Kids rock in 'School of Rock'

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — It was W.C. Fields who famously said, "Never work with children or animals." It's a good thing Claire Burke never took that advice.

Burke works for Tara Rubin Casting and is the person responsible for selecting the children in the New York and national tour of "School of Rock." The upbeat musical plays Proctors Theatre beginning Tuesday and running through Sunday.

Burke, who joined the agency in 2011 as an intern, says "School of Rock" has a special place in her heart. She was with the show from the very first audition and she recognizes that the production showcased her abilities. She is convinced her work for "School of Rock" got her a promotion to full-time casting director.

If you're not familiar with the hit film that is the source material for the musical (which just closed a three-year run on Broadway) it concerns a failed rock musician, Dewey Finn, who takes a substitute teaching job at a snobby private prep school. He wins the hearts of his nerdy students by forming a band, and secretly enters them in a national Battle of the Bands contest.

Clearly, "School of Rock" has a lot of young actors who perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber-composed rock music. To be precise, there are 16 youngsters in the cast. Three boys and a girl, along with Dewey, make up the band. The rest play other kids who are central to the story and understudy the major characters. "All perform on stage, eight performances a week," Burke said.

She states the obvious when she says, "Finding kids who can play an instrument on a professional level, and who can sing and act, is a difficult task." Making it even more difficult is that they prefer kids between the ages 9 to 12. She laughs and says they rarely even look at someone approaching 16. "That's when voices change, and someone can sprout a couple of inches overnight."

Making a difficult job more difficult is the road.

"Besides performing, there is the travel and keeping up with studies," Burke said. "We try to select people who have a strong work ethic and a sense of adventure. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it is also hard work."

The same is true for adults, who travel with their children. "We keep a file of everyone who auditions, because you never know. Sometimes we have only a couple of weeks to replace a cast member. Can you imagine uprooting your entire life within a few weeks to travel with a theater company? You have to be special to accept that challenge."

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For the performers, being special starts with being an exceptional musician. Other qualities are equally important. Burke explains that most who audition come from an instrument background. Few have theater experience. "Our auditions take twice as long as normal," she explained. "We spend time with a candidate to find out about their maturity and if they can take direction. Most of all, we try to determine if they really want to make the commitment to the show."

As for the intangibles, Burke said, "We search for distinctive personality types. What we don't want is a group of kids who will look professional on stage. We want real and relatable. A little quirk can be helpful in that regard."

She is well aware of the trauma the process can impose.

"This is often the first professional audition for most of them. I am especially careful to take the time both before and after the audition to work with the youngsters about rejection. We try to use it as a teaching-learning experience," she said.

And it works. For her, one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is to see kids return year after year and show they've learned from previous auditions.

"They come in knowing songs from the show, which they have mastered. We recently cast a kid who started auditioning at age 5. I was so proud. It was like watching a nephew grow up."