Anyone who has ever been in middle school knows that it's practically a fulltime job in and of itself. But try adding performing in a professional Chicago theater production to that, which is exactly what Maliha Yousuf, a 10-year-old Deer Path Middle School student, is doing.
Maliha is currently performing in Night Over Erzinga by Adriana Sevahn Nichols at the Silk Road Rising Theatre. In the performance, she plays four different characters. (Maliha alternates performances with Allison Torf, another young actress.)
Maliha's interest in acting was sparked when she was just 5 years old and living in Chicago. The family moved to Lake Forest a couple of years ago.
"My friend who lived really close was only one year older," she explained. "In the kindergarten we went to there was a nativity play, and I knew that I wanted to play Mary [the next year]."
And the acting bug stuck from there. Maliha went on to take part in a week-long camp with the Lake Forest-based Citadel Theatre. The camp focused on audition work, with the participants preparing a monologue. At the end of the week, participants got to audition in front of representatives from different agencies. Maliha got a callback from Gray Talent Group in Chicago, who ended up signing her soon after.
It was Gray Talent Group who suggested that Maliha try out for the play.
"I went to an audition and I did a scene," Maliha explained. "We were driving back from the city and we got a phone call. I handed the phone over to my mom and they said that I got a call back! That night, we got the scene [that I was supposed to do] and the next day, I went in and did the scene."
Michelle, Maliha's mom, knew that they had found a special play when director Lisa Portes - who has an 8 year old daughter herself - came out and talked to Michelle at the callbacks.
"It is such a cut-throat industry," Michelle said. "So the fact that she came out and introduced herself says a lot to me, and it also says that she'd take care of Maliha."
But while Maliha is loving the limelight of the stage, her parents insist that her school work remains a priority.
"My husband and I really believe that education comes first," Michelle said.
That philosophy has remained intact even throughout the show's crazy rehearsal and performance schedule.
"Every minute is accounted for," Michelle said.
Maliha has school during the day, and will then stay after school for study halls to make sure she gets all of her homework done. From there, Michelle picks her up and drives her into the city, with Maliha often finishing her math homework enroute to the theater. Rehearsals typically run from 6 to 10 p.m., when she is then rushed home to get to bed - only to start it all over again the next day.
Night Over Erzinga follows three generations of an Armenian and Dominican family, spanning from the Ottoman Empire to New York City. The play focuses on some very sensitive subjects - such as the Armenian Genocide - which Maliha's parents have talked a lot about.
"We were very, very concerned," her dad, Faisal, said. "It's a very graphic play. I want to do the right thing, but I was very concerned about the subtext. She doesn't need to know these things right now, she's 10 years old."
Faisal pointed out that while Maliha understands the general story, she doesn't fully understand some of the more graphic details - and they plan to keep it that way.
The play clocks in at just under three hours, and is running from now until Nov. 11. You can get tickets online here.