13-year-old Ruskin performer earns call-backs to NYC stage
By PENNY FLETCHER
The first few times Alex Council performed on stage he froze and burst into tears. “Please Grandma,” he asked his grandmother, Sandy Council. “Please take me home.”
That was when he was but a preschooler.
Shortly after that, though, Alex began to sing and dance and do skits for friends and family. This continued for several years, with Alex including his brother and cousins in the shows. During this time, his parents bought him tap shoes because he liked the sound they made, and he taught himself to tap dance although he never took lessons.
“It was the strangest thing,” said his mother, Teri Council, in an interview Sept. 4 at their home overlooking the Little Manatee River from their kitchen window. “He would perform just fine in front of us, but was bashful onstage in front of strangers.”
Maybe that’s because the entire Council family is deeply into love of the arts and show business and encouraged him along the way.
Grandmother Sandy is one of those in charge at Ruskin’s Firehouse Cultural Center. Her son Whit and daughter-in-law Teri (Alex’s parents) were involved in productions at their former church, Church on the Rock in Palmetto. And Alex’s brother Jacob, now 16 and a student at Lennard high School, is into television production.
Alex began to come out of his “onstage shell” when his mom was part of a three-way team that included local residents Ellen Kleinschmidt and Cathy Straub who wrote a musical called 14G that played around the area and will be repeated Nov. 23 at the Firehouse Cultural Center.
The November performance is a thank-you to all the people in South County who are helping Alex achieve his dream as a Broadway performer. And there are many.
But first, how did the shy boy who cried onstage in preschool grow to become so interested — not to mention talented — that he now has an agent and a manager and has tried out for major parts in productions like Elf and the NYC Christmas Spectacular?
He’s certainly no longer shy, which was evident in his interview as he brightly described his goals of becoming a Broadway star.
“I’d do movies and television. I’ve done some commercials already. But I like the risk of live theater. You never know what’s going to happen that night. It’s a whole different world,” he said, eyes beaming across his kitchen table.
Teri says that at 7 years old Alex snagged a part as “Chip” in Riverview High School’s production of Beauty and the Beast, led by Drama Specialist Darren Hawkins.
“Darren (who Teri had known in high school) was great. It was a wonderful experience for him,” Teri said.
Darren’s training pushed Alex forward.
Now Alex is a student of Advanced Drama at Progress Village Middle Magnet School of the Arts. He’s joined PAC Kids in Ruskin — a group of Performing Arts Students with lofty artistic goals. There he met musician and teacher Ellen Kleinschmidt, who recognized his talent right away.
“He can act. He can sing. I believe in his talent,” Kleinschmidt said.
So in March, the PAC board applied for a grant from the Greater Sun City Center Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Inc. because Alex had been spotted by NYC talent manager Lisa Calli while performing locally.
“It was a God thing,” said Teri Council. “Lisa was headed to scout talent in Orlando but stopped to visit her mother in Sun City Center. Her mother told her about PAC kids and some of the wonderful local talent in South County so Lisa stopped by and saw some of the kids. She had Alex audition and make a tape right there, which she took back to NYC with her.”
Alex, whose agent is currently The Diamond Agency in Orlando, has already done commercials for Gaylord Palms (a huge Orlando convention center) and a Disney photo shoot for membership handouts. He is also preparing for a solo at the December Thespian Festival in Tampa.
But a local agent is not the same as a NYC manager and suddenly, the pace of things ramped up.
Lisa called from New York and told the Councils about the Broadway Artists Alliance. “They really liked his tape,” she said. “You have to audition to get in this group and he’s been accepted to take a week of schooling with them in August.”
Kleinschmidt and the Councils sat down and figured how much it would cost for them to go to NYC so he could attend the week of Aug. 5. Then a grant application was submitted by the Performing Arts Company to the Community Foundation — as only 501(c)3 organizations, not individuals — may apply.
“When we figured everything up, and applied, they actually gave us more than we asked for — $3,400,” Teri said. It was granted from the Foundation’s Ruby LaNace Hurst Unrestricted Fund.
“They worked him really hard, sometimes from 9 a.m. to 7 or 8 at night,” his mother said.
But Alex didn’t mind. While there he learned from and rubbed elbows with NYC’s Broadway elite. Some of the cast from Wicked; Jeremy Jordan from Smash; and several well-known casting directors were on the scene.
At the end of the week there was a showcase for talent agents and parents. Alex was in three numbers, Susical, A Christmas Story, and his solo, Red Rider from A Christmas Story.
Bob Cline, one of the top casting directors in the country, was in the audience. He told the Councils if he had not already cast the role of “Michael” in Elf Alex would have gotten the part.
That was bittersweet; and the family left New York with a taste of Broadway life but still no part for Alex.
Nine days later, Lisa Calli called. “They want to see Alex first thing in the morning,” she said.
This time, only Alex and his mother flew to New York. “School was getting ready to start here. I didn’t know what to do, but this is his dream, so we had to follow it,” she said.
To save money, the two stayed at their manager’s (Lisa’s) apartment.
“Lisa was very good to us. She knew the whole thing was new to us and helped us with absolutely everything,” said Alex, quite gratefully.
Teri and Alex did not realize they had been sent to a “callback” where the other young actors in the room had already gone through three or four auditions to get that far. They had allowed Alex to audition based only on the tape provided by Calli.
As it turned out, it came down to the fact Alex was exactly three inches too tall for the part of “Ralphie” in A Christmas Story, and people are hesitant about hiring boys his age for singing parts that may extend nine months or more than a year on the road because at that age their voices change,” Teri said.
“And he had to tap dance along with kids who had had lessons all their lives.”
Alex felt he did well dancing though. “It isn’t my strongest talent, but I don’t think it held me back.”
But again, the trip was bittersweet, as it did not end with a part.
Now, however, Alex has a manager, an agent who works with her in New York City, and a local agent in Orlando.
Most of all, his grant from the Foundation, and PAC’s confidence in him, have allowed him to get a feel for the Broadway stage and he can’t get it out of his mind.
Alex is looking forward to the November performance so he can show all the people from the firehouse Cultural Center, the local performing Arts Company and the Sun City Center Foundation members his talents. He wants to be at his best so he will not disappoint them.
“They gave me the opportunity to feel the pace of Broadway life,” he said, his eyes sparkling with hope.
But what will the family do if they get another call that says, “Tomorrow, 9 a.m. sharp, in New York"?
“We’ll just have to find a way to go,” said Teri. “This is his dream and we’re going to support him all we can.”
Fortunately, she said, technology has allowed for taping to be used for many auditions and, since Jacob is into television production, that is a big plus.
“He can stage it and produce Alex’s tapes with a professional quality and that will really save us time and money,” Teri said.
Break a leg, Alex. And Jacob, keep rolling those tapes.
To find out about the Nov. 23 performance, or to buy tickets, call (813) 645-7651 or visit www.firehouseculturalcenter.org.