Taking 1st step to Tinseltown School: The Young Artists Theatre in Howard County gives child actors a taste of stardom and a chance to earn a paycheck.

Micayla Diener dreams of starring in a film with John Travolta. Kiki Ward wants to be her generation's Shirley Temple. And Deric Metzger is starting to woo the ladies -- the way his role model, Sean Connery, once did as British super-agent James Bond.

Lots of people envision becoming movie and television stars, but Micayla, Kiki and Deric are taking their first steps to Hollywood and Broadway as members of the Young Artists Theatre.


The acting school -- in a shopping center in southeastern Howard County -- is the only one in the state to offer child actors a chance to perform professionally, earning a paycheck for something the children would do for free.

"It's really cool," says Micayla, 9, a fourth-grader at Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia. "I love being onstage."


About 90 pairs of eyes from Scotchtown Elementary School in Laurel were on Micayla and 15 other actors Monday morning as they performed the Young Artists Theatre's final showing of "Zany Brainy Broadway" at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre in Burtonsville.

The story line follows Terry (played by Deric) and Kasey (played by Kiki) as they encounter the spirits of plays past -- such as Maria from "The Sound of Music," the Artful Dodger from "Oliver!" and Betty Rizzo from "Grease" -- in an abandoned theater.

The production was written and directed by Kathy Kurichh, who founded Young Artists Theatre three years ago.

The theater's child actors have permits from the state Department of Labor to earn paychecks for their work. The children do at least 10 shows per production and earn $5 a performance.

Kurichh said that the amount of money is not important -- the checks are part of the children's education, part of their preparation for Broadway and Hollywood.

"I grew up in an environment where I was expected to act like a professional," Kurichh says. "That's what I'm trying to teach these kids with my direction and the paychecks."

The 36-year-old Silver Spring woman opened the school in 1994 at Burn Brae after she was laid off from her job as a producer for a cable company in Virginia. Her father had been nightclub singer and she toured with a Columbia acting troupe.

"I was getting feedback that I had this knack of reaching out to the kids and making them feel comfortable," recalls Kurichh. "And since I've been performing since I was 8, I could identify with kids who wanted to do that."


Enrollment boom

The school first offered classes for 50 children on Saturday mornings.

But enrollment swelled to 100 in 1996, and the school needed a permanent facility, Kurichh says. That opened in January at the Cherry Tree Center off U.S. 29 in Scaggsville. Its 140 students range in age from 4 to 17.

The children get their paychecks after the final show. "I could actually go without the pay because it's fun to act," says Michael Sachs, 11, a sixth-grader at Harper's Choice Elementary School in Columbia. "But getting paid is nice."

Most of the students have been attending the school for at least two years and singing or dancing for longer. Jennifer Kersey, 16, a sophomore at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, says she has been acting in troupes since she was 3. Stage fright is something she overcame long ago.

"I used to be nervous, but I enjoy being onstage and having


everyone watch me," she says.

Jennifer, who would like to star with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny of "The X-Files," had professional managers to help her career. "But I fired them because they weren't doing anything for me," she says.

Acting isn't all fun and games. The students have to juggle acting classes with homework, singing lessons, and friends. "It's really fun, but it is time-consuming because we have a lot of rehearsals we have to do," says Tara Esquivel, 11, of Laurel.

Becoming a pro

But some move on to nationally known productions. B. J. Ortman, 11, of Silver Spring was selected to perform in a tour of "The Sound of Music." He is in Bangkok as the troupe tours Southeast Asia, Kurichh says.

Sarah Branzelle was a student of Kurichh's until a representative from Signature Theatre in Alexandria, Va., asked last summer for someone to play a child in "The Rink."


The 10-year-old Silver Spring girl won the part and performed for three months.

"People would come in and tell me that so-and-so from the newspaper is here. That made me nervous," Sarah says. "But it was really fun because all of the people there were really professional and really nice to me."

Kurichh is troubled when she hears critics call for returning the educational spotlight to the fundamentals, leaving the fine arts in the wings.

"I think it's a shame not to nourish a child's creativity," Kurichh says. "If they become lawyers, they have to speak before a jury. And if they become Realtors, they have to make a sales pitch. In any line of work, they have to make a presentation, and drama helps the children do that."

Monday's production was a hit among the students from Scotchtown, who vigorously applauded the performance.

One student asked Kurichh how to join. "I like to act," said fifth-grader Amber Brown, 10. "And it looks fun."


Pub Date: 5/14/97