Looking for that 'creative spark' in future Zoomers

Almost 3,000 children answered the casting call from the producers of a PBS show. Only seven will get jobs.

"Welcome future Zoomers of the world!" belts out Nancy Doyle, a casting expert working with WGBH-TV in Boston, as six children file into a small audition room to face bright lights and a trained camera.

The kids exchange worried looks and gather in the corner. Sensing their uneasiness, Ms. Doyle adds: "Everyone's gonna have fun - promise?" The children nod.

Then the room becomes still. Tape is rolling, and as their names are called, each child gets a one-minute shot to make an impression on the casting directors of "Zoom" - a national TV show aired on PBS and produced by WGBH.

They're competing against 2,700 other kids ages 8 to 13 who wound through studio hallways into many small audition rooms last weekend, hoping the show's annual open tryouts will lead to callbacks and, ultimately, a part.

The half-hour program showcases seven "everyday" kids - called Zoomers - who whip up recipes like chocolate-covered bananas, tackle wacky science experiments, and solve brainteasers with the goal of inspiring the TV audience. Many ideas come from the show's 5 million weekly viewers.

During auditions, held each season since the program relaunched in 1998, children perform skits, recite poetry, sing, and tell jokes. Outlandish props abound. There's a mix of young actors, kids next door - and plenty of die-hard Zoom fans.

Two sisters, Bridget and Emma, stand in front of one group. Then, with the enthusiasm of the orange-haired Aileen Quinn, they burst out singing: "It's a hard knock life ... being twins!" It's their take on the popular song from "Annie."

The cast should be "real and mirror the show's diverse audience," says Kathy Shugrue, the show's managing producer. Crew members agree they're looking for children who are comfortable being themselves and who are good learners and listeners. They must interact well because "Zoom" isn't scripted, and the Zoomers mostly think and play on the spot.

"I'm looking for someone who has a creative spark, an ability to express themselves," says Doyle of Tighe & Doyle Casting, a firm helping with "Zoom" auditions. Her advice to those trying out: "Do something you really want to do."

In another audition room, James carefully unpacks a plastic bucket filled with paper, glue, and crafts. "This is for my project," he says with a smile as the camera rolls. He demonstrates how to create a paper man that hangs from the wall. "I practiced five times an hour," he says. "I'll be happy ... and scared if I get the part."

To help nervous kids relax before tapings, "Zoom Wranglers" organize games in waiting areas. One group of kids is told to grab their noses and shout "I like tuna fish!" repeatedly. The kids then squawk like chickens while they "high-five" people who pass them in the hall.

Almost everyone concedes the reason they're auditioning is "to be on TV." Many kids aspire to become professional actors - and say they hope to meet their favorite "Zoom" characters along the way.

"I tried out for the past two years and wanted to keep trying," says Danielle of Westwood, Mass. She recites a poem entitled "My Neighbor's Dog is Purple" and tugs around a cardboard doghouse as a prop in her toy wagon.

After children finish their mini-performances, staff members ask them questions on camera to test their spontaneity.

"What's the best present you ever gave someone?" one drama coach asks. "Friendship," a young girl answers.

"Describe your perfect day," a "Zoom" crew member says. "Knowing I made the first cut," a boy responds.

Before final cast members are selected, there will be several callbacks. At the end of January, 300 kids will return to try out, participating in improvisation and group games. Candidates are then narrowed to 150 and finally 40. Current characters must re-audition, but several are typically brought back for another season. Producers pick the final seven in early March.

The new cast will attend training camp on weekends in the spring to hone their drama skills, participate in team-building exercises, and learn to perform science experiments. Then they'll film five days a week this summer. Twenty half-hour broadcasts begin airing in January 2003.

"I loved being on the show. It was great meeting the other kids and integrating with the adults," says Keiko, who appeared on "Zoom" in 1998 and 1999. She returned to help with auditions and answer questions from future Zoomers.

Typically, six kids auditioned in a small room in front of two people. The aim was to make them feel comfortable and perform better, producers say. Meanwhile, in the reception area, parents eagerly awaited their children's return.

"It's a major commitment, but one you never regret," says one parent, Maureen Cronin. Her daughter, Kaleigh, currently is on "Zoom." "After Kaleigh got on the show, she grew in self-confidence, she had fun ... and she learned a lot about science."

Another parent, Cindy Lepore, waves at her daughter as she's led to tryouts. "It's her first time auditioning for anything," she says. "I told her to just have fun. It's a good experience."

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