Broadway Buddies take each other to new artistic heights

Photo by Shanee Frazier
Seton Hall University theater student Elliott Petrilla is just one young participant in Vanguard Theater Company’s Broadway Buddies program, which educates aspiring performers from Maplewood, South Orange, West Orange and other areas.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Returning for its third year, Vanguard Theater Company’s Broadway Buddy Mentorship Program and Cabaret unites budding local talent with seasoned Broadway actors. The program concludes with a cabaret featuring the pairs performing at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Monday, April 23, through a special collaboration with Seton Hall University’s theater department.

“Vanguard is thrilled to partner with SOPAC and Seton Hall Theater Department for a second year. This is a win for access, equity and diversity. Audience members can expect to see a rainbow of talent that represents the best of Broadway’s past, present and future. We are beyond excited,” Vanguard Managing Director Jessica Sporn said in a recent press release. “We are grateful to our sponsors: TeeRico by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Seton Hall Theater for making this program possible.”

After carefully reviewing a record number of auditions by hopeful applicants, the 2018 Broadway Buddy program launched Feb. 25, and included students from Bloomfield, East Orange, Glen Ridge, Maplewood, Montclair, Newark, North Plainfield, Nutley and West Orange — and even Granby, Conn. For seven weeks, mentors will meet with their mentees, offering show business advice, personal stories and individual performance coaching during cabaret rehearsals.

Thirty-two Broadway performers signed on to lend their time and talent to this year’s program, with many returning after a previous positive experience with the program — and the same applies to a number of the mentees.

Seton Hall University student Chad Navarro is one of the mentees returning for a second year; he was reunited with his initial mentor, Martin Sola. Navarro first heard about the program when Vanguard co-founder and artistic director Janeece Freeman-Clark served as a guest director for Seton Hall’s production of “Oklahoma!” last year.

“She reached out to a few SHU students about the program auditions, and we made it in,” Navarro said in a recent phone interview. “The program really helped me develop my confidence not only as a performer but in myself, being paired with someone who is a veteran in the industry. Because my mentor treated me with such respect, it gave me the realization that my goals were attainable.

“Seeing friends and peers grow and hit the stage and see them be showmen is really nice for everyone,” Navarro continued. “That’s something that I think that Seton Hall’s theater department is great at; we are here as a team rather than competitors. For Vanguard it’s the same thing: It’s very collective and everyone is cheering for each other and a support system.”

Sola, Navarro’s mentor, is equally enthusiastic about the chance to return to the program.

Sola heard about the program from a colleague who knew Freeman-Clark’s husband, Dwayne Clark, who is also an accomplished Broadway actor. Clark mentioned that Vanguard Theater Company was looking for Broadway performers to serve as mentors and Sola looked into the program.

“That kind of work interests me. I’ve done a lot of teaching and outreach, and this was a little different. This was different because instead of going to a class you have one person that you build a potentially lasting relationship with and it’s very individualized,” Sola said in a recent phone interview. “Chad and I have been in contact and make appointments to get together and talk and he comes to my shows; I have seen him do ‘Oklahoma!’ There’s a lot more investment of time and developing a friendship when it comes to Broadway Buddies. I think we will be in touch throughout our lives and careers. He’s come out to dinner with my family and I consider him a friend. I love the fact that we get to perform together and that the mentees get to see professional theater artists. It can be very rewarding and uplifting.”

Another Broadway Buddies returning mentee is Indigo Jackson, a sophomore at West Orange High School. For a second year, Jackson was paired with Broadway actress Bonita Hamilton.

Jackson was already very familiar with the Vanguard Theater Company when she was introduced to the Broadway Buddies program. In addition to receiving voice lessons from Freeman-Clark, she also participated in a summer program at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, where Freeman-Clark is an instructor.

“Last year I auditioned via video, and this year I did it in person. Previously, I was not confident in my ability and my mentor really pushed me to do everything that I can to reach my potential because she believed in me a great deal,” Jackson said in a recent phone interview. “I had a really big boost of confidence after the program and it made me audition for the school play. I’m very excited to learn more, and this year and we are also doing a song that is outside of my comfort zone. I definitely want to pursue this as a career and it’s so cool seeing someone who does this professionally showing you the way. To have someone on the inside telling me that I can do this is life-changing.”

Fellow West Orange resident Maria Nalieth also had a prior connection to the Vanguard Theater Company through lessons with Freeman-Clark, but the Broadway Buddies Program really helped the Roosevelt Middle School eighth-grader find her voice.

“I was auditioning for the summer program and Janeece mentioned the mentoring program, and I decided to audition for it. I was paired with Lauren Palmeri and we met and she told me about her career and what shows she’s done,” Nalieth said in a recent phone interview. “In the past, I was nervous about doing school shows, but after doing this I want to continue performing. Lauren gave me really good advice on everything from anxiety to auditions.”

First-year mentee Elliot Petrilla also credits the program with helping him embrace both his talents and his potential through the encouragement of his mentor, Randy Blair.

Petrilla is a freshman at Seton Hall University double-majoring in theater and music; he heard about the Broadway Buddies Program from his friends in the theater program who had participated in the past.

