms, so as a mom it was nice to not see kids look like wind up dolls on stage. They all had personality and a joy of performing. AW: There can never be enough of that! BWW: You, yourself started out as a child of theatre. You grew up in Chappaqua, New York. AW: Then when I was 12 years old, I saw an audition notice in the Newspaper for an Annie production here at the Tarrytown Music Hall; I begged my parents to let me audition, they agreed, but.. BWW: Oh! It was Annie! So we've come full circle! AW: So they agreed to let me audition, expecting that I would not get cast. And then I did get cast! It was life changing for me! I was like Oh my God! Life upon the stage! I love it so much! Annie has always been my favorite show. It was the first Broadway show I ever saw and then it became the first musical I ever produced! I played an orphan and understudied "Pepper". It was an an adult production, so they didn't have children playing the adult parts. BWW: You must have had that special something even back then! AW: I wouldn't go that far (laughing)! I weaseled my way into that show and I believe that some of the set pieces used in our production were rented from the same company that did this show, because I know I bumped into Mrs. Hannigans desk (that we used for Annie,Jr.). I just loved being on stage performing and that parlayed me into performing, directing and teaching and inspiring me to start a theatre company. BWW: Did you go to school for it and get a degree in theatre? AW: I did! I was accepted into NYU's Musical Theatre program. I spent two years there and then I transferred into the music education dept. because at that point, Random Farms was really beginning to grow (which I was running simultaneously); I knew that having that education foundation would help me. I would run Random Farms as a summer workshop while I was in college. Having the education degree would help me to grow with actors and productions and workshops. By the time I graduated, I was able to run the company year round. Then I didn't have to get a "real" job. BWW: So did you recruit your classmates from NYU to help you? AW: Well, I had been going since I was 16 years old and it was a one woman show for a long time. My base was really in Westchester, so I was producing, directing, choreographing and having nervous breakdowns! BWW: That's incredible! Today you could have gone on Shark Tank or something! AW: I mean, I could have really burned myself out, but it was so creatively fulfilling! I found a niche in Westchester. Besides performing, I found other families here who wanted to be involved in a big fancy production, but in a supportive environment where they could grow and make new friends! BWW: I know! The production values are very high! You have the merchandise and the costumes! AW: Did you notice that there was some dust on our Annie's dress? That dress was worn by Aileen Quinn's stand-in in the 1982 movie. We own it! We got out hands on it by Ebay. I was so excited when I won it! Once I won that piece, I contacted the seller and it turns out she had tons of pieces from the movie! When I flew out to California to visit friends, I stopped by and bought all the pieces from the movie! And they weren't even that expensive! BWW: The magic of EBay! AW: And then I got my hands on some Broadway pieces - like Dorothy Loudon's original Mrs. Hannigan dress. The teen production features that costume. And we have the Disney Annie Dress, the made for TV movie with Audra McDonald and Kristen Chenowith. So it is very special for the kids for they know they are wearing actual memorabilia. BWW: How do you foster a non-competitive environment? Do you try to keep stage parents at bay? AW: As much as we can. This business is incredibly competitive, so we do everything we can to try to counteract that. The focus is always on finding the joy of performing within! If you base your experience by what part or how many lines you have compared to your friend, then you are setting yourself up for failure. If you just enjoy the moment, you are going to have a lifetime love of theatre. BWW: Do you also stress to the children that you have to do other things first like build costumes, scenery and be in the chorus? AW: What's interesting is that we do an even-playing field approach. When they come to audition for a show, It doesn't matter if they have been in a performance with us before or played a leading role. They get scored and they are cast based on their feedback and appropriateness for the role. There is no seniority or any age stipulations. We think that is fair. BWW: That is very healthy! AW: We also try to make sure that every performer is featured. In our main stage performance, we give every performer a line, a solo or even a cartwheel! BWW: I have to say that I loved that in the song "Maybe," you turned the song into an ensemble. Every orphan got a solo line! AW: This is also why the "Jr." Versions are so great. They help to distribute the lines. In our workshop program, we do that even more! In that program, there are only 22 participants, so everyone is guaranteed multiple lines and solos. This makes our workshops probably the most popular of our offerings. It doesn't matter if you are the lead or not, you are going to have a lot to do. And mom and dad are happy too! BWW: Of course! We moms and dads are the enablers of this! We need the most stroking! (Laughing). So with all of your success, you have branched out into writing a book! I mean, you just have so much time on your hands! You wrote a book called Stagestruck. AW: Oh yes! (Laughing). The book idea actually started almost five years ago - in early 2011. People were always compelled by the story. They would hear how I started my theatre company at 16 and would have questions and comments. It was unique and the story never seemed to get old. I thought, maybe this would be a good "actual" story. BWW: Yes! AW: I grew up on The Babysitter's Club books, so I thought it would be cool to have The Babysitter's Club meets Glee. There aren't very many books about female entrepreneurs. BWW: Wait, what's that???? AW: I really thought it would be cool - especially for girls to b able to read something about a girl starting a business. So, then I went from there! BWW: And you collaborated with Lisa Fiedler. AW: Lisa Fiedler, who wrote one of the Sweet Valley High books, which I almost died when I found out! Even though Francine Pascal created the series, Lisa would come in and write for it as well. When my literary agent told me that she could help with the project, I was so excited! She collaborated with the Olsen Twins as well! BWW: So she's the go - to for teen girl stories! AW: I knew that just because I had a story to tell, I didn't necessarily know how to write it, so I was thrilled to collaborate with a seasoned professional tween/teen writer! I am so happy with how the book came out! BWW: I look forward to reading it with my "tween!" This will catapult you into another level of