Online Jan/Feb 1998
written by Laura Nielsen Denke
When Donnajeanne Goheen walked into my office, her unassuming presence filled the room with an uncanny warmth. Her calm demeanor, ready smile and soft brown eyes captivated my undivided attention for the next hour.
Donnajeanne is unlike any agent or manager I have known. She exudes a natural motherly instinct that immediately envelops one in a cocoon of security. During the interview, I felt as though she cared more about me and my success in writing the article than for her own agenda. While most agents are high-powered, pressure-pushing salespeople, Donnajeanne is just the opposite. She is laid back, easygoing and flexible with an ability to adapt to any situation at a moment's notice. These remarkable traits act like magnets, attracting bright new talent and contacts in the "Biz" who wouldn't think of using any talent other than "Donnajeanne's Kids."
She comes across as the wide, eyed, down-home, picture-perfect "50's" kind of country mom, with old-fashioned values and beliefs. "I've always preferred to be generous rather than stingy and I believe that if you are good to people, people will be good to you as well. I always encourage the kids and their parents to share resources and to be good to each other share the wealth and we will all be successful. And we have. This philosophy is what has catapulted Donnajeanne to a new level of success, resulting in a move to Los Angeles where her talented young performers are kept busy working.
One of the ten year olds she manages will probably earn a six figure income this year from several of the national commercials he's made. Six year old Robby Seager just finished playing a lead role in a feature film called, "Splitsville". Seven year old Casey Floresca filmed an episode of ER and was taped for the new "Parent Trap" remake. Of the fifteen girls in the final callback for that film, three were managed by Donnajeanne. The two not cast for the film were talented Samantha Whidby who has a lead in another film and ten year old Charity Sanoy who was the only child flown to New York at the producer's expense for callbacks on the Broadway musical, "The Lion King."
E! Entertainment Network chose Donnajeanne and her talented troupe this past summer to be a primary focus of their documentary, 'The Making of a Child Star." Their camera crew spent days following Donnajeanne and her kids to acting classes, auditions, photo shoots, and filming them in her crowded apartment. (Nine kids during the peak season)
Donnajeanne is exactly what she appears to be: An honest, hard working, extremely generous woman who acts as mother to a stable of extremely talented children. Many of her child stars call her their "California mom." She sees to it that shampoo their hair, brush their teeth, and get to bed on time. She has a place in LA where she is never alone. Her stars live with her temporarily while they are making the audition rounds, acting in a TV movie-of-the-week, or finding an L.A.-based agent.
So, how did a "Mother Knows Best" kind of woman end up in the "dog-eat dog" world of Hollywood? The fact is she never set out to be an agent or a manager. She was active in drama in high school and directed children's theater through her college years, but she intended to go into public service, earning a BA in Developmental Psychology at the University of Washington, and then pursuing her Masters in Public Administration from Seattle University.
While working as the Executive Director of the North Kitsap Parks and Recreation Department, she saw the need for a supplier of carnival prizes and novelty items needed for community programs. Seeing a window of opportunity, Donnajeanne, with intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit, decided to start a little side business, Kidstuff Novelties.' She thought it would also teach her one and only child, Rachel, all about business and finance as she earned money to pay for her college education.
Donnajeanne and Rachel began the trade-show circuit selling plastic toys. One day at a PTA trade show, a couple of good-looking colleagues from another booth came over to Donnajeanne. "We've watching your daughter,' they ventured. "Do you suppose we could borrow her to help us sell sporting equipment in our booth?" Donnajeanne consented. Soon Rachel had taken over the booth, demonstrating sports equipment and delivering a spiel with such pizzazz that a crowd gathered round. At age six, she was a precocious little girl who confidently delivered a sales pitch she'd heard only once.
The salesmen were taken aback by Rachel's talents. One of the men had been an actor and the other a model. They queried, 'Why are you peddling little plastic toys when your child should be in Hollywood? You're sitting on a potential gold mine!" Donnajeanne, a nurturer through and through, didn't waste any time giving Rachel an opportunity to try her stuff. She found an agent who was enthusiastic about Rachel's talents, and, within a few days, Rachel landed her first job. Within two months she completed four commercials.
