I loved watching Carole Shelley, in a single song, “give them the finger” and provide a master class in acting to a bunch of boys and girls every night in "Billy Elliot."
She died last night at age 79. RIP.
I loved watching Carole Shelley, in a single song, “give them the finger” and provide a master class in acting to a bunch of boys and girls every night in "Billy Elliot."
She died last night at age 79. RIP.
Four of my photos, including these two from a shoot last year in Salt Lake City, are featured in a story on Tade Biesinger in today's Deseret News. Tade, who lives in Bountiful, Utah, was Billy Elliot on Broadway and in London. Now a high school senior, he is in the cast of the Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "Newsies," which runs Dec. 1-20.
Hard to believe, but it's been five years since Ben made his debut as Billy Elliot in the sweltering Louisville, Ky. Here he is after the show with Nicholas and Ginno.
Seth is the seventh actor I’ve taken headshots or dance photos of who has played one of the most demanding child roles on stage — the title character in “Billy Elliot.” These photos were taken during a mini session in the middle of tech week for the show. You can see more photos at http://glenncook.virb.com/seth.
My son, Ben, is performing tonight and Saturday as "Older Billy" in a special guest appearance as part of Wheelock Family Theatre's regional production of "Billy Elliot: The Musical."
I went to Boston during Thursday's blizzard to spend time with my 19-year-old and took a few shots at this morning's rehearsal with Seth Judice, who is playing the title role.
With appearances in "Law & Order: SVU" and the "Newsies" movie next week, the boy is well on his way to an adult career. But for a brief time at least, it's nice to see Ben return to the show that dominated much of his childhood.
Bonus photos: I took the photo below of Ben and Salma Hayek after she saw the show in Boston during the national tour in 2012. Right: Caught this picture of the boy with the “Newsies” poster during a lunch break today in Boston.
Given our family’s lengthy history with “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” it felt a little strange to see — and photograph — the show after three-plus years away. But anyone who has read my blog knows that being part of a theatre community means you will inevitably encounter circle backs, in which a show returns to your life in an unexpected way.
Circle back is what I did for two nights last week, watching from behind the lens while shooting “Billy Elliot” production photos for Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre. On Feb. 10 and 11, our son Ben will have a circle back of his own when he teaches master classes and plays the role of Older Billy.
Moving any large show into a smaller regional house can be a challenging logistical task, but the cast and crew have done a terrific job. Thanks to Linda Chin Workman for bringing me in to photograph the show — I also took headshots for several cast members — and to everyone for making me feel welcome.
Here’s a taste of what I saw — and shot — over the two nights. Some of these photos are being used in reviews in local newspapers and online, a nice bonus.
If you are in the Boston area, you can see the show through Feb. 26. Buy your tickets by visiting www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Last week, I posted photos shot during the final dress rehearsals for Wheelock Family Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" in Boston. While there, I also took headshots of five cast members in a series of mini-sessions.
Tomorrow, I'm returning to Boston and Wheelock to take various photos and see our son, Ben, play Older Billy. If you've read my Stage Dad posts, you may recall the long journey that Ben took with the show on Broadway and the national tour. This weekend, he will play his fourth different role in the show.
If you're in the area and interested, go to www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org to get your tickets. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Drew Minard is the fifth dancer I’ve shot this year who has taken on the role of “Billy Elliot” in the Broadway, national tour or regional productions of the Tony Award-winning musical. Now a student at the Professional Performing Arts School in New York City, Drew performed on the national tour from 2012 until it closed in Brazil the following year.
These photos were taken in New York City a couple of weeks ago. As with all of the young men who’ve played one of the most difficult child roles on stage — original director Stephen Daldry likens it to performing Shakespeare while running a marathon — I was in awe of his talent and professionalism.
And, appropriately, these shots were taken as the New York City Marathon wrapped up on a beautiful, chilly fall day.
Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.
Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."
Whatever that is.
I’ve been fortunate to know Zach Manske and his family for the past five years, ever since he and our son, Ben, shared the title role in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Zach, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., was named “2016 National Senior Male Outstanding Dancer” last month by the New York City Dance Alliance.
A couple of weeks ago, Zach was completing a summer intensive at Julliard when I had the long-awaited opportunity to take his headshots and add to my “Art & Dance” portfolio. Ben, who is auditioning in New York, came along for the shoot, which took place in front of Lincoln Center and at Central Park.
As you might expect when you have not one, but two excellent dancers, the shoot was great fun. But the best part of the day was seeing these two young men, who became friends during a high pressure and intense time as kids, pick up right where they left off, urging each other on and enjoying a chance to perform.
For more photos, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/new-york-zach--ben.
At 17, Tade Biesinger already has lived a very interesting life, becoming one of the youngest boys to play "Billy Elliot" on Broadway and later reprising the role in London for several months.
Now a senior just outside Salt Lake City, this very talented young man is taking college dance classes as he finishes high school. We've known Tade and his wonderful family for six years, and I was fortunate to catch up with him on a recent trip to Utah.
To see more from this shoot, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/salt-lake-city-tade.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre — St. Louis, January 2016
Opening night for "Tuck Everlasting" is finally (almost) here, the culmination of almost three months filled with firsts for the boy.
Tomorrow, we have the chance to see Ben perform during the opening of an original Broadway musical. At 18, he also is making his “adult” debut in the ensemble at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City.
What makes this a unique experience for Ben, besides the "adult" part and living on his own in the city, is this is the first time he has been part of the cast of an original musical in New York. "Ragtime," in 2009, was a revival. "Billy Elliot" had already been running for more than a year on Broadway when he joined the ensemble. On the "Billy" and "Newsies" tours, he went through the tech process, but both of those shows were already established and much of the music/script/choreography had been locked in by the creative team.