“All of my peers have had an awesome experience with the program, and this was the first year for both myself and my mentor, so we were both just going with the flow and it went well. A lot of the talks I’ve had with my mentor have been very reassuring and also practical because he has been encouraging me to build a professional portfolio,” Petrilla said in a recent interview. “He helps to build a lot of the confidence that I am lacking. I think I’m a good writer, and I’m using a lot of his positive energy, because he seems to think that I can do it.”

Petrilla’s mentor heard about the program from another actor with whom he was working and who thought he might make a good mentor, so Blair agreed to have his contact information passed along to Vanguard for consideration.

“When the fellow actor asked me, I thought I would be a terrible mentor with nothing to say that might be of use. Since joining, I have fallen in love with the process, and it’s been great helping to prepare material and preparing Elliott in general for being an actor and helping him get things together,” Blair said in a recent phone interview. “It has been great to work with a younger performer that’s in a place that you have been and look back and have advice for them on how to progress as a performer and a person in this industry.

“It’s a process that has sort of changed my view on mentorship, I’ve never taught or done anything of this nature so it was a nice way to dip my toe in the water of teaching and mentoring,” Blair continued. “It was especially interesting working with Elliott because he also has an interest in becoming a writer, so rather than performing a song that already existed, I challenged him to write his own song for the cabaret. I also write some works that have been performed on stage, so I have the opportunity to mentor him as both a performer and as a writer.”

The Broadway Buddies Program is certainly a chance for blossoming performers to get a taste of what goes on behind the scenes for a professional actor, but it also reminds veterans about what drew them to the stage in the first place.

Catherine Brunell returned for her second year as a mentor in the program and has the same mentee, Seton Hall student Tess Borcenik. For Brunell, the ability to form a bond with her mentee and watch both the relationship and skills progress from one year to the next is a reward in itself.

“Tess and I kept in touch after being paired together last year, and it’s been great being her mentor. She is so open to learning and growing as an artist, and when you mentor someone like that it’s easy because they are open to absorbing your experience and taking direction,” Brunell said in a recent phone interview. “I have a lot to offer her, but I also have a lot to gain from my involvement in this program. She doesn’t have an ounce of jadedness, and she has such excitement about performing. For me, this isn’t just a job — it is a vocation. It calls you and I feel like I was chosen by the performing arts. I never felt like this is what I had to do and I see the same in Tess.”

First-year mentor Catherine Ricafort also finds the Broadway Buddies Program to be a refreshing reminder of why she pursued a career as a professional performer. The program has given her the opportunity to share with her mentee, WOHS student Gabrielle Florendo, some advice she wishes she’d received when she first entered the industry.

Ricafort was introduced to the program by her brother, Juan Ricafort, who also serves as a mentor this year. Though she was not familiar with being a mentor, she decided to give it a go.

“I had never done this before; there has been so much hustling over the past few years that I haven’t really had the chance to mentor and give back in my professional career,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I think Broadway Buddies did a good job of pairing us with mentees that have similar backgrounds. I am paired with someone who is also Filipino-American. It’s been nice to tell her what auditions are like, and all of these things that you don’t even realize are going on in the musical theater world until you get in it. I didn’t even know where to start when I got to New York and ended up looking up things on the internet because I didn’t know where to go or what questions to ask.”

Because the two share a Filipino-American background, Ricafort was also able to give Florendo some insight on the potential pitfalls of being typecast.

“In acting there is typecasting and it sometimes comes into play. I have been lucky that I haven’t been limited and I think that there are opportunities for both, and I told her not to worry, also that there is a very supportive Filipino Broadway community,” she said. “It’s very tough to make your way through the Broadway scene and I was able to do it with mentors, and I’m grateful that I now have enough knowledge that I can pass it on to someone else. The business can be very hard and heartbreaking and it makes you put up a protective wall so it’s nice to visit fresh energy and remember why you started doing it in the first place.”

Freeman-Clark has seen how the program aids both aspiring performers and successful stage actors.

“Now that we are in our third year, what’s exciting is that the program has kind of taken on a life of its own. We don’t have to do a lot of recruiting because a lot of the mentors want to come back and, when they can’t, they tell colleagues about it,” Freeman-Clark said in a recent phone interview. “So many of them feel that the program meant more to them than it did to the mentees; there’s something really special about giving back and being with someone who is younger than you and learning from you. As performers we get caught up in self because it’s always about the auditions, booking a gig and the hustle. It’s nice to be able to focus the energy and attention on someone else.

“Most of the mentees who returned have the same mentor because they have already developed a close relationship. They really create strong bonds that go beyond just theater. They talk about life too, not just auditions, and they connect as people, which is a big part of our mission for Vanguard,” she continued. “This program is completely tailored to what they want to get out of the experience. Whether it’s focusing on a different side of their voice that they haven’t explored, or they want to perform original work. A lot of time with their mentor, the mentees are on stage performing something new and trying something completely different, and there’s growth in that. It’s all about taking risks and it’s really great that our mentors are challenging them to do so.”