being famous! So have you been able to use it as a teaching tool at Random Farms? AW: Well, it just came out, so I've been doing book signings in Westchester and NYC. We already have a second one coming out in September. BWW: That's fast! AW: Yes, gotta keep em coming! In terms of the educational value, I've had a farther reach with the book than I've anticipated! It has helped to bring Random Farms into the national arena. You could be in Ohio at a bookstore and pick up a copy. I've actually started to get booked to do speaking engagements at conferences and different educational forums. BWW: have you been going into middle schools or high schools? AW: my publicist at Sleeping Bear Press just started booking me on school visits. So I go in to talk to the kids in which I do a Q & A and a book signing and Theatre activities. In the fall, I am booked to go to Saratoga to speak at a conference on literacy and how to bring the performing arts into your classroom. BWW: Yes, because the arts are getting cut in the budgets now. AW: Exactly, so it is up to the classroom teacher to make these opportunities happen on either a shoestring budget or no budget. Since I've been in that position before, I can help with a curriculum, without having a $50,000 budget. Some schools might have it, but after doing this for 20 years, I know how to cut corners. BWW: I'm sure the kids really appreciate it, especially since you look so young and vibrant! AW: I think the kids sometimes, when they come up to me do not realize I actually wrote the book! BWW: This is the 20th anniversary of Random Farms! What can you tell us about this milestone? AW: I would love to stress that we've gotten a great reputation for putting on high quality productions, but I also want to stress that we are not exclusive! We are a very inclusive community. We have programs for so many ages and levels. You do not need a headshot or resume. All you need is the love of singing and dancing, or to think that one day you might want to sing and dance! BWW: And you have great resources for voice teachers and acting teachers, headshots, etc. That is vey helpful for parents who do not know what the business is like. AW: We are very committed to helping kids become performers, if that is what they want. Plus we are close to Manhattan. We try to provide parents with the right information if they want to have their kids pursue it. That is why we have had so many kids on Broadway. We help to bridge the gap. BWW: But this can be expensive? AW: We are non-profit and have a huge scholarship program, plus a lot of outreach. We do an anti-bullying program. We also do a free showcase in conjunction with Broadway Workshop in Manhattan. I team up with the director of that program so that we can offer it to our families for free. For one night a year, we bring kids to perform for agents and casting directors. BWW: But you are very hands on. You are not going to send a kid into Manhattan to audition if they are not ready. AW: Correct. They have to audition for the showcase. BWW: And we don't know! We all sing in our showers and think we are acoustically amazing, but it doesn't always translate to the real world. AW: Having done this for many years, I know what is considered to be marketable and it is not necessarily the best singer. This can be hard to explain to parents and so frustrating. There aren't a huge amount of shows for kids, so they have to be marketable across all media, including television and film. BWW: It's tough! They say if you can do anything else you should. I use to hear it all the time, but I never listened! (Laughing). It's not a choice! By the way, are you accessible or so busy now? AW: Oh yes! The good thing is that I have a team of real professionals here now. It's not just me in my basement putting on a show. One of the things that we do that is interesting is that in our workshop program, we score the kids and give them feedback. We tell the parents to take it with a grain of salt, but they can check in with the director to monitor how their child is doing. The directors are full time staff and get to see the kids from show to show, and can give constructive feedback. For example, like things to improve, what are their strengths. BWW: I think it is great if it is constructive. As long as it's positive. I feel like there is not enough positive reinforcement. I see my own kids thrive when there is an encouraging comment thrown in with the feedback. AW: One thing to really understand is that the casting outcome does not reflect your child's progress. Talent and casting are two different trajectories. You might be the lead in one show and then be featured in another show. BWW: I think if they learn the work ethic, it helps for them to be prepared and deal with disappointment. So, tell us about your alumnae! AW: Yes! Jennifer Damiano (Next to Normal, Spiderman). I'm like the stage mother of our alumnae! Jennifer has a special place in my heart, not just because I've known her for so many years, but because she is our first Tony nominated alumnae! Also, she grew so much as a performer all the way to when she got cast in Spring Awakening. Initially, she started as an orphan in Annie in 2000 and then the next year, she played Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, Marian the librarian in The Music Man and then she was booked for her Broadway shows. Plus, she is quoted on the back of the book! BWW: And Nicholas Barasch (West Side Story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) is also an alum! AW: Oh my gosh! He started out as Charlie Bucket in Willie Wonka! BWW: He's going to be in the revival She Loves Me and could be Tony nominated too! Also Aiden Gemme from Finding Neverland is an alum. AW: Yes! He started as Dr. Grimwig in our workshop production of Oliver. The old man with a very tall hat! He went from that to Broadway! What could be more natural? He is also in Tomorrowland with George Clooney. BWW: you seem so nice and approachable! AW: I'm so happy you said that. We are completely supportive. No need to yell at kids which is not effective. We are not doing a good job if we need to do that. A lot of my approach is from my philosophy at NYU. I never taught at a school even though I got my teaching degree. I used the foundation to help me shape the program. It has given me such satisfaction to develop and discover the joy, and find staff members who are on the same page. The most gratifying thing is knowing that the kids come off a production feeling so elated, and they're screaming and hugging and cheering. Plus the parents enjoy not just the shows but the rehearsals as well! BWW: Any last thoughts? AW: Yes! Random Farms is not just for itty bitties. We are a program for kindergarten to college. We have the "Edge" program for high school students, so it's for kids of all ages!!! BWW: Thank you so much! This was a lot of fun! AW: Thank you! For more information on Random Farms, please visit: http://www.randomfarms.com