Rachel was hot. Her agent started talking about taking her to LA. for "pilot season' when the new TV shows are produced. Donnajeanne wasn't about to send her six year old off with strangers, so she decided to learn about the business and take her there herself. Training would be a necessity due to the fierce competition in LA Rachel would need more than a cute smile and keen memory skills. As Donnajeanne looked for training resources in Seattle, she saw another window of opportunity. There was a need for training programs for young professional actors in Seattle.
In 1991, Donnajeanne quit her job as the Executive Director of the Washington Recreation and Park Association, mortgaged her house and opened Young Performers Studio (YPS) on the Seattle Waterfront. Using her years of experience as a program planner, resource coordinator and networker, she applied her skills by hiring teachers and developing a full curriculum for young actors and models. Unlike similar programs, YPS never required kids to pay several hundred dollars and commit to a ten week program. Students enrolled for a $25 workshop or a four week program that typically costs under $50. Many of the studio's first enrollees are still taking classes at the studio which is now located in North Seattle. Young actors from as far away as Wenatchee and Aberdeen come to the studio. One girt even traveled from Idaho after Nordstroms referred her to YPS.
In the beginning, Donnajeanne hired instructors, observed their classes, and coordinated all the YPS activities. Simultaneously Rachel's career was skyrocketing, sending Donnajeanne and her daughter on dozens of sets. As the months ticked by, observing her own acting coaches, watching commercial directors direct Rachel, and assisting casting directors who rented her studio, Donnajeanne turned into a veteran of the 'biz." A brilliant mind herself, Donnajeanne had absorbed, learned, and memorized how to teach acting technique.
Then it happened. Somewhere along this familiar pathway, Donnajeanne took a jog in the road and forged a new trail teaching her own talent. At first she started coaching eight and nine year olds, a category most of her instructors refrained from teaching. Donnajeanne knew however that this was a prime time for young actors. Today many of these kids are among the top young actors in the Northwest and some have moved on to acting jobs in LA Donnajeanne developed her own style, her own special brand of teaching and to this day she always customizes every class to individual needs.
"Last week I got a call from this agent in Vancouver who sent a guy down to LA to try out for 'Party of Five.' Well, he got in on his looks and he didn't do very well in the audition. The agent called me back and said, 'Look, I got him another chance; will you coach him?' I said, 'You know that I don't teach adults. I can coach them for on, camera auditions, but I don't coach for film and TV roles.' But the agent insisted, and I've been coaching adults ever since."
In the next episode of Donnajeanne's life, she began casting. Her first job was for a few KCPQ projects that didn't pay followed by many that did from KIRO - TV, local producers, and production companies in New York and New Orleans. Now she is called upon regularly to cast both kids and adults for commercials, video, and most recently several principal roles and a few hundred extras for 'China Captains," a television series sponsored by Boeing and Air China.
"I have always been willing to work on a production with little or no money," volunteered Donnajeanne, "because I have always believed there would be a payoff as good as any pay check. And for young actors - or adults, for that matter - working for free on a production is not a waste of time. There's valuable learning that takes place and an opportunity to demonstrate your skills. If you do a good job, they'll appreciate you and they'll come back and they'll pay you when they can. And they always have. Without exception - both my actors and myself have been rewarded for our 'volunteer' efforts."
I know firsthand of Donnajeanne's generosity. My son, Alexander, was taping a show called the "Case of Pain,' a video tape on pain management for children to watch prior to their impending operation. He was creating this video as a charitable contribution to Children's Orthopedic Hospital to fulfill his Eagle Scout Project. When I told Donnajeanne about the hospital's need for such a tool, without any hesitation she provided all of the children necessary for the 12-minute drama. Later, when I was taping my own charity film for Hamlin-Robinson School for Dyslexics titled "Me and Einstein," I wanted to use one of her very talented children, Teru McDonald. This time we paid for her services. Donnajeanne says, I allow my students to do one free job to gain experience. Then, if a client wants them again, it is only fair that they pay the going rate." I certainly agreed.
This generous philosophy has paid off for Donnajeanne in spades. "My kids have an opportunity to gain experience working on a real set, plus being directed by someone other than me or one of the teachers, and they end up with a credit on their resume. Usually the clients give a free copy of the video to the actors too. So we have really benefited tremendously by that pro bono opportunity." Often after one of her kid actors gives a gratis performance, the client will write a paying part just for that actor. More often than not, Donnajeanne's generosity has brought double the work for her kids. Understandably her clientele is highly sought after.
