Rileigh McDonald, 7 Avenue Station, B-D-E

Rileigh is one of the four Matildas in a Tony award winning musical, Matilda the Musical. Her parents, Lana and Paul, joined us to share their experience of leaving Cincinnati and moving to New York City. 

How did you start dancing?

Rileigh: When I was auditioning for Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, I wasn’t really a serious dancer. I had to audition for all the majors, and I ended up getting accepted into dance, drama, and creative writing. I didn’t expect to make into the dance major, but they loved my audition and wanted me in the dance program.

How did you like learning to dance?

Rileigh: It was really, really fun. It was formal ballet training. Some of the younger kids, particularly the boys, wanted to get more into hip-hop, so ballet was boring for them. It was really fun to learn choreography, and I moved up through the different classes.

How did you find out that you got Matilda?

Rileigh: We came home from the final audition and didn’t think that we got it. My parents picked me up from school the next day, and my mom said that the artistic director wanted to talk to me. My dad told me that I got it, and all I could do was put my hands in front of my face like Stefon in SNL. I didn’t believe it at all. My dad ended up recording it but the camera was upside down.

When you guys found out about the audition, did you guys move right away to the city?

Paul: We had a week between finding out and having to report to the first rehearsal.

What was that like for you guys?

Lana: Scary and awesome. We were hoping to get up here in the next couple of years anyway for her performing career. She loved it and we knew that there would be more opportunities here. When Matilda came through, we knew that it was a sign. It was time to go. It’s what you do when your kid gets a part in Matilda. You go.

Paul: Absolutely no looking back. We got people to rent our house and came up here five days later. We were in a hotel for a few days, and have been in a furnished apartment so far. We’ll be making the transition to move our furniture and stuff up next month actually.

Rileigh: We’ve been here 9 months and we still haven’t gotten our furniture up here yet [laughs].

What’s like to work at Matilda?

Rileigh: It’s very fun. Matilda doesn’t do any ballet, but there’s a ton of sharp, difficult dances that she does. The kids in the ensemble are incredible dancers, and I get to dance with them in a few numbers. During those dances, I am in the back and the kids get to be stars, and I really like that. It’s fun to be able to do all these different movements and dances with them.

How old are you?

Rileigh: I turn 12 in March.

That’s incredible. You’re on Broadway at such a young age. So what’s it like to work with actors and actresses on the show?

Rileigh: It’s very fun to be able to work with people who share my interest and are very professional. It’s also fun to talk to and hang out with them. During intermission, we play little games—games that make us laugh and happy.

How do you juggle school and performing?

Rileigh: There are days where I just don’t do school at all [laughs]. I do online school. Sometimes I am able to be like, “What if we do something else? I might not be able to do school today. Maybe if I get ready as slow as possible, I can take a few hours off.”

Lana: E-school gives us a lot of flexibility for her schedule so we can make sure—if she’s at a show really late or something—that she gets enough sleep and stays healthy. We like the option of having control over her schedule.

What are your dreams and goals?

Rileigh: I have two roles that I really want to be in when I am an adult. Elphaba in Wicked and Elizabeth Skylar in Hamilton. I love the song “Helpless.” It’s one of my favorite songs. I want to continue to be an actress—on Broadway and in film and TV. I also really want to be a professional ballet dancer. I want to be everything [laughs]. I want to go to Juilliard so badly.

Paul: One interesting thing about ballet is that she wasn’t a dancer—but very quickly she was taught by amazing instructors and also dancers from the Cincinnati Ballet. She quickly became one of the star pupils and was rated gifted by the state of Ohio. She went from having no foundation to being considered one of the top ballet students in the state in her grade in about a year’s time.

Lana: She had taken a couple dance classes at local community dance schools, but going into 4th grade, we had her audition for the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts. We knew that she wanted to be challenged more artistically. We really liked the idea of her going to a school that incorporated arts into its daily curriculum. She had a drama bell every day and two dance bells everyday instead of doing academics during the day and then having to spend all evening going to different training. That really appealed to us. Her serious training for dance started in 4th grade. She’s in 6th grade now.