A new musical, even one that had been performed out of town, is much different.
Five weeks of rehearsals were followed by almost a month of previews as the creative team continued to tweak and polish “Tuck,” which is based on the acclaimed children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. Tim Federle, a wonderful writer and family friend who was one of Ben's mentors on "Billy," was brought in to contribute to the book. Music has been added, polished, and cut. Much of the choreography is new.
That’s the reason the preview process is so important, because it gives the show a chance to be performed for audiences to see what works and what doesn’t before it is formally locked in.
Chances are that if you saw “Tuck” in the first week or two of previews that what you’ll see now is different. It’s certainly been different for Ben, who is on stage quite a bit as an ensemble member and had not gone through one of those periods as a performer. (He was an understudy during the “Ragtime” revival.)
What makes this period so grueling for the actors, creatives, and crew is that you are essentially doing two shows a day, six days a week. During the preview period, “Tuck” has been running on a nontraditional schedule, with Sundays instead of Mondays off.
On single performance days, you typically arrive around noon to make adjustments and run through the show, take a break around 5 and then return two hours later to do it again for the preview audience. (Wednesdays and Saturdays are two show days.) Meanwhile, Ben is understudying two roles — Jesse Tuck and Hugo — and is learning their parts on stage.
Also over the past month, the show has hosted legendary theatre photographer Joan Marcus, who captured the in-performance images that are at the top of this piece, and shot performance footage for a “B-roll” that will be used for promotion purposes.
Finally, on Sunday, the cast gathered in a recording studio to record the score’s soundtrack, which will be available digitally on June 10 and in stores on July 1. That was another first for the boy.
And so now it’s almost time. Another opening, another show. Proud family members in the audience. Others rooting for Ben from close and afar.
There’s a certain “déjà vu all over again” feeling … and we couldn’t be more proud.
Break a leg, son.
A couple of additional things to note:
• It has been so wonderful to see the large number of friends and extended family who’ve come to see the show during the preview period. Cast members from “Billy Elliot” and “Newsies,” as well as friends from Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan, already have seen “Tuck.” I hope you’ll consider a trip, too.
• Dave Mack, a New York-based photographer, videographer and musician, is working at the Broadhurst Theatre and has been taking a series of beautiful portraits backstage. Here are a couple.
Tim Federle, whose young adult debut “The Great American Whatever” has been called “a Holden Caulfield for a new generation” by Kirkus Reviews, held a storytelling session and book signing Sunday at the McNally Jackson store in SoHo.
The multitasking author, who also is co-writer of the book for the new Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” brought our son, Ben, as his special guest to read the first chapter of the book. Tim and Ben worked together on “Billy Elliot” in 2010-11 and have been reunited again on “Tuck Everlasting.”
Tim, who is one of the nicest people we know in the industry, was a Broadway performer prior to making his writing debut with “Better Nate Than Ever” and its sequel “Five, Six, Seven Nate!” His first novel was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” while its follow up won the Lambda Literary Award.
In many ways, Patty Duke could have been — and perhaps should have been — a child star statistic. The early rise to childhood fame, the alcoholic and mentally ill parents, the controlling and abusive managers led to an adulthood featuring multiple marriages and affairs, suicide attempts, and her own struggles with drugs and drink.
Despite a persistent feeling that “something was not right, or even more intensely, that there was something wrong with me,” Duke refused to get help until she was in her mid 30s, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need their help,” she said in a 2011 interview with the girlfriend of a writer I once supervised. “I was on an intimate basis with God. I told God what to do, and He did.”
Duke managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, in the second act of her life, which ended Tuesday at age 69. She started taking lithium, going to therapy and talking to anyone who would listen about mental health issues; Duke was a keynote speaker at Jill’s American School Counselor Association conference in 2011.
She attacked the stigma around mental health as fiercely as she attacked a script, writing two books and speaking across the country about her experiences.
“I’ve survived,” she wrote on her website. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.”
As our kids transition into adulthood, Patty Duke’s story resonates with our family. Now living in New York, our son is navigating the tricky move from child actor to adult actor. Back at home after a few months in Florida, our daughter is learning how to be an adult and trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Their siblings are dealing, in some ways, with the unintentional collateral damage caused by family circumstances.
The treacherous path that we call parenthood is littered with block after block of crossroads. Left, right or straight, many decisions feel like an endless game of second guessing. Did we do the right thing? Are we doing what’s best for everyone? Is that possible?
The answers are not clear cut, but we continue to try.
People are starting to talk more openly about "it."
Five years ago, when Ben was in the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” in New York, he met Jonathan Bucari, a French filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and was starting work on a short film called “Illness.” The mother of one of Ben’s cast mates, Carina Rush, agreed to produce the movie, which looked at a family’s struggle to cope with the erratic behavior of their middle son and the discovery that he has a mental illness.
After winning multiple awards, “Illness” has been expanded to feature length and retitled “No Letting Go.” The 104-minute film, a labor of love for Carina, Jonathan and writer/producer Randi Silverman (who based the screenplay on her own life), has received strong reviews for its handling of the sensitive subject matter and performances.
“No Letting Go,” which was released in theaters this month in New York and Los Angeles, was made available on demand Wednesday for “World Bipolar Day.” An event created in 2014 to bring awareness to the disorder and to eliminate the ongoing stigmas surrounding mental illness, “World Bipolar Day” is held annually on the birthday of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was believed to have suffered from the illness.
Also on Wednesday, a webcast held at the University of Michigan Depression Center featured a panel of experts and contributors to the upcoming PBS documentary, “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.” The webcast and the one-hour documentary, which focuses on cutting edge mental health research amid personal stories of people with mood disorders, are fascinating and worthwhile uses of your time. Both are available to stream now on the PBS website; the documentary premieres on PBS stations on April 13.
