By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Take a good look at Madison Hertel's face.
You might be seeing a lot of it.
The Traverse City West Middle School student stars in a new commercial for Build-A-Bear Workshop, a make-your-own stuffed animal "retail-entertainment experience" with more than 400 stores worldwide.
The commercial began airing in October on stations including the Nickolodeon children's channel. That's where Hertel, 12, also was seen in a promotional spot for September's Worldwide Day of Play. The annual event is designed to encourage kids and parents to turn off the television and play, especially outdoors.
The Traverse City girl began performing after seeing a local high school production of "Les Miserables" at age 5. She joined the Old Town Playhouse Young Company and quickly worked through the ranks, eventually crossing over into adult theater. Meanwhile she took singing lessons from some of the region's most respected vocal coaches and studied acting in summer workshops and master classes at the Broadway Artists Alliance in New York City, which provides professional training for promising young musical theater performers.
About four years ago, encouraged by her teachers and professional artists, she began auditioning at open casting calls in Chicago and New York.
"She's an amazingly talented performer, very mature for her age, very gifted," said OTP Young Company Executive Director Mychelle Hopkins, who has directed Hertel in several productions. "She's not only a great triple-threat performer, because she can sing, dance and act, but she's just got that joy in her face and in everything she does when she performs. The planets are aligning for her and I'm so thrilled."
Hertel's big break came last summer when a casting agent from Chicago spotted her in a musical theater production at Interlochen Arts Camp and signed her to a contract. A scant two weeks and two rounds of auditions later, Hertel got her first professional job with Build-A-Bear Workshop — her first on-camera role.
The 14-hour shoot involved everything from getting her hair and makeup done and trying on several outfits to memorizing a script and blocking, delivering lines and taking on-the-spot direction. She also got tips for on-camera acting, which differs from stage acting.
"Theater's a lot bigger," said Hertel, who was flown to St. Louis for the shoot in a Build-A-Bear Workshop store. "For on-camera, it's more like you're talking to somebody. It's still animated, it's just not as big. And you had to be on the balls of your feet. Unlike musical theater, where you have weeks to practice, you say your lines and then it's like, 'OK, we don't like that. Try it this way.'"
The experience will come in handy for other jobs and auditions, said the actress, who has tried out for everything from commercial voiceovers to television, movie and opera roles. So will the pay — $3,000 — which went right back into her performance education fund. The account is supplemented by prize money from a local Danny Boy singing contest and a scholarship from the Grand Traverse Musicale, among other awards. It helps cover the costs of travel when video auditions and performing by Skype aren't options.
"She works hard at what she does," said mom and chaperone Karyn Hertel. "Every opportunity, she goes for."
While juggling a performing career with school, homework and family life can be stressful, Hertel is an A student and winner of her school's Pride Award. School comes first, she said, with performing a close second.
"It's always fun. It's my passion. It's what I love, it's what I want to do," she said. "I knew from a very long time ago that auditioning and getting rejected was a big part of this.
"So I'm able to cope, I don't shut down. It's not about talent, it's about what they're looking for."
The Build-A-Bear Workshop commercial also is airing in the United Kingdom and online.
To view it, visit http://www.buildabear.com/shopping/contents/content.jsp?catId= 100003&id= 1000016.