How did you discover your talent in performing arts?

Rileigh: It was at my first grade school play. Each kid had one line. We were dressed up as flowers for How Does Your Garden Grow?

Lana: It was a first grade kids’ performance that wasn’t through a theatre or anything. All the first grade classes in her school participated.

Rileigh: They just had us walk up to the microphone say a line. I was a flower, and my line was, “We’re getting attacked by weeds!”

Lana: She said to me beforehand, “I don’t just want to go and say that line like anything. I want to say it like a real actress would.” When she got up there and delivered that line, it was like she was living it. She was the flower. Everybody laughed because they couldn’t believe how serious she was about it. She wanted them all to take it really seriously, so we knew then that we would have to do more with her passion. We’re honing in on what she loves and what her passions are. We’ve been following her ever since.

It’s great that you guys are 100% behind her passions.

Lana: It’s fortunate that we can be. I am a freelancer in my career, and my husband was able to take a year off of teaching to make the move. So it seemed like the natural thing to do.

What’s your favorite part about performing?

Rileigh: My favorite part is hearing the audience laugh. At one of the shows last week, I loved the audience because they laughed a lot. I sing this one song, and it makes people laugh a bit, but this time they really thought it was funny and they laughed throughout the whole show. It was really fun.

Lana: She likes making people happy.

Rileigh: And cry.

Lana: She also says that when she performs as Matilda, she wants every child in that audience to know what Matilda is trying to teach them—to do the right thing, to treat people fairly, and to stand up to bullies. A lot of kids had experience with bullies at her school, and she thinks that Matilda is a real role model. She wants to make sure that kids get that message when they see the show.

What was it like your first time on the big stage?

Rileigh: I thought to myself, “I am officially on Broadway now!” But mostly what was going through my brain was my next line, then the line after that, then the line after that. I was nervous, but after a few minutes, I was like, “I got this. This is fine. I could do this for a while.”

How long was the rehearsal process?

Lana: It was a couple of months. It was a nice Matilda bootcamp to get her ready for the role.

Rileigh: I got to do it with my other Matildas. That’s how I met them.

Lana: There are four Matildas right now, and it’s like the day they met, they met their best friends. It was an experience that they were sharing together - every bit of it. They just knew that they were like sisters.

How do you like living in New York? What do you like to do in the city?

Rileigh: It’s really fun. When I first moved here, I couldn’t fall asleep because it was really loud. But now it feels really peaceful, and I am excited that I live in New York. It’s different from Cincinnati, but it’s fun. There’s always something to do. You’re never bored. I used to love going to Pie Face, but it closed. I love going to the theatre four times a week. I love seeing different Broadway shows.

Lana: That’s what we do on her nights off. We go to see shows when she’s able to.

Rileigh: I also like shopping a lot [laughs]. I take an art class every Monday. It’s a cartoon art class. It’s very fun.

What was the toughest part of performing in Matilda?

Sometimes during rehearsals, I was like, “How am I going to memorize all of the show and how am I going to remember this on stage?” Also, adjusting to New York was difficult. I was used to getting to places by car, and when I first took the subway, it was a very crowded subway. I was like, “Do I have to do this from now on?” Now a lot of them are more empty, and I’ve gotten used to it.

What’s your number one advice?

Rileigh: If you’re auditioning for your dream role and you don’t get it, just keep auditioning. Never give up. I auditioned for Matilda many times for different characters and the ensemble. I worked really, really hard. I did lots of training, and I finally got the role.

Lana: Training is important. Don’t learn songs off of YouTube. Learn with a coach. That’s a really good piece of advice that we got early on.

Rileigh: From working hard, I got the role, and I’ve never been happier. I got to meet my people here. Theatre kids.

Last thing you want to share?

Rileigh: Make sure you stay hydrated. During the show, we always have a water bottle with us and always drink as much as possible. Water is good for you. Tea is also good. Drink tea all the time.