Vanessa Brown, the backstage guardian for the three kids in the cast of South Pacific, was born in Brooklyn, but she found her profession when she was living in Queens because of a project that involved the Bronx. "A movie starring Chazz Palminteri was filming in my neighborhood, so I got very interested in seeing it when it came out. I stayed in my seat through the credits, and I noticed a credit for something called On Location Education. That caught my interest."
The year was 1993, the movie was The Bronx Tale, and Brown was interested because she had been substitute teaching in the New York City public schools (as well as making her way as a stand-up comic) and wanted a different environment in which to work with children.
"I called On Location Education" -- an teaching service for performing children -- "and started working almost immediately." Brown has acted as both a tutor and as a child guardian, mostly in the Broadway theater, because, she says, "that's where the bread and butter is."
Officially, a child guardian must be on-set or backstage to guard performers under the age of 16 and to ensure they are onstage or in front of the camera when needed. But the job, Brown said, changes with each assignment. "I joke that I'm there so that no kid sets the dressing room on fire, but what I really do is to keep the kids occupied according to their personalities and interests."
"When the kids are still in diapers" -- Brown had such toddlers when she worked on A Christmas Carol, at Madison Square Garden -- "the job can involve pretty basic stuff. When the kids are 14 or 15, and are preparing for college testing, you are there to reassure them. Most people don't realize that once a show starts its run that kids have to be at school at 8 a.m., do a regular day, and then show up at night at the theater. So there can be a lot of pressure."
An important part of Brown's job is getting along with the children's parents. "You asking them for a great deal of trust," she said, "especially when it's a kid's first show. It's my job to make sure that parents are comfortable and are kept informed."
Has Brown, who attended Bard College and SUNY/Purchase, had to do battle with archetypal Stage Mothers? "One of the things I've learned is that there is no archetypal Stage Parent," she observed. "Their personalities run the gamut. There are some who are ideal and some I'd rather never see again."
It is clear from talking with Brown that her experience with South Pacific, in terms of both parents and children, is a happy one. Those children, by the way, are 10-year-old Laurissa Romain (Ngana), 8-year-old Luke Kain (Jerome), and 13-year-old Kimber Monroe (Bloody Mary's Assistant).
"Luka and I bonded because of drawing," Brown says. "He can sit in the corner and draw for hours, really losing himself in an imaginative world. Laurissa has a wonderful sense of humor and is also artistically gifted. Kimber is also gifted and is really savvy; she goes to performing arts school, and like all those kids she's forever checking blogs and websites to stay informed about the show-biz world."
How does Brown keep up when she's dealing with a kid who's especially smart? "I help with homework, but when we get to calculus I'm pretty useless." She added, "One of the reasons I got into this line of work was because I wanted a job that didn't involve math!"
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com