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Remember this face: If past performance is any indicator of future success, theater-goers are going to be seeing a lot of Tess Santasiero. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Tess Santasiero thinks she grew two inches when she was measured at her last doctor’s appointment. That makes her, at the age of 11, four feet two inches tall. But she is already packing an impressive theater résumé into that small frame.
Tess was understudy Sweetie Pie Thomas, one of the youthful characters in the Goodspeed Musical’s summer 2019 production of Because of Winn Dixie. In Goodspeed’s fall production, Billy Elliot, Tess moved up from understudy to being a cast regular, one of the ballet girls, young women studying at the studio in the north of England where the main character, Billy Elliot learns to love dance.
For Christmas, she is scheduled to play a famous character from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in a reading accompanied by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. The performance, dubbed A Christmas Carol in Concert, debuted at the Ivoryton Playhouse on Dec. 8 and will be repeated three times this weekend in Madison, in New Haven, and at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. The production features Kathleen Turner as Scrooge.
Tess will be Tiny Tim. She plans to pull her hair, which falls below her shoulders, into a bun.
“It’s no problem. That’s the way I wore it for Billy Elliot,” she says.
She already knows Tiny Tim’s most famous line.
“It’s ‘God bless us, every one,’” Tess says.
Tess got the part of Tiny Tim without a tryout. Ivoryton Playhouse Executive Director Jacqui Hubbard didn’t know Tess, but saw her in Billy Elliot, and actually ran into Tess and her mother in the lobby as they were leaving the theater.
“I was so excited,” Tess remembers.
Francesca Webster, director of the Madhatters Theatre Company, a long-established young people’s theater group that puts on summer performances at the Chester Meeting House, recommended Tess for the part. Based on that recommendation and seeing Tess at the Goodspeed, Hubbard cast her as Tiny Tim.
Tess started her acting career at Madhatters, which she joined when she was six years old because her sister Willow, who was two years older, was already involved. Tess has appeared in seven Madhatters productions, among them, Seussical, Shrek, and Little Rascals.
Still, acting wasn’t at the top of her performing list. Tess loves dance, studying a variety of styles among them ballet, tap and jazz at Westbrook Dance Academy and performing regularly at competitions with the school’s dance team. Recently Tess added a style called Acro that combines dance and gymnastic moves.
“It was difficult at first. When I started I couldn’t even do a backbend,” explains Tess, who had dance classes every afternoon until she became part of the cast of Billy Elliot.
Tess’s mother Heather found out about the auditions for Billy Elliot. Tess recalls that when she went to the tryout, a choreographer demonstrated a tap combination for all the young would-be cast members to do. Tess was not happy with her tap performance.
“I thought I had not done so well on the tap. I did better on the ballet, even though I thought that one was going to be harder,” she remembers.
She also had to sing, choosing a song from Seussical, “Alone in the Universe,” and “Naughty” from Matilda, which she had seen on Broadway.
Heather got a call the next day telling her not only that Tess had been chosen for Billy Elliot, but that her daughter had also been selected to understudy in Because of Winn Dixie. Tess went to all rehearsals as understudy, and then attended performances once a week. She could never be more than a half hour away from the theater so there was no travellng to dance competitions and she was always on call. But the call never came. She never appeared in Winn Dixie.
“I wanted to go on just one time,” she admits.
For Billy Elliot, a coach worked with all members of the cast to perfect the accent of the gritty coal-mining region in the north of England where the show takes place. Tess demonstrated to a visitor how she was taught to frown and to open her mouth less to achieve the required accent. Then, at the request of a visitor, she spoke a few lines convincingly in character.
For Tess, the most difficult part of the play was not the accent but the loud scream that was required of her in one scene. There was a complication, Tess explains: The complex layout backstage at the Goodspeed that requires actors to go up and down flights of stairs even to get from one side of the stage to the other. Tess had very little time to change costume along with dealing with all the stairs. Sometimes she was sufficiently out of breath that the scream became a whimper.
“It was so hard to get that scream out,” she says.
Tess was not the youngest member of the cast; there was a boy a year younger but she was the shortest. She is so tiny, in fact, that she buys her clothes in the girls’ department, size eight. That, however, is becoming more difficult for a young lady entering her teens. She admits she is overwhelmed by number of frilly pink party dresses that seem to be staples of clothing in her size.
For the duration of Billy Elliot, Tess was home schooled by her mother, who is a teacher. But Heather’s job entailed far more. Tess had to be at the Goodspeed for every performance and so did Heather, who herself had been a theater major in college. Her pleasure in her daughter’s performance made the driving and waiting worthwhile.
“I was incredibly proud and excited,” she says.
Some of the young actors in the show already have agents and travel to different locations for jobs. Tess would like to continue her career, but there is another consideration as well.
“I want to keep auditioning and acting, but I don’t want to leave Connecticut,” she says. “Everyone else [from the show] has left. I am the only one left in Connecticut and I just don’t know if I could leave.”
A Christmas Carol in Concert
Upcoming performances of A Christmas Carol in Concert are on:
Friday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts, 501 Crescent Street, New Haven
Saturday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Madison, 26 Meetinghouse Lane, Madison, and
Sunday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. at Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield.
For tickets and information, visit newhavensymphony.org.
Get ready to celebrate the holidays with our helpful guide