Throughout “Ride the Tiger,” which I watched after Jill alerted me to the webcast, those affected by the disorders talk about their journeys, what they’ve learned, and how they face the stigmas associated with mental illness.
The researchers discuss what they are doing to find out where biological breakdowns occur — bipolar is not, despite what some may think, behavioral. It is a medical diagnosis that affects the brain. The researchers show how they are trying to find ways to pre-empt, fix, or rewire the brain so the manic and depressive swings don’t take place.
One of the documentary’s contributors, author Melody Moezzi, recently wrote an excellent Huffington Post column that talks about “Thriving With Bipolar Disorder.” In it, she notes how it remains difficult for people to talk about mental illness.
“For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.”
The first person to appear in the documentary, somewhat ironically, is Patty Duke. It is her last screen appearance.
After her diagnosis, Duke did everything she could to promote awareness and eliminate stigmas as she brought stability to her own life. Her last marriage remained solid for 30 years. She managed to forge close relationships with her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both of whom also became actors. In the 2011 interview with Elizabeth Zavala, almost 20 years after her diagnosis, her voice trembled as she described her sons’ upbringing.
“They never quite knew who was going to be on the other side of the door. It could be the nice mom or this raving, ranting, raging, out-of-control creature … It took a while for these little boys to trust me again. They do now. They have tremendous respect for my recovery and amazing generosity in their forgiveness of me, as long as I take my medicine.”
On Tuesday, Sean Astin published a note announcing the Patty Duke Health Project, a program that “will fuel a multi-level approach to achieving results for those suffering with mental illness and their families and communities.” You can make a donation to the initiative here.
“Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public,” Astin wrote. “She crossed the nation speaking and campaigning and lobbying for mental health. My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”
May her efforts not be in vain. We need all the advocates we can get. It’s just too important to rest on stigmas.
Ben is featured in a wide-ranging interview on Broadway World, looking ahead to “Tuck Everlasting” and back at “Newsies.” In some ways, our high school senior is starting to sound like the theatre veteran that he is.
• The hardest part of performing professionally at such a young age was definitely being away from my family. I moved to New York when I was eleven and my parents had to switch off taking care of me until we could find a permanent solution. And being on the road [with “Billy Elliot”] when I was 13, and then once again when I was 16 with “Newsies”, was really hard. I was on my own, away from my family, and barely ever got to see them.
• I would say the hardest thing I've had to learn is that your body is not indestructible. I remember when I was younger, I wouldn't stretch very often and would go from zero to a hundred without really thinking about it. And that's okay when you're really young, but the older you get, the more your body needs to be taken care of. I remember I suffered a heel injury when I was in “Billy Elliot” and was out of the show for about four months, and that was really hard; I never stretched and that was definitely a wake up call for me, having to make sure I kept my body warmed up and healthy.
• In this business, unfortunately, there are hundreds of no's to one yes, and it can be really hard. But if you know this is what you want to do with your life, never give up. I know, personally, it's something I have always had a passion for and have longed to do, and everyone in this business is in it, not for the job security or the paycheck, but because it's what they love.
The boy is growing up. To see the rest of the interview by Gianluca Russo, click on the link here.
Beginnings and endings make my stomach turn, especially since I became a parent. Every performance, every show, every game brings the same set of nerves and emotions, especially at the start and as the finish approaches.
Today brought me to St. Louis, the site of a beginning and — the reason I'm here now — an ending. More than four years ago, Ben started tour life in "Billy Elliot" at the Fox Theatre; today he ended his 17-month run in "Newsies" at the same venue.
The difference is striking, as any parent who watches their child grow up notices. At almost 14, he was already a theater veteran, but had never been farther from home than New York; now, at 18, he has spent multiple nights in more than 40 states and all five provinces of Canada.
Unlike when the "Billy Elliot" run ended in May 2013, Ben isn't facing the teenage "dead zone." Starting later this month, finally considered an adult in the industry, he will start work on a new Broadway musical while finishing his senior year in New York.
It's been a remarkable run, one filled with as many false starts as beginnings and endings. It's also a testament to the rare occurrence when desire and hope merge with opportunity. What I'm proudest of is when others tell me our son is still the boy we hoped to raise when he and Emma were born. That, despite having so many different experiences at a young age, he is still kind and grateful for the opportunity to do what he does.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this works the way it has. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise four very different children while maintaining our own careers, friendship, and marriage. I would be lying to say it's been an easy juggle, but can honestly say I would not have been able to survive it without her as a partner in this endeavor.
Over the past two-plus years, while trying to build a business and realizing that the career I worked for 30 years to build means little in life's grand scheme, I've been fortunate to spend quality time with each of my kids and help support Jill in her career as it has taken off. Although I wish (and hope) to build a new career as our children leave the nest this year, I would not trade that time for anything.
It's not the turn I would have expected my life to take four years ago when I first saw Ben in St. Louis. But that's the thing I've noticed repeatedly over time: Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.
No matter how nervous that makes me, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Here's to new beginnings.
A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.
I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.
Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.
Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.
It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.
Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.
The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”
After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.
Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.
On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.
Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.
We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.
After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.
The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.
We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.
It was that scary.
While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.
We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.
The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.
At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.
Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.
Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.
That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.
Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.
Annelise, another dancer from the Detroit area and a veteran of the “Billy Elliot” tour, is in the spotlight today as “Portraits & Headshots Week” continues. For more photos from the session, go here.
Two days after Ben left the Broadway company of Billy Elliot, and the afternoon before he left on the tour, kids and parents from both companies joined us for a "Goodbye ... Hello" celebration in one of the kids' favorite locations — a park close to the show. Thanks to all who attended and supported our son. It was a great afternoon.