In a nation that encourages new business but sifts out the weak, where bankruptcies are common and the death-rate of fledgling companies is high, one wonders how Donnajeanne succeeded without Sugar Daddy investor. The answer lies in her background. She grew up on a farm in Poulsbo in a large Catholic family. They had very little money but were high on creativity. 'I learned to go without or make do." She remembers that most evenings, while other kids were watching TV, she was writing little skits and plays for her brothers and sisters to act in. Most nights were a family night filled with fun and camaraderie.
Her father taught her some great lessons in life. The first was that one should do things for the love of it rather than 'just for the money, because that's what brings happiness. He also taught her to work hard for what you want and then work even harder to secure it.
Donnajeanne credits her mother with her honest, straightforward way of dealing with people. 'One of the dads in my group said once, 'if you don't want an honest answer, just don't ask her!' I guess my honesty can be a little blunt sometimes but I just have never been able to tell some, one they look great when they don't and I never give false praise to a performer. I tell them what they did well, and I almost always have a suggestion on how to make it better. Some people can't handle that and some parents feel I am not building their child's self esteem with my honest approach - but these same parents are the ones who are consoling their crying child when they don't win a pageant and mama told them they would be the winner."
Donnajeanne's love of her family has carried over into her business. "I have a couple of things that I try and drill into the parents of my talent. I believe in a strong team effort and so I encourage them to help other parents and their kids. I just won't tolerate people that are egocentric and think only of me, me, me, and my child this and my child that. I try to teach people to see the big picture and realize that their turn will come too. I use an example of one girl whose mother had the philosophy that I like: "We will work together, and we will all benefit."
One of Donnajeanne's YPS students was represented by another agency in town. When she was scheduled for a voice-over audition she called Donnajeanne and suggested she call the producer to get some of her girls in on the audition too. The producer, Kathy Levin, agreed to let one girl from YPS audition. Donnajeanne sent Teru McDonald. After the audition, Kathy Levin called Donnajeanne and explained, "Teru won't be hired this time but I just wanted you to know that she did an outstanding job and I will be sure to call in YPS kids in the future.'
A few weeks later, Kathy Levin called and hired Teru McDonald for a radio spot. Then a couple of months later, she called again with an offer for Teru. But since Teru wasn't available, the job went to Lindy, the girl whose mother had originally called Donnajeanne about the voice-over audition. This job paid three times what the initial Job a paid. So the generosity of Lindy's mother paid off threefold. This was a perfect example of Donnajeanne's philosophy. If you work together, the payoff will be grander.
Donnajeanne has taught her talent and their parents not to fight over what few opportunities are out there. You won't catch her kids stooping to dirty, underhanded tricks to steal a job. Most kids and parents embrace Donnajeanne's philosophy. Mothers give rides to other kids auditioning for the same part. Children loan each other clothes or help "competition" me lines, The kids in t management group each other on. It's really a "one for all and all for one attitude that produces talent who applaud each other's successes. Donnajeanne will not tolerate children and mothers who do not understand this basic principle.
"I do get some parents who aren't team players but they learn real fast or I cut them loose. There was one selfish I stage mother who was a little too anxious for her own daughter's success and demanded a lot of attention, She also would not help others out. She kept declining to give another child a ride. And then I heard that another girl had the same audition as her daughter and she rudely said, 'What could they possibly want in her?' I was outraged and immediately dropped the girl from my roster. No matter how talented a child is, I will not keep them in my group I if they or their parent are negative or present a bad example."
Two mottoes are proudly displayed on the walls in Donnajeanne's Studio. The first motto is "Luck is being prepared when the opportunity comes. Donnajeanne tries to make sure that all of her children are very well prepared. She sees to it that the parents prepare their children with enough steep before an audition and that they are well-fed, and not overly stressed. Then she prepares the parents by giving them written directions to the audition. 'I try to prevent the situation where a parent can't find the place, is harried, late, finds the place but doesn't have enough quarters for street parking and ends up yelling at the kid." Donnajeanne has a high percentage of success with her auditions just because of this very crucial plan of preparation of both the parents and the children.
