Big dreams keep Lowcountry's "star kids" reaching for Broadway

jpaprocki@islandpacket.comAugust 13, 2012 

Skylar Stephens has a plan. Her career as an artist is mapped out year-by-year. First off, get an agent, preferably by the end of the year. Then, win a Grammy as a teenager. Go to Juilliard. Make it on Broadway soon after. Once her on-stage life feels complete, she'll move on to producing and directing. Maybe more Tonys are in store.

Big dreams for a 13-year-old. But she needs to dream big if she's going to make it.

Skylar is one of a handful of Hilton Head Island's "star kids," young people who are hoping to become professional performers. She's like many others who have an extensive resume of school plays, community theater, voice lessons and drama camps but is seeking something bigger, something that can't be found on a tourist island in the South.

The concept of "star kids" has been around since before Shirley Temple took a trip on the Good Ship Lollipop. But in recent years, it's become an industry unto its own, more and more teens watching peers get gigs and glory. The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have found hits in live action comedy and drama, essentially becoming a tween star hit factory with shows like "iCarly" and "Hannah Montana." With the advent of the Internet, fame seems just as easy as posting a YouTube video and waiting. Before you know it, you're the next Justin Bieber ... if only.

Every child goes through a stage of big dreams. But then the star basketball player goes to college and finds himself alongside dozens of other high school basketball stars. Suddenly, the level of competition has risen. Those dreams of the NBA don't seem so surefire. All kids hit that wall of heightened competition. They go over, they fall back or they don't try. Being a star in a high school musical in a small town doesn't necessarily guarantee success elsewhere. But sometimes to make it big, you can't think like that.

STARS IN TRAINING

The audition had a lineup of 12 teenagers. They had to do a choreographed dance they learned 10 minutes earlier.

"I want those faces. Sell it!" said the casting director.

Some were hesitant, some flowed naturally.

The casting director posed a few pointed questions afterward: What was the last show you did? Did you dance?

"You three take a step forward," the director said. "Thank you, leave."

Harsh.

Thankfully, it was all for show. For the second summer, local drama coach Don Hite put on weeklong summer camps for kids. He brings in professionals, many performing at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina with Broadway credentials. In this case, Jen Brooks, a star of "Shout! The Mod Musical," was serving in the role of casting director.

As part of the camp, he asks the guests to speak not just about skill but what it takes to make it in the theater industry. Hite was once like the kids he taught. He came from a small town in Virginia. He can remember telling his mother one day his dreams of getting to New York City. Now, his resume lists work on Broadway as a musical director.

Skylar was one of the students in his summer camp. She's already a veteran of the local theater scene, scoring roles in the Main Street Youth Theatre and the arts center. Like dozens of other kids, Hite taught her privately. He said she has the chops to back up her lofty plans. On the surface, those plans might seem too ambitious, maybe a bit naive, but that kind of attitude is what Hite seeks.

"I can teach a lot of things, but I don't teach motivation or determination," he said "Those who have it are the ones who shine."

ON THE RADAR

Tara Bianco has the look of a pop princess -- fresh-faced with wavy red hair and a youthful vibe. She's 17 but could play as young as 14. She grew up with roles at the Main Street Youth Theatre and the arts center. Then, all of a sudden, she got a peek at teen stardom.

She went to an audition at Hilton Head's Tucker MarCom agency with a representative from All Star Music, based in Los Angeles. She and another local girl were selected to go to the West Coast to record with Bryan Todd, a producer and songwriter whose credits include teen idols Ashley Tisdale and Jordin Sparks.

Since then, she's recorded three songs with Todd and shot a music video. She's been cast in a lead role in a webseries, "Chelsea's Way," based in Atlanta. She's starring in a short film to promote a young adult novel, "Pixie Dust." She'll be returning to L.A. to work more with Todd in songwriting, singing and learning the business.

The summer has been a bit hectic, to say the least. Tara's mother Tanda has been accompanying her to Atlanta and Los Angeles. Tara is represented by two talent agencies to help guide her, but along the way they've had to learn a business they had little knowledge of before. It's time-consuming and expensive, fraught with scammers looking to take advantage of inexperienced parents. At first, everything was a bit overwhelming, Tara said. She'd be out in L.A., listening to Todd talk about who he's worked with and thinking, "Is this for real?" But it is. Everything Todd promised has come through.

In just a matter of months, the distance from Hilton Head to Hollywood suddenly seems shorter. It could end at any minute. Even if it does, she'll keep trying.

"I've been an entertainer ever since I can remember," she said. "It's all I've ever wanted to do."

A BALANCING ACT

All the while, kids like Tara have to balance jetsetting to auditions with school work. Tara attends Heritage Academy, which gives its students time to focus on their extracurricular work or their individual "passions," as they're called. Hannah Brown, whose first stage solo came at age 4, is home-schooled. She's signed with an agency in Raleigh, N.C., and frequently travels to audition for films and movies.

"(Home schooling) allows her to focus more on what she wants to do," said her mother, Mimi. "She felt like she wasted too much time in school. She wanted to move at her own pace and spend more time doing what she loves.

"Kids like these are in love with what they do. It's not like we have to push them. They push themselves."

The task then becomes to rein them in. When Skylar, who attends Hilton Head Preparatory School, wanted to try out for a Main Street Youth production, her mother, Edra, didn't think Skylar had time. So, Skylar convinced her brother to drive her there. Needless to say, Mom wasn't pleased. "Not if you don't get your school work done," Skylar said, quoting her Mom. "I've heard that quite a few times.

"This is just everything I've ever imagined. It's all I want to do. It's my dream. It makes me happy."

JUMPING IN

Jean-Luc McMurtry, a Hilton Head Island High School graduate, was accepted into New York University to study drama and film.

He admits it can be a bit intimidating to think about. He's made a few connections, people in the industry in New York who can offer support when things get rough. And he expects it to get rough. He just can't worry too much about how rough.

"How can you pull yourself from a nurturing small town to a place that's like the center of the world?" he asks.

"It is scary. But I'm not going to be afraid."

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