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Budding Talent

By Mike Ellis

The Hinsdale area features an assortment of theater and stage-acting opportunities for children to explore the arts from a young age. For Addy Stafford, a Hinsdale native who is now a sophomore at the University of Southern California, it was these early experiences that proved formative on her present career track.

“Hinsdale has this environment and has these programs implemented in the community that just encourage artists and actors,” Stafford said. ... “They start you off really young, and they just keep encouraging you to do shows. Not only are they so much fun, but they help you grow your talent, and they help you learn.”

Stafford began acting in musicals when she was about four. Locally, she grew up performing in BAM Theatre, Stage Door Fine Arts and the now-defunct Community House Players.

Stafford said acting allows her to communicate with others in a meaningful way, providing her with a platform that might otherwise not be available to her.

“I like being able to convey messages to people,” she said. ... “I’m a blonde, 20-year-old girl; I’m young; and my voice can’t be heard in a lot of ways. ... But when you get to be on stage or you get to be in a film, you can convey these messages to people, and you can have a conversation with people, and they listen to you.

“That leaves a huge opportunity for actors, writers, directors to put something good out there—[to] put something good in the world.”

Stafford identified the role of JoJo in “Seussical the Musical” with BAM Theatre, which she received in fifth or sixth grade as her first one of real significance on stage, and said starring as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” with The Community House Players the next year made her seriously begin to consider acting as a profession.

“I think the pivotal moment for me, where I really fell in love with theater, and kind of figured that I wanted to maybe do this for the rest of my life, was when I got Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at The Community House,” she said.

Stafford said it was “pivotal” not so much on account of the role itself, but because a lot of her fellow cast members were older, more experienced performers, whose guidance and encouragement helped to infuse her with confidence.

“I thought I was too young for [the role]; I was nervous,” she said. “I wanted to do a good job with it, so I really looked to them, and looked to the director, to kind of guide me.”

About the same time, Stafford successfully auditioned with American Girl Theater in Chicago, affording her with her first “professional” experience. After a year at American Girl, she said she began auditioning for agencies, as securing an agent is often viewed as the first step towards professional acting in the industry.

“When I stopped doing American Girl, a lot of the girls in American Girl had agents in downtown Chicago, and they were doing acting on a more professional level,” Stafford said. “So, I talked to my mom about it, and that was something I was interested in doing.”

In the meantime, Stafford continued to hone her craft on stage at Hinsdale Central, performing in the annual musical each of her four years at the school. She also sang in the choir, working with Central music teacher Jennifer Burkemper and a private instructor to balance her acting skills with vocal proficiency for musical theater.

Stafford said it took her about two and a half years to secure her first professional role: a brief guest appearance on the second episode of Chicago Fire, an NBC drama, in 2012.

The then-high-school sophomore described being on vacation with her family in California, when they received a phone call from her agent regarding an audition back in Chicago. Stafford’s agent said the show was seeking a blonde girl about 16 years old, and that only about ten girls would be auditioning for the role, increasing her odds of earning it.

Stafford said she felt the audition went well, and her agent later confirmed she received the role.

The scene is a riveting one—brief, yet dramatic. Stafford plays a teenage girl sitting wounded behind the wheel of a car, beside her friend, who had been crushed by a window washer. Firefighters and paramedics rush to the scene, and hurry Stafford’s frantic character to the hospital.

Stafford said the one-day shoot lasted from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., and described the day as an “amazing experience.”

“It was so much fun,” she said. “I was obviously really nervous. They put me in makeup, had blood dripping down my face; I got in this crushed-up car. All [of] the other actors on the show were very encouraging as well.”

Stafford said she learned that TV acting is considerably different from stage acting, describing the former as more “subdued,” and something she still needs to work on.

“Theater, because there’s an audience and you’re on the stage, you have to make all of your expressions very grand so that everyone can kind of see them,” she said. “It’s a musical; you’re singing while you’re acting. ... When it comes to TV and movie acting, it’s supposed to be more realistic; [it’s like] you’re actually talking to someone.”

Now in her second year at Southern Cal, Stafford said she recently switched her major from acting to broadcast journalism, feeling that this will help her gain more experience in front of the camera.

“You don’t necessarily need a degree in acting to do acting,” she said.

Stafford, whose father Rob is a co-anchor for the WMAQ Ch. 5 10 p.m. newscast and a decorated broadcast journalist, said she is enjoying her broadcast courses, and has not completely ruled out following in her father’s footsteps. But she said her dream continues to be a career in acting, and 

hat her most ideal situation would be performing on Broadway, while splitting her time with some television and movie acting.

Most recently, Stafford gained further on-camera experience in The Light Beneath Their Feet, an independent film starring Taryn Manning and Madison Davenport that was released last fall.

“If I get to work with that great of people, then this is definitely something that I want to pursue,” Stafford said of working with the director and her fellow actors.

Stafford said she is currently working to secure an agent in Los Angeles, and that if she does, she will probably remain in southern California after graduating. She said she is also open to returning to Chicago, an expanding market for television actors.

Reflecting back on her journey thus far, Stafford said she would not be where she was today if it weren’t for the enduring support of her parents—who never questioned her decision to pursue a career in a challenging industry—, as well as the youth programs that introduced her to the stage.

“I don’t think Hinsdale would have as much talent as it does if it weren’t for those teachers and those directors of the programs in Hinsdale,” she said. “Without them, I don’t think we’d have community theater; and I don’t think you’d have these talented people going out there and trying to do it.I think we should all thank them for that."

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