Life is crazy enough when you have four kids in four schools in three states. Add in two conferences, a Knicks game, Billy Elliot's 1,000th show, Nicholas' prom, Emma and Jill's 10 mile race, and my nephew's airplane ride, and you have the makings of a crazy week — even by our standards.
Thursday: My mom and nephew arrived from Texas to take care of Ben. It's Eric's first trip here, and he seems a little intimidated. Looking good in my dad's UT jacket, however. With Jill and the girls in Virginia, and my mom and nephew Eric taking care of Ben in New York, I went to San Francisco for NSBA's annual conference. After the six-hour flight, I had an hour to go out with my camera before several 16 to 18 hour days.
Friday: My mom and nephew Eric attended the 1,000th show for "Billy Elliot," where Ben played Michael.
Saturday: In North Carolina, Nicholas went to his high school prom with his date, Gracie Strand.
Sunday: While Kate enjoyed a sleepover at her friend Stephanie's, Emma and Jill completed the 10-mile GW Parkway Classic.
Monday: While Jill and Emma recovered from their run, Nicholas went back to school after prom, and I prepared to fly on the redeye back from San Francisco, Ben and Eric enjoyed time together in the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Tuesday: Before Eric and mom go home, I take him to see American Idiot before it closes on Broadway. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sit in the row opposite us. When I point them out, Eric notes that Holmes is gorgeous but asks me who Tom Cruise is. Youth...
Wednesday: While Ben was at the show, i was able to go to the New York Knicks game against the Toronto Raptors. David Drier, another Billy parent, invited me to see the festivities from his company's box. Cool way to watch a game, and the beer wasn't bad either.
As the parent of a child actor, one of my goals is to expose Ben to as many things as he can handle to build his knowledge base and help enrich his performance.
The adult actors he has worked with get this, and Ben has tried to take their advice, even though it can throw his parents — and others — for a loop sometimes.
Example: Knowing that the Folger’s production of Macbeth would be extremely violent and bloody, Jill and I agreed to take our then 10-year-old son to see Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd. The theory was that we could expose him to the fake blood, see how he reacted to it, and then talk/discuss/tweak as necessary.
He made it work, and the other actors were impressed by the “research” we had done as he went into the Teller/Aaron Posner production. Then, one night during the ride home from Macbeth, Ben asked if he could watch the 100 greatest movies of all time, based on the poll from the American Film Institute.
When I asked why, he said the other actors suggested the best way to become better at his craft was to watch good acting. Of course, that meant he would be exposed to more R-rated films, and the biggest one on the list was “The Godfather.”
Imagine, if you will, a high-pitched 10-year-old voice saying, “But Dad, I need to watch it. It’s supposed to be a really good movie.”
We agreed, as long as he read through the screenplay first so that the more violent stuff (can you say horse head) would not come as a huge shock. So during Metropolitan’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” our son was dressed in an outlandish lime green suit carrying around the illustrated screenplay from “The Godfather.”
Flash forward three years. Now 13, Ben and I regularly see movies together. It’s a nice ritual and one that reminds me of my dad, who always wanted a movie buddy to come with him to see the stuff my mom had no interest in watching. (Given that my mom is not a big movie fan, that meant most things.) Ben and I always talk about the subject matter beforehand, and I try to let him know about the parts that I think are pushing the envelope.
This goes for plays, too, and brings me to the end of this story.
Last night, we saw the star-studded revival of John Guare’s dark comedy House of Blue Leaves featuring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco. Even though the show has gotten some mixed reviews, the performances are terrific, especially Falco’s.
Although the pacing is slow at times, there is much to admire about Guare’s work, which is set in Queens on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City in 1965. But no question, it is dark, with talk about nuns, a political bombing, a soldier going to Vietnam, a zookeeper and amateur songwriter losing his grip, and his wife, a schizophrenic who heading for the institution that gives the play its title.
New York theater houses offer student discount tickets to some shows, and it is the only way we could have been able to see this one, which is selling out. So Ben went to the box office with me, showed the ticket manager his 6th grade PPAS ID, and asked for two tickets.
The ticket manager peered over at my son and said, “This show is for mature audiences. You are too young to see this show.”
Ben, without batting an eyelash, said, “But I say f--- on stage every night.”
The ticket manager said, “You must be in Billy Elliot.” He then handed us our tickets and we were on our way.
Ben smiled as we left the theatre. Sometimes it pays to be “mature.”
Ben played the principal role of Michael during Billy Elliot's 1,000th show on Broadway this week. Unfortunately, I was traveling from New York to San Francisco, but my mom and nephew, Eric, were there to see the performance. Photos are by Broadway World and Playbill.
Congratulations to everyone involved with the show, which has been running on Broadway for almost three years.
A big congratulations to Ben on his debut as Michael today in Billy Elliot. Son, you were great, and we hope you get to perform the role again soon. Thanks to everyone who attended and those who sent kind comments — it was fantastic!
Ben had the opportunity to perform as Billy with cast members from “Billy Elliot” during the 25th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Billy Elliot” raised more than $150,000 during the six-week fundraiser, finishing as the second runner-up in the competition among all Broadway shows.
With Neil McCaffrey as Michael and the show’s Ballet Girls, the group performed a hysterically funny mashup of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in two shows at the Minskoff Theatre.
The six-week fundraiser by 52 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring companies raised $3.7 million. Seventeen productions participated in the benefit at the Minskoff (home of “The Lion King”).
To see a six-minute compilation of clips from the show, go to this link.
The performance also gave us an opportunity to spend time together as a family over the Easter weekend, an event that featured a visit from Nicholas as well as a subway trip to Coney Island. Below are photos that illustrate the always "interesting" time we have together.
