Swinging into the spotlight: Kid actors of ‘School of Rock’ sing praises of backstage life

Amanda Ramirez/Staff
Amanda Ramirez / Staff

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If everything goes to plan, Bella Fraker, 12, and Jack Suarez Kimmel, 11, won’t be onstage in “School of Rock,” now playing at the SHN Orpheum Theatre. The young actors are two of the production’s swings — that is, they spend each night in the wings, ready to go on in a moment’s notice for any of the four to five roles each understudies.

We’re the glue that keeps the show together, because if someone gets hurt or someone’s on vacation, or someone’s sick … the show must go on,” said Suarez Kimmel in an interview with The Daily Californian.

The two actors laughed and talked over each other as they divulged the details of their roles, from hidden notecards in their pockets to keep their characters straight to their memorizations of reference numbers for blocking. Suarez Kimmel gently mocked Fraker for her notecards — while Fraker’s cards are prone to visualizations, entirely covered in stick figures and arrows, the 11-year-old prefers his own notes to be clear statements of wing numbers, of which side of the stage he enters and exits.

The two sat on a bench in the lobby of the ornate Orpheum, fresh off a press performance of the musical’s emotional core, the impassioned “If Only You Would Listen.” It’s a number performed as the show nears its midpoint, where the show’s kids beg for their parents to care, to pay attention to what they have to say. At 11:30 a.m. on a Friday, the number was removed from that context — the kids weren’t clad in the musical’s signature red-and-black plaid uniforms, but were instead decked out in show merchandise as they entered the lobby.

Some sported letterman jackets embroidered with both “School of Rock: First National Tour” and their respective characters’ names. Their tops varied, but most chose T-shirts with “Stick it to the Man” or “I Pledge Allegiance to the Band” emblazoned in a thick, black font. None appeared taller than four feet.

Fraker was one of the few not in show merch, instead sporting a shirt for Jack White’s Third Man Records — she later shared that she picked up the shirt during the tour’s stop in Detroit. As she sang, she joined the the rest of the cast in an impassioned performance, but the collective was even more endearing in the break between sets.

“We’re doing it again?” one actor asked with incredulity after the first performance, and the adults in the room chuckled. The cast shared Tic Tacs, played slide and chatted to fill the break — it felt like recess. According to Suarez Kimmel and Fraker, the cast members don’t see each other as simply classmates, or even just friends; they’re family. The kids frantically text one another in a group chat after arriving at a new hotel, immediately exchanging room numbers. The adult members of the production take the time to bond with the kids in the dressing rooms, playing pranks that range in scope from fake cockroaches to fire escape escapades.

Much like how the teacher character Dewey Finn becomes the hero of his fourth-grade class, the kids undeniably look up to the adults in the production’s cast. “My dream is to play Dewey,” Suarez Kimmel said when asked about his career goals.

It’s also to play either Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which he shared by passionately quoting Burr’s opening line before launching into the chorus of “Alexander Hamilton.”

Fraker’s dream role is more vague — she acknowledged that at 12, she could just as well continue with acting or pursue an equally rewarding career offstage. “It could just be like TV and film, or it could be Broadway, or it could just be, I don’t know, a doctor or an engineer or anything that I want to do,” she said.

And while Pink Floyd may have sung “We don’t need no education,” Suarez Kimmel and Fraker took turns explaining the school set up for the production: one hotel ballroom full of students on their laptops, three tutors and two show-day class breaks. This is what adds up to the behind-the-scenes school aspect of the musical’s title. Suarez Kimmel joined the tour four months ago and will be departing in August, starting on a new adventure of his own — middle school. Fraker, however, is entering her 11th month with the production.

“It was crazy because when I got cast in this, I was like, ‘Welp, I’m not going to middle school then,’ ” she said with a smile and shrug.

They’re trading the time for an experience unlike that of most preteens — learning spontaneity, preparedness and discipline as they rehearse daily, regardless of whether they’ll end up onstage. But as they stuck out their tongues and exaggerated their air guitars for a photo shoot, it was clear that there’s one thing they don’t need to learn — they know how to stick it to the man.

Caroline Smith is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].