Most people know the theater expression "Break a leg." But when Sam Blackman Boyles, who played Tiny Tim in the 1997 and 1998 production of McCarter Theater’s "A Christmas Carol" was cast again as Tiny Tim in 1999, literally broke his ankle in the backyard playing soccer, it was a sad day indeed.

"Poor Sam could not do the show," says Cheryl Mintz, 43, who has served as supervising stage manager for "A Christmas Carol" for 13 years (she has been resident stage manager for 15 years), during which time she has auditioned some 1,300 children for the 13 "young ensemble" roles in the production. What was remarkable about that day, says Mintz, is that Sam was actually having a play date with two other boys – who just happened to be a past and future Tiny Tim respectively, and were brothers to boot. "Ben Rose shared the role of Tiny Tim with Sam in 1997 and 1998. We actually call it co-Tiny Tim, and that child often plays the Beggar Boy and is given a few performances to play Tiny Tim. Ben had grown up and ‘graduated,’ as many Tims do, to playing Boy Scrooge, and his little brother, Josh, was now Sam’s understudy." When Sam broke his leg, Josh stepped into the role, playing Tiny Tim that year, 1999, as well as every year through 2002.

Mintz says it’s very common for the children in "A Christmas Carol" — which celebrates its 25th year this year, with performances through Saturday, December 24 — to become so close that they forge friendships and have play dates like Sam, Ben, and Josh. Watching this camaraderie develop over the course of seven weeks of rehearsals and performances is for Mintz one of the most rewarding parts of working with the young actors. "Last year was Danny Hallowell’s second year as Tiny Tim and Jason Rosenthal’s first year as Beggar Boy and "second Tiny Tim." It was wonderful to watch how generous Danny was in helping Jason when they switched off the Tiny Tim role in rehearsal. When it was Jason’s turn to step in as Tiny Tim, (director) Michael (Unger) would say, ‘Danny, come help me direct.’ We never call them kids or children. We call them the young ensemble. We really treat them as young professionals, and we want to prime them for next year."

The audition process is run at the highest professional level. "I’ve had parents say to me that they’ve been to auditions in New York that aren’t as thorough as ours is," says Mintz. On one evening only in October, the theater invites prospective young actors, aged 5 to 13, to come with a parent to sign up for an audition appointment two weeks hence. That "appointment evening" runs like clockwork. Each parent and child is greeted at Station 1, and parents are given several pieces of paperwork, including a rehearsal schedule and a set of guidelines for the audition itself. At Station 2, each child is measured fully and weighed. At Station 3, they are given an appointment for a

three-minute audition. The audition guidelines specify that each child must prepare a one-minute song and a one-minute spoken piece.

"We are very clear and upfront with everyone who auditions," says Mintz. "We are reaching the 150 families that are going to walk through that door. For some of them it’s the first time stepping into a theater. That’s 150 families who are likely to buy tickets to the show, even if their child doesn’t get in. We want to make it as fulfilling an experience as possible, that’s one reason why our audition is so complex. We do need the child’s measurement and weight (Tiny Tim, for example, cannot be over 50 pounds), but the process gives the parents more reasons to not to have to say to their child they didn’t get in because they’re not talented." The audition guidelines state clearly that there are very few roles available and recommend that parents make it clear to their child that it is not a personal failure if they do not receive a role.

Mintz says the high level of professionalism in the audition process is also devised so that the children and their families will want to come to McCarter. "It’s really a forum to highlight our season to cultivate young minds through a theatrical experience. We have an amazing education department and a lot of the kids who come and audition eventually take a class here."

Mintz, who grew up in Oceanside, New York, had a lot to do with fine-tuning the audition process. As a graduate of Yale School of Drama – she earned an MFA in directing and stage management in 1987 – she joins the "little Yale mafia" at McCarter, which includes Ming Cho Lee, the designer of "A Christmas Carol;" Jess Goldstein, the costume designer; Stephen Strawbridge, the lighting designer; David York, the director of production; Janice Paran, who was the theater’s dramaturgefor 14 years; and Carrie Hughes, literary manager. Mintz went directly to New York after graduation, and served as a stage manager for Broadway shows for two years, then worked five seasons with the New York City Opera. Concurrently, in the summers, who worked at the famous Spoleto Festivals in Italy and Charleston, South Carolina.

After doing a couple of shows at McCarter during the New York City Opera’s off season, she joined the theater fulltime in 1990, first commuting from the upper West Side, then from Millburn, where she lived with her husband, Harris Richter, a business analyst at Citigroup in New York. When her son, Jake Moses, was born last January, the couple finally moved here, buying a house in downtown Princeton. Mintz’s father, who died eight years ago, was a fur designer and then worked in the furniture business; her mother, now retired, was the administrator for the Hebrew School at Oceanside Jewish Center for 20 years and wrote a weekly "Jewish Erma Bombeck" column for the Jewish Post and Opinion and three local papers.

