Cale Manning, an eighth-grader at Hauser Junior High School, wants to attend the Chicago Academy of Arts to study acting. He makes his Steppenwolf Theatre debut in "Lord of the Flies." (David Pierini/staff photographer)

Balancing school, homework and friends can sometimes be a tremendous load, especially when one is juggling all that while preparing for a role with a major Chicago theater company. Cale Manning, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Hauser Junior High School in Riverside, is doing just that.

For the past several weeks Manning has been preparing for his role as Percival in Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of Lord of the Flies directed by Halena Kayes.

“My character symbolizes a loss of innocence,” said Manning, the youngest member of the cast. “By the end of the show he becomes completely savage.”

The William Golding novel turned stage play, adapted by Nigel Williams, is about a group of English boys deserted on an island after a plane wreck. The group slowly morphs into two smaller groups—the proponents of civilization and morality and those willing to stoop to levels of savagery to gain power.

Manning, a resident of North Riverside, began acting in first grade at the Children’s Theatre of Western Springs (CTWS), of which he is still a student. He spent the summer after enrolling in the school’s summer musical program.

His list of productions so far includes Scrooge: The Musical and The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr. at CTWS and The Devil’s Disciple in 2012 at the adult theater, Theatre of Western Springs (TWS).

Manning, who played a workhouse boy in Fagin’s gang in the Drury Lane Oakbrook production of Oliver, said the musical has been one of his favorite on stage experiences so far.

“There was this bridge and it was supposed to come down,” said Manning folding is arms to form a makeshift bridge, “but at one point the motors malfunctioned and [the bridge] didn’t come down and everyone was freaking out backstage.”

It was at this point that a friend suggested an improvisation — enter from the stage instead of the bridge.

“Everything worked out perfectly,” said Manning followed by a smile.

The cast were not just cast mates, however. Their time practicing and performing together had built camaraderie.

Once, while watching a group perform at the Tony Awards on television, Manning saw some familiar faces. The faces of young men he had performed alongside in Oliver.

“We were all like, ‘We know them!'” Manning said.

This kind of friendship Manning has built with cast mates has been a trend in Manning’s career.

“The cast at Steppenwolf has been amazing,” said Megan McCarthy, Manning’s mother. “They’ve all become like brothers.”

Manning juggles five days of school and six days of rehearsals, from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Beyond the support of his parents, CTWS and fellow actors, he has the support of his school.

“You couldn’t do this without the support of the school,” said McCarthy. “We called the principal and she said ‘Whatever you need, we’ll make it work.'”

While exciting, the experiences leading up to the production’s opening day were a bit surreal for Manning and his mother. McCarthy smiled as she spoke about the day she saw Manning’s picture on a poster for the production.

Lord of the Flies, which started Oct. 16 and will run until Nov. 15 at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre (1650 N. Hasted St. in Chicago), is not the end of Manning’s acting career. He has his eyes set on Chicago Academy of the Arts High School where he hopes to “improve [his] acting and singing skills.” And beyond that? Broadway.

“It’s a dream you kinda have to have if you’re into musical theater,” said Manning.

“He’s not afraid to try anything,” said Joe Savino, one of Manning’s instructors at CTWS, “and when he feels passionate about something, he goes for it fearlessly.”

More on Steppenwolf Young Actors (SYA) productions