Just 16 bars of music: A short snippet of song by which a performer is judged by a total stranger, thirty seconds to make a lasting impression. A lot rides on a brief musical audition.
Just ask Northeaster Erika Dierke. The 12-year-old beat out 593 other candidates for a role in the Ordway Theater’s production of “Annie,” the musical based on the 1920s comic strip, Little Orphan Annie.
The first audition took place this summer in the rotunda of the Mall of America. The Dierke family is involved community theater (mother Laura is vice president of and a producer for the Morris Park Players), so Erika and her sister Jenna are not strangers to a stage. (Their father, Bob, enjoys plays from the audience.) Still, the huge numbers of people who crowded around the railings for four floors up was “pretty horrifying.” But Erika was game. She took her turn at the microphone and belted out “Tomorrow, tomorrow/I love ya/tomorrow” like a Broadway star.
“It was really amazing to see her step onto the stage at the Mall of America,” said Laura. “I couldn’t believe the amount of nerve that took.”
“I just thought, ‘Oh, look, I’m singing front of lots of people! How fun is this?’” Erika said.
And then Laura and her daughters returned home. “It was just a fun thing to do on a summer morning,” Laura said.
“I wasn’t thinking I’d get called back,” Erika said. “I was taller than the other kids. You could audition if you were up to five feet tall; I’m 4-ft. 10”.” Then came the first call-back of 20 actors. “It was a miracle. I had no idea that anything would come of [the audition].”
She took it with a grain of salt: “OK, this is a win. If nothing more happens, that’s ok.” The actors were sifted down to 10, and Erika was once again asked to re-audition. With the maturity that’s peculiar to child actors, the St. Anthony middle schooler said, “This was just crazy! I thought, ‘I don’t need anything more to happen than this. I’m fine if it doesn’t happen.’”
“In any play, there’s only one chance that you’re going to get the lead,” said Laura. “Ninety percent of it is rejection, and you have to figure out how to cope with that.”
Then came word that Erika was one of six local actors chosen for the production. She landed the role of Pepper.
“Pepper is the mean orphan,” Erika explained. “There are six orphans in the orphanage including Annie. There’s the little one and the quiet one and I’m the bully. It’s definitely different than the other parts I’ve played. I’ve been the bunny, the elf.
“I really like this role. I do a lot of fighting. I shove Molly, who’s the youngest.”
Rehearsals began in October. “At first they were pretty chill,” said Erika, “but now I’m rehearsing every day. I love it.” Rehearsals are held just across the river at Lundstrum Performing Arts, 1617 N. 2nd St., but soon she’ll have to trek to St. Paul for performances.
Costume fitting was a new experience for her. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. In community theater, you have to try on a bunch of stuff and see what fits and works. For this [part], they measured me. They made sure it was perfect for my part and for me. There were three people measuring me and one person taking notes on a computer. It was pretty crazy.” Her wardrobe includes pajamas, an everyday dress, a winter coat and a dress for the finale. In one scene, she plays a townsperson, and she has a different coat for that role. “At one time in the show, I have to wear five layers. Under spotlights.”
She’s forming close friendships with many in the cast, except for a live dog that plays Annie’s dog, Sandy. “The Ordway has really strict rules. We’re not allowed to touch the dog or look at it. It has to bond with Annie.” Erika said she’ll be able to make friends with the dog after the final performance.
Because of her hectic schedule, Erika often does her homework at school, during lunch. Algebra and creative writing are her favorite subjects. Laura, in the meantime, is organizing carpools and supervised breaks with the mothers of other kids in the play.
“Tomorrow” gets closer every day.
“Annie” runs Dec. 7-31 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.