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Talent scout on lookout for healthy self-image

Samara Kalk Derby  —  2/18/2009 12:31 pm

Leslie Frank-Taylor doesn't consider herself one of those stage mothers who tries to get her children into absolutely everything.

Yet her kids -- Abby, 14, and Sam, 11 -- have both been dancing since age 4 and have performed in theatrical productions.

And she intends to take them to "So You Want To Be a Star," a free lecture by New York talent scout Peter Sklar for aspiring dancers, singers and actors and their parents Saturday at the School of Madison Ballet in Westgate Mall.

"There are a lot of kids out there who have that interest, whether they are looking to be professionals as adults or as kids," Frank-Taylor said.

Sklar might give kids a little itch or incentive, said the Monona mother.

"I'm not one to push the kids to do things. I think there is a time and a place for all of that," she said. "It's just exposing them to different options and exposing options to the parents as well."

While many parents and kids might believe that an already-developed talent for performing is what scouts are looking for, Sklar says that's really not what he's looking for at this stage. Surprising as it may seem, he says good health and self-image trump talent.

Sklar, 59, spends three or four months a year touring the country, giving free lectures at dance studios, gymnastics centers, community centers, high schools and colleges.

Typically, 50 to 100 kids and their parents turn out for his lectures at dance studios. In the high schools and colleges, it can be double that. Sklar said in a recent telephone interview that his talk has evolved over the years, but the people who come are basically the same. It's a mix of kids who really want to be entertainers, parents who really want their kids to be entertainers and people who are exploring whether they really want to be in show business.

The lectures are free, but he does them to promote workshops he runs and to attract media attention for an off-Broadway musical he got the idea for 25 years ago called "The Kid Who Played the Palace."

After the lectures, most of the kids stay to be interviewed by Sklar, and about 25 percent of them express an interest in the workshops. He said he turns about three-fourths of them away and takes the kids who are the most happy, self-motivated and intelligent. According to Sklar, an arts career is about self-image and health. He said those qualities outweigh looks, training, connections, and even talent.

He maintains that how these kids take care of themselves is of the utmost importance: What they eat for breakfast, whether they are avoiding sugar and caffeine, eating lots of green vegetables and getting a lot of sleep.

"Physical health is really a greatly understated component of marketability," Sklar said via cell phone.

It's easy to spot a kid who walks into an interview or an audition not feeling good and energetic, he said.

"We can see it. We can tell and we make assumptions that this is a kid who is going to be calling in sick, too tired to give us all of their energy, they are going to infect the rest of the cast," Sklar said.

Kids are not healthy and energetic as a group these days, he argued.

"They are, by and large, borderline anemic and the girls have all kinds of body issues, so that teenage girls are chronically underweight, they are dehydrated half the time and are not drinking enough water. Their blood sugar is all over the place because they are loaded up with sugar and caffeine so they are either flying off the walls or they are down in the dumps," said Sklar, who spoke while shopping at a Whole Foods store in Kansas City, Mo.

Self-image is crucial for performers, Sklar said, because it affects how genuine and believable they are. Kids who seem real are more believable. He looks for the kids an audience will "root for" and they are the ones he may ultimately refer to agents and casting directors.

While Sklar is careful to say he didn't discover Sarah Jessica Parker and Reese Witherspoon, they are the two most prominent actresses he has worked with. Witherspoon went to his workshop when she was about 12. Parker never went to his workshop, but Sklar worked with her as a vocal coach and piano accompanist in the early 1980s when she was in her teens.

Two actors who did go through his program are Mischa Barton, an actress on the former Fox television show "The O.C.," and Zachery Ty Bryan, who was on the ABC program "Home Improvement." Other workshop alumni have performed on Broadway and appeared in commercials and in television movies.

Sklar has been involved with performing arts for kids since the early 1970s and has a master's degree in education from Harvard University. He started "Beginnings" in 1980, which has evolved into weeklong workshops offered four times a year -- in upstate New York in June and August, in Hollywood in July and in London over Easter.

Students between the ages of 6 and 24 attend without their parents and take classes on acting, singing and dancing as well as tai chi and nutrition.

Not everyone is satisfied. Some parents on a Minnesota Web site for aspiring entertainers called have questioned the worth of Sklar's lectures and workshops in a long-running series of posts dating back to 2004, but fans outnumber the critics and generally give glowing testimonials from their experiences with Sklar over the years.

Liz Gardner, who recently moved her family to Monona from Albuquerque, N.M., is among his fans. She called his initial lecture transformative and said he gave fabulous advice to her son, Sam, now 13.

She went in thinking he would talk about networking, having connections and schmoozing, and was pleasantly surprised to find a message geared toward healthy eating, self-respect, self-love and being true to yourself, Gardner said.

"It was the kind of thing any parent would want a wise mentor to tell their child regardless of whether they were an athlete, a chess player or a debate team member," she said.

"And when you have kids who are kind of starry-eyed about being performers, it's a wonderfully refreshing, very important message to have from somebody of his respect and caliber," Gardner said.

Sam is involved in musical theater, improvisational comedy and drama. He first went to Sklar's New York workshop when he was 10 and has since attended two mini workshops. The New York workshops, not counting airfare, cost between $1,190 and $1,390.

But attending a workshop is far from a ticket to the big time. Sklar said less than 10 percent of his students will go into the entertainment business. It's not because they aren't qualified, he said. It's more likely that they learn somewhere along the way that they would rather be veterinarians or lawyers or something else.

"The purpose of my workshop is using the arts as a vehicle for developing somebody who happens to be marketable, happens to be healthy, happy, appealing and interesting but at the same time we are more focused on their self-image, their eating habits, their sense of self-discipline, their maturity. More than rushing them off to an agent," he said.

Sklar said he's had a lot of success stories, "but it's not about that. That happens as a natural result of producing a happy, healthy kid."

So you want to be a star?

Seminar: 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21 at the School of Madison Ballet in Westgate Mall. Call 278-7990, Ext. 228 to make a reservation. Nobody under age 18 will be admitted without a parent or legal guardian and nobody under age 6 will be admitted at all, even with a parent.

Samara Kalk Derby  —  2/18/2009 12:31 pm

level-1 comment

Wed. Feb. 18, 2009 5:14 pm

TJFarley says:

A talent scout emphasizing the importance of health and advising kids to take care of themselves is fantastic. There's certainly not enough of those messages out there - especially to those aspiring actor/dancers. It's too bad that Mr. Sklar believes his former client, Mischa Barton, is the best example of his advice. Ms. Barton is well represented in the media as someone with clear substance abuse issues. I would hope that Mr. Sklar's workshops include advice on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the damage they can do to one's physical and emotional health.

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Aspiring dancers warm up before a workshop in Memorial Union last year. Talent scout Peter Sklar, who will be in Madison this weekend, says good health and self-image are the key things he looks for in young performers.

File photo

Aspiring dancers warm up before a workshop in Memorial Union last year. Talent scout Peter Sklar, who will be in Madison this weekend, says good health and self-image are the key things he looks for in young performers.

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