A number of cast and crew members from "Billy Elliot" are huge Harry Potter fans, so the 12:01 a.m. July 15 premiere at the AMC Theatre on 42nd Street was a big deal. Many purchased tickets a month early for the sold out show — Emma came into the city for it as well — and when the night actually came, the kids (and some of the adults) were pumped.
Leaving straight from the show and getting to the theatre a full hour and a half before the movie started, the kids dressed up, acted out scenes in front of the screen, and led the audience in both the wave and impromptu cheers. When we started walking home at 3 a.m., it was obvious that everyone had had a ball.
Four kids in three states. This year, I managed to see 3 of the 4 on Halloween, first at a pot-luck lunch in New York for the Billy Elliot kids, followed by Emma in Virginia with some friends over, then Kate after she came home from trick or treating with another friend. Fortunately, I'll get to see Nicholas in costume, too, this week — Friday at "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Ben auditioned for and was cast as "Young Jack" on NBC's "30 Rock." He taped the two-line part on Wednesday, Nov. 10, playing the Alec Baldwin character in a flashback sequence. Despite a show the night before and a 7:15 a.m. call time, Ben did the taping and then went to the Billy Elliot matinee. (Ironically, his scene was about messing up in an elementary school play...) The show airs on Dec. 2.
So, about that cake...
For her 13th birthday, Emma wanted to surprise Ben with a cake from Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, site of TLC's "Cake Boss" show. We made the appointment in October and Emma sampled, met Mario, and picked a cake with edible pictures. On her birthday, we went to back to pick up the cake, unveiled it for Ben at the apartment, and then took it on tour to the restaurant between shows and to "Billy Elliot," where Emma stood by proudly as it was served to the cast before the evening show... She truly was the boss of the cake.
Now this one was special... Thanksgiving with the Jill and the kids, plus Ginno, Kim, Zach, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, a few celebrities (Neil Diamond, Cee-Lo, Kermit), great food, and gorgeous weather. All in all, a wonderful day.
Congrats to Ben, who is joining the national tour of "Billy Elliot" as Michael starting next week! He also will be in training for the title role and will remain in the Tall Boy role on Broadway during the tour rehearsals. We'll post scheduled stops on the tour soon, but we're happiest about Dec. 13-Jan. 15 — the Kennedy Center!
For the first time in their lives, Emma and Ben weren't able to celebrate their actual birthday together. But tonight, when Ben returned to D.C., they more than made up for it with mom, dad, Brian and Ginno. And they gave Ginno his Christmas present early to boot.
Cast members from the Billy Elliot tour went on a tour of their own — the White House — thanks to the efforts of our friend, Tom Pratt. The best part: The kids got a front row spot to see President Obama leave on his helicopter before the tour truly began.
The arrival of the Billy Elliot tour at the Kennedy Center has provided a number of opportunities for reunions for the boy and some of his fellow cast members from the Broadway company. First, Neil and Ruby came down and spent some time with their former cast mate, taking a backstage tour after the show. Then, more than 100 students and teachers from Metropolitan Fine Arts Center came to see Ben as Michael and show their support.
2012 got off to a great start as we celebrated New Year's Eve at the Kennedy Center following a Billy Elliot performance.
Then, between shows on New Year's Day, the cast held a "Hootenanny." The event, held every four to six weeks, gives cast members a chance to showcase their amazing collection of talents, usually between shows on a weekend.
According to Wikipedia, the phrase is an Appalachian colloquialism that was used in early 20th century America to refer to things whose names were forgotten or unknown. In this usage it was synonymous with thingamajig and whatchamacallit, as in "hand me that hootenanny." Hootenanny was also an old country word for "party". Now, most commonly, it refers to a folk-music party.
The first weekend of Billy Elliot in Boston was a family affair with a dash of celebrity thrown in for good measure. Kate, Emma, and my mom saw Ben as Billy for the first time, along with Brian and Elise Hodges, the Workman family, and Ben's first director, Mark Ramont. Add in an appearance (and a chance to take photos back stage) with Academy Award-nominee Salma Hayek, and you have one memorable weekend.
Fifteen years ago, my youngest daughter and son were born (in that order). Until last year, they had never been apart on their special day. But that was impossible this year.
The twins' 15th birthday presented a special challenge, with Emma in Virginia and Ben on tour in Texas. So that meant an early morning (5:30 a.m.!), before school breakfast with the girl, and a plane ride to see the boy, who performed on his birthday and ate cake from his proud grandmother after the show (11:30 p.m.).
Eighteen hours to celebrate 15 years. Well worth it. Happy birthday, Emma and Ben!
So this has been a big week for baseball for our twins, Ben and Emma.
First, on Wednesday afternoon, Ben had the chance to sing the National Anthem at the Milwaukee Brewers-St. Louis Cardinals game with other cast members from Billy Elliot. The touring cast is in Milwaukee this week, and they had a chance to sit back and watch the game before performing that night.
Check out the sign Ben is carrying in the photo above, and watch the video of the performance below.
Emma is even a bigger baseball fan than her brother, and with Jill in Minneapolis and Kate in New Orleans, it gave us a chance to spend some father/daughter time at Nationals Park with her friend, Ashley Frey.
The game got off to a great start, with the Nationals taking a 9-0 lead over their hated rivals, the Atlanta Braves. Given that it’s summer in D.C., however, we had to endure a rain delay, and it didn’t end well.
The Nationals gave up the nine-run lead and went into extra innings tied 10-10. Before long, fans started chanting “Sell more beer! Sell more beer!" As an Astros fan, that’s an all-too-familiar chant in games like this.
Of course, the Nats lost 11-10, but we had a good time together…
The Austin run of Billy Elliot started on December 11, with Ben scheduled to perform on his 15th birthday with my mom and several of her friends in attendance. That meant I had to get on an early morning plane after seeing Emma — I can’t miss seeing my twins on their birthday, even if they are in separate states — off to school.