Motto number two is just as profound, "As you move ahead, always allow someone else to stand on your shoulders because your vision will be farther." She explains: "We want everybody else in our group to stand taller, be able to see farther, and help everybody else along. I always tell them that they can't lose something that they don't have in the first place. You're not losing when you don't get this job. Look at the audition as a free education. Here you are being directed for free by a director who will inevitably teach you something. This is how you progress in the craft."
Like everybody else starting a business, Donnajeanne has had her ups and downs and people problems. After becoming a manager, she took her top talent to LA and placed them with Hollywood agents. One mother felt that Donnajeanne's purpose was fulfilled and her services were no longer needed. This mother commented to a few other parents, 'Once you have an LA agent that's all you need. Why pay out another 10% to a manager?" Upon hearing this via the grape vine, Donnajeanne sent her a memo suggesting that they terminate the management contract and the mother could manage her children herself. This opened the door to discussion and a better understanding as well as a renewed contract. Today this mother is one of Donnajeanne's staunchest supporters and her child's career has flourished with her guidance. When asked if she thinks a manager is necessary, she clearly states that she feels it is essential to a child's success in this business.
One major disappointment for Donnajeanne is that while she started out to learn the business so that she could take her own daughter, Rachel, to LA, she wasn't able to do so at a time that would have been perfect for boosting Rachel's blossoming career. The prime age to take her would have been when she was six or nine because of the child Labor laws, and the formulas used for creating characters in television and film. "When Rachel was six, I was just learning the business and when she was nine, I was so immersed in the Seattle market and the studio, I couldn't get away. I didn't start taking kids to LA until 1994 and by then Rachel was ten but looking eleven. We call this the 'dead zone' for girls. There are actually more roles now for eleven and twelve year old girls but until recently, it was as if eleven year old girls didn't exist. Now Rachel is almost fourteen but looks sixteen so she goes out for fifteen and sixteen year old parts which end up going to girls who are sixteen or older. She came very close this fall with two meetings with the director from New York and it was down to her and a couple other girls. The role went to a nineteen year old who can play fourteen, can work a longer day and doesn't need a teacher or social worker on the set.'
So, while Donnajeanne is disappointed that she couldn't get Rachel to Hollywood when she was in her prime, Donnajeanne is extremely proud of her talented daughter. "She is a very strong actor, she's done over 50 commercials and voice-overs, great roles on stage and in videos, some TV work - we get wonderful comments about her from casting people and directors. She sings, dances, she's a great little talk show host type - she wants to write and direct - and maybe even cast. She even interned as a casting assistant and did a great job. Her future is very bright. Just wait til she's sixteen - she'll be the one beating out the fourteen year olds then!"
Are there pitfalls to this business? "Yes," claims Donnajeanne. 'It is difficult for a child to participate in some of the extracurricular active, ties that they might enjoy, like being on a soccer team, being a cheer, leader or entering speech contests, because they're always going on auditions. If you really want to be involved in acting and work as a professional actor, particularly pursuing the LA jobs, it's impossible to be reliable in other activities after school. My daughter has given up many Brownie meetings, birthday parties, and sports teams." Donnajeanne insists that a mother and child have to weigh the pros and cons and decide what's really important to them.
When an audition is available in Seattle, it's a big deal. A mother and child actor have to be ready to change plans, drop everything, and turn out for the audition. "When we're in LA, my kids will go on four or five auditions in one day. These rounds are easier to handle for the psyche. A child's ability to handle auditions that don't award them a part as well as his/her ability to handle 'winning' a part determines the decision to stay in the business or not."
Sometimes schools are uncooperative about allowing students to take a leave of absence to audition in LA. Some schools will not even allow an early dismissal for auditions. Several of Donnajeanne's actors are homeschooled by their mothers. "Most all of the kids I man, age are extremely smart children and earn high marks in school. After focusing on acting some even become better students."
When I interviewed Donnajeanne, she was back in Seattle to cast a children's video series. Most of the time however she is in LA where she and Rachel make their extra bed, room and bath available to members of her talent group from Seattle. It just so happened that the week of our interview, they had a family of four staying with them until they found their own apartment and an eighteen year old girl from Wenatchee sharing a room with Rachel. In January and February, the place will be brimming with hopeful talent. It's always one big happy family just like it was for Donnajeanne growing up on the farm with evenings filled with skits, plays, and singing by some of the most talented kids on the West Coast.
Online Jan/Feb 1998
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