Maddie Belanoff leaps from stage to screen

By Manuela Montoya

Five years ago, senior Maddie Belanoff couldn’t have imagined herself be acting out a script in front of a high-definition camera, breaking in the make-up trailer or following suggestions from the person in the director’s chair. Now, she’s found her way not just to set but to TV.

By the time Belanoff was three years old, she’d found her passion. Having seen a play, she burst out of the theater’s doors into the midst of the glowing Broadway billboards in New York City’s Time Square. The lights illuminated her eyes as she clutched “The Little Mermaid” playbill in her hands, as though it were a treasure from Ariel’s secret grotto. Belanoff came to a life-changing realization right then, she said: she was destined to perform on stage.

At age seven, Belanoff took the stage for the first full time at her local community’s theater, playing the roles of a fish, chef and seagull in, as fate would have it, “The Little Mermaid.” Performing “Under the Sea,” she was beaming at the audience she had once been a part of, she said.

Belanoff has always sung around the house and would give “family room benefit concerts,” said Belanoff’s mother, Amy Clayman. Clayman has always been the most vocal fan in Belanoff’s audience ever since a vocal instructor first had Belanoff sing “What I’ve Been Looking For” from High School Musical at The New Orleans Cafe in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I loved watching her perform,” Clayman said. “She seems so happy when she is performing, and parents are happy when their kids are happy.”

Belanoff started taking acting lessons outside school, ones that focused on film, commercials and performing on stage. Coaching included not just how to bring out emotion, but how to navigate an audition room or stage, and even camera skills to prepare her for the demands of the industry. Though she has mostly graduated to her own preparation, Maddie still occasionally schedules a lesson when practicing for a difficult audition.

In professional theater, actors gain “points” through participation in shows and projects, which allow them to be part of more exclusive productions and to join the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) — a labor union that represents theatrical performers. When Belanoff was nine, she played young Eponine in the professional production of the musical “Les Miserables” at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and received her first actor’s equity contract.

Other stages became home for Belanoff. She has been active in Whitman Drama’s productions since her freshman year. In January of 2020, Belanoff played Tilly in the play “She Kills Monsters” over Zoom. Later in the fall, she performed in two virtual, student-led one-acts; “10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine” and “Allergic to Murder.”

Since then she has played in other Whitman plays and musicals as well as the “Time Warp” Talent Show in 2021. Belanoff played lead role of Elle Woods in this past school year’s production of “Legally Blonde.”

“There’s something really special about a group of people who have a single common interest but [also] many different interests outside of theater,” Belanoff said. “It was a really great way to meet a bunch of very different people with different skill sets and interests and come together and make something that was visually but also internally very beautiful that we get to share with other people.”

Chorus teacher Michelle Kim — who has taught Belanoff since her freshman year — underscored that Belanoff always stands out as a leader and has an amazing voice. Belanoff has only grown stronger and more confident during the past two years back in person, Kim said.

“If I were to describe Maddie in one word, it would be ‘exceptional.’ As a singer, she is strong, confident, powerful and has an incredible range,” Kim said. “Her voice is stunning and she has been showcased with many solos. She takes her music seriously but isn’t afraid to have fun, is welcoming to other students and is incredibly humble.”

Last August, Belanoff starred as Hope Cladwell in the musical “Urinetown” at the Theater Lab in downtown D.C.. In the four-week musical theater intensive, Belanoff had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with performers and technicians outside of Whitman. Belanoff said it was one of the best experiences of her life.

Other than friends and classmates, Belanoff’s parents have continued to keep her company when performing. From her seat in the audience to observing her daughter back home, Clayman has noticed that a “thrill” of performing fuels Belanoff’s perseverance.

“While it’s a lot of hard work, it’s also a lot of fun for her, and can be very therapeutic,” Clayman said.

In April of 2020, stuck at home during quarantine, Belanoff uploaded a music video of her own parody of the song “Six” from the Broadway musical of the same name. Disheartened by the cancellation of her reservation to see “SIX” on Broadway due to the pandemic, Belanoff decided to rewrite the original lyrics with pandemic-related terminology, like staying “six feet away” and washing your hands after going out.

To her surprise, Belanoff’s video reached more than 6,000 views on YouTube. Two weeks later, she received an email from the NBC4 station asking to feature her on their news segment.

“It kind of felt like a fever dream. I could not believe it when I got that email,” Belanoff said. “It was impacting people on a much larger scale than I had anticipated and reaching farther than my friends and family.”

In August of 2021, Belanoff’s acting agent offered her an opportunity to audition for a small part on a TV-show episode of the medical drama, “New Amsterdam.” Similar to her past auditions, Belanoff sent in a self-tape, recording herself performing the scene. The next day the directors offered her the job and soon Belanoff and her mom boarded a train to New York for the costume fitting.

“When I finally got on the train, I was like, ‘Holy moly. I am going to be on television,’ ” Belanoff said. “It was a lot of stress and panic. I knew that everybody on set would be very professional — and I had no idea what would happen.”

Though the set seemed intimidating at first, kind crew members greeted Belanoff and made her feel at home the moment she walked in, she said. Belanoff had a hair and make-up artist, a guide to navigate her around the set and of course the director to make sure the cast was in place.

“Since it was the first time on a network TV show, we both were a little nervous and unsure, especially since it was during COVID,” Clayman said. “But every step of the way, the network staff made us both feel comfortable.”

After a full week of filming, Belanoff returned home to binge-watch old episodes of the show, awaiting her episode to air in October of that year. Due to her appearance, Belanoff gained enough points to become part of the Screen Actors Guild and the AEA.

As for the future of her acting career, Belanoff plans to study musical theater in college, and she continues to audition for TV shows — though adhering to contracts, she couldn’t always share more details regarding those auditions. She’s also taken roles in commercials and short films.

“It’s something that’s always made me very happy. Performing in general, has just always been something that I found fun as well as very rewarding.,” Belanoff said. “Honestly, I just love it. I love performing. I love acting.”