Little did I know that my time in Texas would be such an experience, or that it would be extended by several days due to a family tragedy.
Here’s a rundown of what happened on the trip:
• Dec. 11: Made it to Austin and was greeted by a traffic jam that would make my NOVA and NYC friends blush. And in this case, size did matter. I barely made it to the theater in time to give Ben a birthday hug before his call, then bought my sixth-grade English teacher a beer this evening before the show. Bid a fond farewell to yet another childhood myth. After the show, we had a cake for the boy that my mom bought in the hotel bar.
• Dec. 12: Touring the state capitol with Mom, Ben, and Ginno. Really a fascinating place.
• Dec. 13: Media day with stops at four TV stations and my favorite Austin music station. That was cool… Meanwhile, back home, Jill had to go to North Carolina where her Aunt Sybil was buried after a long illness. Thoughts go out to the McFarland and Mercer families.
• Dec. 14: Had a terrific time watching Kylend Hetherington's final show and seeing Ben again as Michael (a sweet surprise and a wonderful performance by both boys).
• Dec. 15: Tonight, the boy is on as Billy, with my mom, my sister and her family, my aunt and her friends, and several dear friends in the audience. But our thoughts are with the one who won’t be there. My second cousin, Kerry Bowman, was killed in a head-on collision while driving from Albany (a small town in West Texas) to Austin to see the show.
• Dec. 17: After an emotional week, Mom and I are sending Ben and Ginno off to Baltimore and heading to West Texas for my cousin's funeral on Wednesday. Many thanks to everyone who expressed sympathy and concern. Also, we need prayers for Jill's ailing father, who also is in the hospital and in increasingly failing health.
• Dec. 18: I’ve enjoyed crossing into West Texas with my mom over the past two days, taking pictures of small towns and sights along the way and learning more details about my roots. We drove through Baird, where she lived until she was almost 7, and made it to Albany for the visitation.
My mom is always good with the one-liners. Example: “They have an antique credenza in there. You don't see that often in a Dairy Queen.
Me: “Everyone is self-centered to a certain extent.” Mom: “That's called survival.” Smart woman...
• Dec. 19: A beautiful service was held for my cousin Kerry this morning, one that focused on the positive with nostalgia, humor, and honor. And a few stories untold, I know...
That’s when I made the three-hour drive to Odessa, where my Texas adventure came to a close. Of course, I had to narrowly dodge a huge tumbleweed amid 40 mph winds on Interstate 20.
The trip stayed interesting to the end, that’s for sure.
Day in the life of a 14-year-old: Ben tap danced with Cloris Leachman in the lobby of the Pantages Theatre (we have witnesses and pictures) at Billy Elliot’s opening night in Los Angeles. He also dropped his phone in the toilet...
From the "Yep, it's Monday all day and night long" file...
Storms and other wicked weather in the Midwest meant the Billy Elliot tour kids and parents were delayed on the trip from Des Moines to Appleton, Wis. What was supposed to be a 5-6 hour travel day turned into major ugh. Now they're making a 200-mile bus ride from Chicago.
Nicholas left at 1 this afternoon. Delayed for hours in Detroit, he’s just now getting to Appleton after flying standby when his flight was cancelled. It’s after midnight, and rehearsal starts tomorrow morning early...
It's not as glamorous as it looks, folks.
Last week, a friend of mine — not a virtual friend, but someone I’ve known for 48 of my 50 years on this earth — posted a self-described “rant” about his frustrations with social media and the hate that he sees on it every time he logs on.
Lions and flags (oh my!) aside, I could not help but agree with his basic premise, that social media in some ways has brought out the worst in our collective society. We sit behind our keyboards, state our opinions in often the most crude or basic ways, and encourage our “friends” (real and virtual) to respond.
In case you’re wondering, my friend and I are not of the same political or social ilk. As a First Amendment advocate, I respect your right to have opinions that differ from mine. I welcome them, in fact.
As much as I enjoy social media, I do worry about the nonstop access and overflow of information that bombards us daily, mostly — except for the photos — without filters. And I wonder about the pressure it puts our children under.
Today’s kids live in a very public world, as evidenced by the number of Tumblr and Instagram accounts that follow our son and comment on everything he does. I do understand “fansies” and “Billyvers” — most that I’ve met are kind people — but I’ve also made it my business to be aware and alert because people can go too far.
We’ve all heard horror stories about online bullying. We try to teach our kids that nothing you post/text/share is “private.” All it takes is someone who knows how to capture a screenshot or a snapchat and what you’ve posted is there forever.
The online world, in part because it allows you to hide behind a computer screen, also has a dark side. Earlier this year, for example, an Ohio man is in prison for trying to coerce minors connected to “Billy Elliot” into sending him pornographic images of themselves.
The man had hacked into another boy’s Facebook, Skype and Yahoo accounts to get contact information for the youths, posed as a 15-year-old girl named “Ariella Gold” online, and demanded nude photos of teen boys who were on the tour and in the New York production.
I had met the man and seen him at the stage door when Ben was in New York with the show, and had given his name to authorities when the investigation was at its peak. Ginno, Ben’s guardian on the tour, and I talked daily about the things that we could and should do to ensure he was protected.
We were fortunate. The man, now 25, was arrested in January 2013, pleaded guilty to multiple felonies and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
I’m not saying we should go back to a different time, or that social media does not have great benefits. It does, from the trivial and mundane to the thoughtful and mind expanding. I’ve learned a great deal from my collective of friends.
Social media also is part of my business as much as it is part of my life, more so now than ever because my former profession of choice — the print medium — is struggling greatly. While print will never be extinct, as least in my opinion, it will never have the same reach it did when we were kids.
