Kara Salmela loves her family’s Duluth home, with its views of Lake Superior. But she will be seeing less of the world’s largest freshwater lake this spring.
After several auditions last fall, Kara’s 11-year-old daughter, Sofia, landed a coveted spot in “Matilda the Musical” at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. The venue is three hours from Duluth by car, which meant Sofia’s thrilling accomplishment came with a quandary: Should Kara and her husband, Cory, take turns driving Sofia to and from rehearsals each day, while their sixth-grader remains in classes? Or should they relocate half the family for a significant portion of the school year?
It was a no-brainer, Kara said. She secured an apartment for two in the Twin Cities, allowing Sofia to seize the biggest opportunity yet in her young acting career. The Salmelas do what it takes to support their daughter’s dreams. As luck has it, it’s possible because “we have our own business and I can work by remote,” Kara said. Sofia’s school also signed off on the deal, valuing the experience as part of her education.
Sofia is one of three youngsters who will alternate in the title role of “Matilda,” the feisty Broadway musical (based on a book by Roald Dahl) previewing Tuesday at CTC. That leaves two more budding theater stars — with backup provided by two more sets of parents — to juggle behind the scenes.
It’s not unusual for families to sacrifice for children pursuing passions. Take hockey, for example. People groan at the cost alone. Parents burn through money, equipment and time while driving their prodigies hither and yon. Siblings spend endless hours under bleachers in what seems like perpetual cold storage.
It’s a much bigger deal to relocate for kids’ pursuits, although it’s not unheard of. Tennis coach Richard Williams famously moved his family from California to Florida so that daughters Venus and Serena could get the training they needed.
But the stakes are higher than ever as amateur activities begin to resemble professional pursuits — in terms of cost and time commitment. The hockey model has been extrapolated to everything from theater and music to dance teams and cheer squads.
Of course, the kids don’t always see the full picture.
“When I was smaller, I tried a lot of things, like sports and camps,” said 11-year-old Lillian Hochman, one of the other leads for “Matilda.” “When I found theater, I knew this was it. These are the people I want to be with for the rest of my life.”
Americans like to believe they can accomplish anything. All they need is a little drive, maybe a pinch of talent.
But interviews with the families behind “Matilda” made one thing clear: Our distinctly American thinking on success isn’t entirely true. Support systems are key to undergirding the dreams of a young theater artist.
A sixth-grader at Minnetonka Middle School East, Lillian leaves school 15 minutes early most weekdays for the 20-minute drive to rehearsals. Sometimes a parent drives her. Or she carpools with another cast member. Her mother, Liz Hochman, owns her own doula business. Her father, Michael, is vice president of card casino operations at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, where Lillian has sung the national anthem more than once.
Audrey Mojica, 12, is the third Matilda. Her parents are Jennifer Bouta Mojica, an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, and Target merchandise manager Brian Mojica. Audrey has a 10-minute commute to the theater from Minneapolis’ Field Middle School, where she’s a sixth-grader. Her nanny drops her off. She hones her craft at Lundstrum Performing Arts in Minneapolis.
Brian was initially pleased when his daughter decided against pursuing hockey, a commitment he dreaded because of all the parental folklore. He smiles now to think he could be so naive. “Theater can be just like hockey,” he said with a chuckle.
As for the Salmelas, they’re accustomed to going all out for gold. Mother Kara represented the U.S. as a biathlete in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Father Cory is a former coach of the national biathlon team. Their business, Salmela Talent, recruits executives in the pharmaceutical industry.
Treated like grown-ups
There are 15 more children in “Matilda” besides the three leads.
“All three of them are sparkplugs,” said CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, who also directs the production. “We knew that we were going to need extraordinary triple threats who sing and dance and act. And they beat out hundreds of kids who came to the Mall of America to audition.”
In addition to satisfying their passions, the young actors also absorb important lessons, said Brosius, a former child actor who raised two children in the theater. “They learn time management,” he said. “They get treated with the same respect as adults, with a great appreciation for their intelligence, creativity and imaginative input.”
He gave an example from a recent rehearsal. “Matilda” tells the story of an unwanted 5-year-old with the secret power of telekinesis. The creative team was trying to figure out how to stage a scene where Matilda suddenly feels isolated from the group.
“One of the kids said, ‘Why don’t we all step back? Then she’s left out there by herself.’ It was a brilliant idea. Our goal is to encourage young people to become problem-solvers, to be part of that team of people who are making this work.”
In studying characters and building shows, young cast members also get to develop skills and delve into psychology — to study moods and motivations, just like a college theater major would do. That advanced training was evident when the three “Matilda” leads talked about their character.
“A lot of people in Matilda’s life don’t like her,” Lillian said, “but she’s able to cope with abandonment in different ways.”
Audrey spoke about what she admired about Matilda — her “resilience,” the fact that she’s able to “bounce back from adversity.”
Audrey and Lillian are reuniting for “Matilda.” Both performed in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at CTC last holiday season. They performed in a 2017 production of “Annie” (Lillian was one of the Annies) at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.
Sofia also has stage credits, including “Tarzan” at the Duluth Playhouse.
All three see themselves pursuing theater as a destiny. And unlike the parents of Matilda — a child so unloved that mom and dad can’t even get her gender right — the parents of Lillian, Audrey and Sofia will be there to help make it happen.
As Audrey’s dad, Brian, put it: “Anything to support their dreams.”