Youth prevails; 13-, 9-year-old to star as Annie

By Blair Stalder

December 17, 2012

Sometimes she forgets she is wearing her round, curly redheaded wig. “I’ll look out of the top of my eye, and I’m like ‘Oh, what’s this big fuzzy thing on my head?’” the eighth grader said jokingly. When searching for the perfect Annies for Missouri Western’s production of “Annie,” theatre and cinema professor and director Dallas Henry had a specific criterion. He said it’s about their charm, charisma, attitude and personality and how they matched up with Daddy Warbucks and Grace. Plus, since it is based in the 1930s, they need to bring life to the scenes, i.e. be the inspiration and optimism. After calling back seven Annies, he said he had a hard decision to make; after a week of casting, he knew which two were going to take the stage for pretty much the whole play. Thirteen-year-old Annaka Kellogg and 9-year-old Ashtyn Griffin were going to be stars. “With Annie, you have to fall in love with her right away,” Henry said. “It has to be an instant connection and I think both of them have that quality. I think it’s important because otherwise you don’t have a show -- it’s called 'Annie' for a reason, so those two are it.” Being cast as Annie will mark Annaka and Ashtyn’s first lead role at Western. “I was very surprised when I got my callback,” Annaka said. “I was waiting the whole weekend, and I kept thinking ‘Am I going to get it? Am I going to get it? Am I going to get it?’ and ‘When’s he going to post it?’ When I saw my name was first, I was really, really excited.” Annaka, who has also acted in Western’s “A Christmas Carol, will start at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29, and Ashtyn, who has played the character July in “Annie Jr.,” will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1. They will switch off each performance after that. So why two Annies you ask? “We need two Annies [in case of] sickness because she carries the show,” Henry said. “Usually adults can plunge through it, but with Annie, she’s in the entire show, and it’s also about not getting them overwhelmed.” For the role, they must memorize several pages of lines, songs and dance moves and plenty more – and for a 13 and 9 year old, Henry said that’s a lot to ask for. Ashtyn said the dance memorization has been the hardest to learn, while Annaka said the time consumption has been somewhat stressful as she juggles memorizing lines, finishing homework and and getting enough sleep. However, musical director Shaun Agnew, who has been working with the Annies on the side, said they have risen to the challenge. “They always go for it every single time (during rehearsals); they don’t hold anything back,” Agnew said. “They just picked up things from my end so quickly, I think far quicker than most college students and adults.” Agnew has been working with Annaka and Ashtyn on delivering text clearly on stage, blocking, being aware of the stage, knowing what to do when something goes wrong and the “belting mentality” that goes along with Broadway shows such as “Annie.” Agnew has already met with Annaka in the past as he has known her pretty much her whole life, and he believes she brings a lot of experience and is mature for her age. He said the process is easier for Annaka because she has been involved in theater before, whereas Ashtyn hasn’t had any experience in a Western play. However, he said he thinks Ashtyn has learned a lot from watching Annaka during rehearsals. Annaka and Ashtyn have been switching off at rehearsals, which means they have had to watch and focus on what the other doing so they know what to do when it’s their turn on stage. So essentially, they are only getting half the rehearsals as opposed to the rest of the cast, which can be challenging. But as for Ashtyn, he said she really surprised her. “I told her she has a gift,” Agnew said. “After of all the auditions I heard of anybody -- kids and adults -- she’s the one that really blew me away. She opened her mouth and the sound that came out was that belting, typical Broadway sound. [As a 9 year old], she has never had a voice lesson in her life.” Henry said each actress brings something different to the table, and he’s curious as to what people will say of each performance. Agnew also said they have completely different strengths. “Someone asked me the other night, ‘Who’s Annie 1 and Annie 2?’” Agnew said. “I said I didn’t think there was an Annie 1 and Annie 2 because they totally come right to an even keel in terms of what they do and their performances.” Ashtyn said she is kind of nervous for the performances coming up, but she has confidence in her voice. “I feel pretty good about it, I think I have a pretty good voice for it being my first show that’s big,” Ashtyn said. Annaka is also having some butterflies, but she thinks everything will work out. “Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to do it, but then I’ll have nights where I’m spot on and I’m like ‘Yay, I can do this -- I’m going to be able to pull it off.’” *To see a video slideshow, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC9sdNqSYhQ&feature=player_embedded