Jill and I try to think about that when we have talked to our kids about the smart phones that are tethered to their bodies. Their world is much more saturated than ours was growing up.
And that’s reason enough for us all to put a little more thought into how much this noise affects all of us, and stop the shouting from our fingertips and thumbs.
Time to send a huge "BREAK A LEG" to Ben, who has his first two performances in "Billy Elliot" today. Congratulations, son, and can't wait to see you and the rest of the gang later this week. We’re very proud of you.
We are thrilled for Ben, who has booked his second Broadway show! He will play Tall Boy and understudy Michael in "Billy Elliot"!
Congratulations to Ben on his one-year anniversary in Billy Elliot! He has performed in 416 consecutive shows without missing a beat — a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old who also went to school full-time. We are very proud of you, son!!!
This was an absolute treat. The producers allowed Ben to go on as Michael tonight in Austin to mark Kylend Hetherington's final show as "Billy Elliot." Kylend and Ben are the only two boys in North America to play all three of the teen roles in the show — Small Boy, Michael, and Billy — and they share a special bond.
Kylend had asked if Ben could perform with him one last time, even though our son had not played the role since January. The producers agreed at the last minute, and Ben went on without a rehearsal.
And he rocked it...
A nice moment, caught by our friend Bernadette, of Ginno and me embracing during a tour of Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas. Ginno is Ben's guardian on the "Billy Elliot" tour, and with the boy's run ending this week, is looking to the future. He's become a huge part of our family over the past two years; I don't know what we would have done without him.
Here's a nice surprise: Ben is featured in the November issue of Northern Virginia Magazine, with a full page photo that I took, no less. The story looks at his relationship with Metropolitan Fine Arts Center, where he has danced for years.
Four boys talk while walking with their backpacks down 8th Avenue en route to the "Billy Elliot" matinee on a frigid Sunday afternoon. From left: Ben, Jacob Clemente, Joseph Harrington, and Ethan Fuller.
Ben takes a "pea" break to rest his sore legs after the first full day of practice for the title role in "Billy Elliot." After five years, the boy is finally getting his chance to star in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning show — if he survives rehearsals, that is...
Nicholas and Ben were reunited this week in New York as they prepare to go out on the road for the three weeks leading up to the latter's debut as Billy later this month. It's a good opportunity for the two, who don't get to see each other often, to bond during what surely will be a stressful time of tech work and put ins.
BTW: This one of my favorite pictures of the two of them together...
The family's newest teenagers celebrated #13 in style yesterday in New York, as Emma fulfilled a long-time wish to have a "Cake Boss" cake with photos of her and Ben. We brought the cake from New Jersey to New York, where we had a small celebration at the apartment, followed by a dinner with the kids' and their friends (including David and Sarah Kleppinger, who came with their dad from Virginia).
Given that it was a two-show day for "Billy Elliot," Ben and Emma took the cake to the Imperial, where they celebrated some more with the show's cast and crew at half hour. All in all, as Emma said, it was pretty great.
Look at what was on the cover of the Washington Post’s Weekend section — the picture of Ben dancing in “Newsies.” In the other photo, the boy is shown with Mark Aldrich, another D.C. area native who performed in “Ragtime” with Ben and has been in “Newsies” since it started at Paper Mill Playhouse three years ago.
As the D.C. run of Newsies begins, the boy has been doing a great deal of press for the show. He’s featured in a Washington Times interview with other cast members as well as a Fairfax Times piece that focuses on Ben and Mark. Another story, written for Northern Virginia magazine, also is expected the next week.
The best of the interviews, though, is this Q&A on the D.C. Metro Theater Arts website. It delves extensively into the boy’s background in D.C. theater, alludes to the Stage Dad column I wrote during his Billy Elliot days, and compares that show’s dancing to what you can see on stage in "Newsies." Check it out.
The past week has been so busy that the random thoughts have floated by fast and furious. With the holiday weekend, trip to Texas and Nicholas’ graduation all in the past 14 days, thought I’d share a few…
• Perhaps this seems odd, but one of my favorite songs in "Billy Elliot" is "Solidarity." Given our history with the show, it's not the go to piece you might expect. But as a parent with a family I care deeply about, it's one that resonates, especially now.
I try to let my wife and kids know at every opportunity, in some form or fashion, that nothing matters more than family. Solidarity — despite our inclinations to disagree about the most mundane of things — is most important of all. Take the statement for what it is.
• Speaking of “Billy Elliot,” I think I was the only person who didn’t post something marking the show’s 10th anniversary last week. Great show, great story, and one that will be part of our lives forever. It’s definitely a musical for the ages…
• I-95 on a holiday weekend is a transportation TBT: You are reminded quickly of what travel was like on the cattle trail.
• I was catching up on some reading while Jill drove for a bit on the trip down to North Carolina and saw a tweet that captured perfectly my opinion on the Josh Duggar situation. It read: “@OMGkee: Josh Duggar = Hypocrite. ‘Don’t judge me’ is the 1st thing judgmental people say when they're exposed. You want the mercy you refused others.”
All I can add to that is, “Amen, sister.”
• It’s no surprise that another TLC show is biting the dust — the network mercifully pulled the plug on “19 Kids and Counting” repeats over the weekend. What was surprising is that they didn’t announce a reality celebrity death match between the Duggar clan and Honey Boo-Boo’s mother after she threatened to sue TLC. Of course, there’s always the next sweeps period.
• One last bad joke: Has anyone noticed that Jim Bob Duggar looks suspiciously like he could be the older brother of Jack McBrayer, who played Kenneth the Page on “30 Rock”? If McBrayer is looking for another role and the Lifetime biography of John Edwards doesn’t work out, he should give it a shot.
