Life as 'Annie' -- chatting with an 11-year-old trouper

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How does a little girl find life on the road in a major musical show? Eleven-year-old Theda Stemler, the latest star of the touring company of "Annie," seems to take it all pretty much in stride. I spoke with Theda and her mother at the Colonial Theater here recently, where "Annie" is playing. (for Theda and her mother, Boston is the end of the tour, but the show goes on -- it opens May 20 in Toronto for three weeks, then opens in Los Angeles on June 13 for an extended run.)

Theda is no stranger to show business, though she could hardly be called a seasoned show-biz kid. She was crowned "Little Miss Virginia Beach" in 1977, and aside from doing some school and little theater productions and a couple of telethons, Theda's first really big role was in "Annie," where she started out playing one of the orphans and was, as she says, "promoted to Annie" later on.

"But I've been an orphan practically all the time," says Theda, who has performed in two productions of "Oliver." "I played the role of Oliver in the school production because no boy really wanted to do it. I had my hair in a bun -- it was long then --tucked up under a cap. Then in the little theater production I was one of the work boys."

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But Theda has come a long way since then. She had to audition with 200 other little girls for the role of Annie.

"It was my third audition, but it was still kind of scary -- there were so many people. But I knew that they liked me because after we auditioned everybody said, 'Oh, you're going to get it, you're going to get it!' We were supposed to sing eight bars of a song we'd picked.I had picked 'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile' -- that's from the show -- for my audition piece. But they still asked me to sing "Tomorrow" -- the whole song -- so I felt really confident then."

Would she have been horribly disappointed if she didn't get it?

"No, no I wouldn't have. I would have just gone out and tried for some more, " she replied, with true professional spirit.

Like so many girls her age, Theda has studied dance, which she says helped her with her role in "Annie." But she wasn't all that crazy about it when she was younger.

"I took ballet when I was three, but I didn't like it much because it was too slow. Then I took gymnastics and I liked it, but it was too much moving and jumping around. I don't know, it just didn't work out for me. But then I took tap and I liked it and I took it for about two years. In this show it helped to have a little jazz dance --I took a short jazz class for a couple of weeks and that helped."

What about the waltz you do with Daddy Warbucks in the show?

"My daddy's a very good dancer and he taught me to do the waltz."

Although Theda thoroughly enjoys what she is doing, I wondered if it ever gets boring for her, doing the same show over and over every night.

"It's not really boring," she said, "because you have a different audience every night and that helps. After you do your first scene, everybody's going around backstage saying either 'It's a wonderful audience,' or 'They're awful! They're not laughing at anything!' The whole cast loves it when the audience gives us a standing ovation. It makes everybody feel so good."

Other things happen to make life more interesting, too:

"Sometimes the show will have a few mistakes in it -- like a prop won't come out on stage, or scenery will come in when it's not supposed to. You always have to be aware of everything, because if something did go wrong you have to be able to cover for it."

So how does she really feel out there on stage?

"Pretty good. I like doing it. It gives me a chance to have a different character, something completely different from my life, and so it's fun to get away. It's almost like a different world. In 'Annie' I jump from the '80s to the '30s, and to having a mean orphanage lady taking care of me and no mother or father, and being extremely poor in an orphanage to extremely wealthy in the mansion -- it's really fun."

Does Theda plan a career in show business?

"It depends, really, because I want to be good at acting and what I'm doing. But by the time I'm in my 20s and 30s I don't know if I'm going to go out and try for any more. In my opinion, I would get tired of it. Also, I want to have a family later on. First of all, I'm the only child, my mom's the only child, and my dad's the only child. If I don't have some kids one day, I'm not going to have any family!"

Couldn't you have a family and still be in show business?

"No, I don't think so. I don't think I'd do that. On the road I have seen some marriages that have been ruined because of show business." But she adds, "I might do little theater, or help out in theater, because I do love to sing and I like to act. But I don't think I'd like to be away all the time."

She's already had a little taste of that and it makes her appreciate home:

"I have missed all of seventh and eighth grade in regular school. It made me miss being home with my other friends."

But does she feel her experience in "Annie" has compensated at all for that?

"I feel really lucky, and I really love doing this," she says, "but when I get home I'm going to enjoy that, too."

After the Boston run, Theda and her mother will be heading back home -- Virginia Beach, Va. -- and they'll be glad to be there. Along with most of the other orphans and their mothers, as well as a few siblings (some are infants), they have been traveling a long time with the show.

"Boston is our 27th city!" sighs Birmah Stemler. But she, too, seems to enjoy life on the road, and says she has learned a lot --the United States.

"I'm hanging in there," she says. "It's a pleasure to be here in Boston, but when I get home I'm going to lie in bed for a week and not answer the phone or the doorbell!"

"Annie" will go on, however, with a new Annie and several new orphans, who will take over the tour in Toronto. What will Theda do when she gets home?

"I don't know," she muses. "I like to rollerskate a lot."

"I know what she'll do," adds Mrs. Stemler. "She'll get with her best friend and talk as hard as they can possibly talk!"

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