So what does the director look for when casting Tiny Tim? "A sparkle; a raw talent; if a five, six, or seven-year-old can take direction; an honest, real kid," says Mintz, adding that the kids who come in with slick headshots and resumes and agents usually don’t get in. This year Mintz and Unger, who has directed the production for six years, auditioned all 130 children in one day. "We saw about 60 kids in the morning, then I ‘called’ (giving technical directions from the sound booth) a matinee performance of ‘Gem of the Ocean,’ then we saw 70 kids in the evening. We couldn’t believe we did it all in one day.

We’re supposed to have bathroom breaks every hour and a half, but Michael and I will give those up if we need the time." Both Mintz and Michael take notes on each child, which include a grade from 1 to 10. "We’re always peeking at each other’s paper to see how close we are," says Mintz.

Although little Danny Hallowell, who is playing Tiny Tim for the third year in a row this year, is the quintessential perfect little blond boy, Mintz says that’s not a physical requirement for the role. "Ben and Josh Rose were two little Jewish boys; so was Michael Perl, who played Tiny Tim in 1996. We’ve had an African-American boy, Nykai Rimbaharan (1995). And we even had a girl one year, K.M. "Katie" O’Connor (1994). It’s not about making sure every kid in the community gets cast. The best actor for the job gets the job."

Every "alumni" young ensemble member must re-audition every year, although Mintz admits that these young actors are given preference over new faces. But just in case a new "perfect" Tiny Tim – or Boy Scrooge or Martha or Peter – comes along, the door is open. Lots of children audition year after year, even if they never get in. "I remember everyone," says Mintz. "I always give them a big hello, and say, Lindsay, how are you?’ or something like that. Stephanie Cowan, who is 13 and lives in South Brunswick, auditioned for four years. She was always called back. She was always very good but there was always someone just a step more appropriate. But this year she finally got in and will play the role of Alice the Cook in the Fezziwig dance."

For those children who do get in the experience is highly professional and extremely rewarding. "It’s not home. It’s not school. We’re very, very structured," says Mintz, adding that in some ways the young ensemble actors work harder than the adult actors. "The kids are holding a fulltime job and going to school. They’re working twice a hard. I don’t know one kid whose grades went down. On the rehearsal activity board, they have to write down their homework. The older kids help the younger kids. The alumni kids set the tone for the new kids."

Mintz says she and Unger get very emotionally involved with the kids and their success. "It’s amazing – in seven weeks these kids come out with a totally new confidence. The parents feel it too. It helps them with public speaking, in school, in whatever they end up pursuing." Mintz issues a weekly parent newsletter during the rehearsal and performance period. In the last newsletter of last season, she wrote: "I cannot thank you enough for all your time, effort, and support in helping make our young ensemble so terrific and keeping them healthy. As a group they were superb! They have all learned about making a commitment, the importance of collaboration, responsibility, and respect to their fellow actors and following through with detailed instructions. I hope you have found this to be a positive experience for your child. From my view, they have all gained poise, confidence, and grew in character over the past seven weeks."

So what’s happened to all those Tiny Tims after their costume and crutch have gone back to the costume shop? Well, here’s what a few are doing. Clarke McFarlane, who played the first Tiny Tim in 1980, is a professional street performer who performs extensively in Europe and just had his New York debut in "Planet Banana," a comedy/musical he wrote with his wife, Silvia (U.S.1, May 4). Micah Meisel (Tiny Tim, 1983), 30, lives in New York City and is a strategy consultant with Mercer Management Consulting. James Wilby (Tiny Tim, 1991 to 1993), is a sophomore at Hobart and William Smith College. Adam Citron (Tiny Tim, 1984), 30, lives in New York City and works in commercial real estate for Colliers Houston in Somerset. Truestar Urian (Tiny Tim, 1987), 24, lives in Princeton, and is a lieutenant with the Princeton Fire Department. He is in the process of finishing his bachelors in art education from the College of New Jersey with a student teaching assignment in South Brunswick Elementary and High Schools.

Michael Perl (Tiny Tim, 1996), 17, a junior at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, is a championship coxswain with the Mercer Junior Rowing Club and president of Princeton University Local Science Education, designed to provide science outreach and lectures by prominent scientists to local communities including Trenton High School. Nicholas Yepes (Tiny Tim, 2001) is currently on tour with the American Boychoir. Thomas Guiry, who was a member of the 1991 young ensemble but did not play Tiny Tim, made his motion picture acting debut in "The Sandlot" in 1993, when he was 11. He has appeared in seven more films, including "Black Hawk Down" and "Mystic River."

Andrew Black, a senior at Princeton High, is president of the orchestra (which is preparing and raising money for a European tour in February) and a volunteer with Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad. He is indebted to Mintz for his experience playing Tiny Tim in 1995. He recently E-mailed Dan Bauer, the director of publicity at McCarter, about the benefits of learning fast costume changes: "I give total credit to Cheryl for my incredible speed in the locker room before and after gym class; always the first one in, always the first one out."

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