Backstage on Broadway is just as bustling as you might expect, with cast and crew members rushing back and forth with all the rigor and intensity necessary to ensure that every performance goes off without a hitch. It also can be, as unlikely as it sounds, a place to catch up on schoolwork.
For three child actors from Massachusetts, Alexa Shae Niziak, Carly Gendell, and Marcus D’Angelo, striking a balance between work and play is just part of the daily song and dance. All three, enrolled at Walpole-based TEC Connections Academy, live in New York while performing onstage, but they fit online school lessons into their schedules to stay on academic track.
“It can be difficult when you want to keep performing but still striving for the best grades you can get,” says Niziak, 14, who appeared this spring in the off-Broadway play “Women Without Men.” “When you have a show every night, it’s hard to do work backstage, and keeping up with the demand can be tricky.”
A typical day during Niziak’s stint onstage would include dance lessons (she takes ballet and tap), shows in the evening, and — wrapped around her tight schedule — online lessons in virtual classrooms.
The school, established in 2014, specializes in electronic, personalized learning; tuition is paid by the students’ home districts. Teachers at the Walpole building communicate online with pupils, working around their specific calendars. At-home “learning coaches” (typically parents) are also enlisted to aid with schooling.
For Niziak, that technique proved “really perfect,” she says. The Dover native, who previously appeared on Broadway in “Matilda,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” has years of experience juggling theatrical pursuits and an off-stage education. She started acting at age 8 and found herself bitten by the theater bug almost immediately, performing in “A Christmas Carol” at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, then training at the Open Fields Community Theater in her hometown.
“Right when I started, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’ ” Niziak says. “Getting up onstage was so exhilarating.”
Concurrently, she remains committed to her online classes, citing history, math, and an interactive music course as her favorites. “My parents always say school is number one, so you have to especially focus on that,” Niziak says.
Weekly “dark days,” on which no performances take place, allow her to catch up on any homework that might have slipped through the cracks.
Gendell, 11, has also become well versed in the intricacies of a comparable balancing act between school and the stage. Playing Marcy in “School of Rock,” which marks her Broadway debut (and first paid gig), the Amesbury-bred actress finds herself in front of audiences for more than three quarters of the show’s run time. It can be taxing, she says, to find space for anything else outside of the theater.
“The hardest part [of being on Broadway] is sometimes finding some free time,” Gendell says. “You have to balance school and work, you don’t have a ton of time to yourself, and when you do, it’s usually after the show, which is 10 at night, when you can’t exactly hang out.”
Her father, Erik Gendell, says that a “soft schedule” is the only way to accommodate the constant pressure and demands of Carly’s role. “She has full-time school and full-time work, so we find ourselves fitting around that loose, artist-type of schedule,” he says. “This was always her dream, to be in a Broadway show. She’s very determined, and when she was onstage, we saw that and knew we had to figure out how to make it happen.”
D’Angelo, 13, has adopted a similar schedule while playing Gavroche and sometimes Petit Gervais in “Les Misérables.” The Medfield actor, who previously appeared in “Matilda” alongside Niziak, fits in some coursework backstage before heading out into the spotlight, and can use pockets of time available in the mornings for other school projects.
“Every night I get a few minutes to do a little homework, but then I go on, and I’m onstage until basically the end of the show,” he explains. “It’s a tiring play.”
The late nights take a toll on everyone on Broadway, mother Carrie D’Angelo says, which makes online classes that more appealing. “A lot of kids going to public schools and performing in these plays are getting six hours of sleep or less, and that’s just not healthy for a kid,” she says, praising the flexible scheduling for her son’s studies. “This is a better way to do it.”
Despite the long hours, Carrie D’Angelo credits Broadway with instilling confidence in Marcus. “He’s self-guiding already, but this has been great for a kid his age,” she says. “He goes through it so easily, because it’s what he loves. I don’t know if it’s much different than if you have a kid who’s into a certain sport.”
The key for all three families is to make schooling as manageable as possible while still allowing the children to pursue their careers.
“The priority has to be getting Marcus to his show on time, then it’s getting his homework done,” his mother says. “We do what we can to let him have this great experience.”
Written by Isaac Feldberg