Broadway veterans mentor local students

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Musicals and mentorship take on a whole new twist as the Vanguard Theater Company presents its Broadway Buddy Mentorship cabaret on Sunday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. at South Orange Middle School, with proceeds benefiting the Vanguard Kids Summer Camp Scholarship Fund.

The cabaret will feature duet and solo selections from area performers, including many mentors and mentees residing in South Orange and Maplewood. Vanguard Theater Company is a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 that is committed to producing transformational theater dedicated to diversity, community engagement, education and professional artistic mentorship.

Blossoming local talent was paired with seasoned Broadway actors to work on aspects of performance such as vocals, and vowel pronunciation and projection, as well as to receive candid advice about the realities of being a professional Broadway entertainer.

The Broadway Buddies program was conceived by Janeece Freeman-Clark, a co-founder of the Vanguard Theater Company who supports the inherent value of mentorship. Freeman-Clark and her husband, Daryl Clark, who is also a professional actor, became aware as their professional acting careers progressed just how invaluable the advice and guidance of a veteran in the business was, and this idea was kept in mind when the theater company was conceived.

“We have a special interest in underserved communities; we find that their ability to access high-quality training programs is not the same, but the program is open to everyone who wants to learn more about the business,” Freeman-Clark said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “We all think we know what’s it’s like to be in a Broadway show, but until you talk to someone who actually has, you really don’t. This program was created with the idea of giving the mentees experiences to learn firsthand and develop lifelong relationships with their mentors. When they need advice on what piece they should perform for a show, or if they have a really bad audition, they will have someone they can reach out to.”

Diversity is also an important element of the company’s mission and was considered heavily while selecting program participants.

“We wanted different ethnicities, different socioeconomic backgrounds and different cultures, and that’s one of the foundations of our mission statement,” Freeman-Clark said.

To be considered for inclusion in the program, mentees had to send in a letter of interest, a video of them performing a selection from a musical and a photo of themselves.

“People had all different reasons why they thought it would be great for them. When we announced it publicly, we were overwhelmed at the interest we received and we were sad that we had to turn people away, and could only take on 23 mentees this time, “ she said. “We were also blessed because finding the mentors was very easy.”

Local mentors include Robert Dusold and Elizabeth Ward Land, both of Maplewood, and local mentees include Jacob Tall and Claire Sullivan, both of South Orange.

For all participants, the program was a positive experience and one that none had ever previously experienced. Many of the mentors are actively involved with the Midtown Direct Rep, a professional, ensemble-based theater company in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in South Orange, and were intrigued by the idea of a mentoring program focused on performance arts.

“I got involved because I am acquainted with Janeece as part of Midtown Direct Rep, and she put out the word to all of the members of the group that they were starting this new program,” Land said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “I was ready to start reaching out more, and I don’t have children but I wanted to see if there was anything that I could offer to this age group. I liked the idea that I could foster somebody’s career if that’s something they want to do, and be encouraging and talk to parents about what our lives are like. I certainly would have loved it if something like that had existed when I was starting out.

“If I had had this window of opportunity presented to me at (mentee) Claire’s age I would have loved it because I would not have known that I don’t have to be a star to be viable in the entertainment world, “ she continued. “I wanted to impart to her the reality of this life and all of the things it entails and be an example that it can be done. I’m married to an actor and we’re not starved and we make our living acting and teaching others. I wanted to listen to her and her thoughts and fears and strengths and weaknesses and impart anything from a life spent doing this that would be helpful for her.”

For Land’s mentee, Claire, who is an eighth-grader at SOMS, the opportunity to work with Land and learn from her was an unparalleled experience.

“The first day we met her, we went to her house and she was very warm and welcoming and she talked to me right away about the business and that it’s really demanding and not all fun and games,” Claire said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “There’s a lot of rejection and it’s a really interesting way for me to learn more about the business. I appreciated the insight she gave me about it.”

Even the song that Claire and Land have decided to perform at the May 22 show is a reflection of their time together and exploring the different facets of what it’s like to be a professional entertainer.

“Our song is from the Broadway musical ‘Wicked’ and it’s all about being changed from knowing someone and them accepting you,” Claire said. “Elizabeth and I talked about everything from the harmonies and who will do what in the song, and she gave me a lot of leeway and freedom with it. She’s very generous and very open.”

Columbia High School sophomore Jacob Tall echoed Claire’s positive sentiments about the opportunity to be mentored by a knowledgeable Broadway actor.

“I went to New Jersey Performing Arts Center over the summer where Vanguard co-founders Daryl and Janeece teach and I loved that they were all about diversity and hearing about so many famous people that were participating,” Tall said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “My mentor, Robert (Dusold), is the absolute greatest, and he taught me how to use my voice in a healthier way and to use vowel placement. He knows so many big names and I was really star-struck.”

In addition to the more practical skills involved with professional performance, Tall says that his mentor also talked to him about the benefits of being more social, citing that it would be really useful when he meets a new cast and has to learn to work with them and be vulnerable.

Dusold was equally enthusiastic about being involved with a Vanguard Theater Company program.

“I met Janeece doing workshops with Midtown Direct, and then did benefits with her over the holidays, and her mission statement and dedication was just really impressive to me,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I’ve known her for a few years, and never did a program like this. I think it’s so great to meet young people who are so interested in having professional careers in theater, and I had never heard of anything like it.”

Dusold also works as a vocal coach and was able to meet with Tall and his parents and work with him on this, and also develop a bond based on their shared interest in musical theater.

“I am so glad that I met him; he is incredibly talented. I have coached and directed kids his age all over the area so it was really nice to have met him and worked with him,” Dusold said. “It’s really top level talent that Janeece has involved; there will be relationships that will hopefully last into the future. At Jacob’s age, I wish I had someone like me that I could ask questions to, and, as professional actors, we love to give back.”

For Freeman-Clark, the most important part of the program is not the technical know-how that was shared, or the musical numbers that will be performed at the cabaret. She is excited about what both mentees and mentors have gained from the experience.

“The biggest part of this that has been a blessing to me has been speaking to the mentors who have said that this program has been such a gift to them,” Freeman-Clark said. “Here we are asking them to give to us, and they are being touched in a new and profound way that I don’t think any of them expected.”

Tickets for the May 22 performance at SOMS can be purchased at