• I have no love for the Atlanta airport. I don’t know anyone who does. So it came as no surprise that I had to go from C50 to T02 in 20 minutes to catch my connection, or that the connecting flight then showed up 20 minutes late. That at least gave me some time to stop sweating.
• Which leads me to the official Memorial Day/start of summer statement: Humidity is my body’s self-irrigation system.
I'm constantly tweaking and changing my website to better communicate the variety of photography, writing, and consulting services I provide. The most recent change: A new section devoted to various professional and amateur shows and performances I've photographed.
Take a look: http://glenncook.virb.com/performances.
Jacob Clemente, one of the Billys in NY, was accepted today into Yale — a terrific accomplishment and no easy feat. And it is no surprise. This is the same kid who could quote every Rotten Tomatoes review of every film we wanted to see or had seen, taught Ben a number of Billy/life lessons, and impressed us daily with his curiosity, intelligence, and stamina.
Could not be prouder of you, sir, and hope to see you down the line. Thanks to you and your family for being a small part of our lives for a blessed time.
“Newsies” invaded Baltimore this week, bringing Ben close to home and enabling relatives and friends to come see the show. Baltimore, like Philadelphia and Louisville, was a repeat stop from the Billy Elliot tour, and is the closest the show will be to our house until it comes to Washington, D.C., next June.
It was a crazy week. My mom came up from Texas, seeing her grandson perform not once, but twice. The first time was with Kate, Nicholas, and his girlfriend, Katherine, in tow.
On Saturday, the ASCA staff saw the show as part of their annual Christmas party, and we bumped into some old dance friends afterward. After several families from Metropolitan School of the Arts saw the Sunday matinee, a group of 100 MSA students, teachers, and parents went to the final performance that evening.
By all accounts, everyone had a great time. And it was nice to have Ben at home for a couple of days afterward.
Next stop: Chicago for four weeks starting on Wednesday, Dec. 10.
I call them "circle backs," because in theatre, everything seems intertwined. You constantly experience situations where past meets present, whether it's the people, the show or the venue.
Today represents a big circle back for Ben. Five years ago tonight, he made his Broadway debut in "Ragtime." Today, he's performing in Louisville, Ky., with "Newsies," in the same theater where he debuted in "Billy Elliot."
It's a small, small world...
Tonight, Nicholas is performing in his final fall concert with Vital Signs at Elon University. Due to conflicts here, I'm not able to attend this one, but can't wait to see him perform again in the spring. Break a leg, son! We are extremely, extremely proud of you and all you have accomplished!
And to complete my trio of male performers — Emma and Kate are sitting this weekend out by comparison — we also have to say another "Break a Leg" to our "adopted" child Jeremiah, who is playing the Mouse King and understudying the Nutcracker in MSA's annual production this weekend.
For someone who hasn't been performing long, Jeremiah has made remarkable strides over the past several months. It's remarkable that when he came down here last year to see the show, he had not given thought to moving at all.
Congrats... and can't wait to see you (and Emma) in Frosty Follies starting next week!
Robin Williams is dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.
A great actor and comedian with one of the most brilliant minds we've ever seen, he also was a tortured soul who was forthcoming about the demons he faced. Anyone who has ever dealt with depression or seen a family member suffer from mental illness knows how life can be a minute-by-minute battle against hopelessness.
I'm so sorry hopelessness won.
I remember watching him outside "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which was in the theatre next to "Billy Elliot," talking to people and signing autographs. In fact, I won tickets to the lottery on the opening night of previews, meaning I had a front row seat to his Broadway debut.
One night during the run, Jacob Clemente and Ben went to see the show and tried to get a picture afterward. Security said no, but he yelled out, "Hey, the Billy boys!" and insisted that they come over.
A class act. Too sad. Too soon.
Two years ago — Louisville, Ky., June 2012
Ben ended his run in "Billy Elliot" in Las Vegas. What a long, strange year it's been...
Chandelier at the Fox Theatre — St. Louis, November 2011
Ballerina in an empty theatre — New York City, November 2010
Of all the people we have met during our family’s “reality show,” Tim Federle is one of my favorites.
Tim was one of the choreographers on staff for the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot” when our son, Ben, was part of the ensemble and the Michael understudy in New York. “Billy” was one of those shows where the kids rehearsed constantly to remain on top of their dance skills, and Tim taught a number of the classes.
Most of the time, the parents interacted only briefly with the staff, waving hello and goodbye as we did the drop off and pick up at Ripley Grier Studios, so I didn’t formally meet Tim until after Ben made his debut as Michael in February 2011. When we returned to Virginia after that heady weekend, he sent us an email complimenting our son on his attitude and his debut, which was almost unheard of in our experience.
Later, we had a chance to meet and talk briefly, and exchanged email from time to time. What I didn’t know, during this period, was that Tim was working on a young adult novel called Better Nate Than Ever.
Tim wrote the main draft of the 30-chapter book, which tells the story of a child’s pursuit of the lead role in a Broadway musical, in a 30-day whirlwind before he left each day for “Billy” rehearsals. Rooted in Tim’s own experiences and inspired by his work on “Billy,” Nate is a hysterical, realistic, sentimental story of a young boy’s can-do spirit and desire to perform.
Before it was published, Tim sent us an advance copy of the book, and we loved it. Nate’s story is a universal tale of a child pursuing his greatest passion in life, albeit with an insider’s knowledge about Broadway auditions. For that reason, it is enjoyed just as much by adults as its intended demographic (ages 9-12); think of it as “Toy Story” for theatre lovers, without the CGI.
Reviewers and audiences felt the same way we did. Nate was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2013, a Slate.com Favorite Book of the Year, and a Best Book of the Year by both Amazon and Publishers Weekly. The just-released sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, is on the same path. It was named a Best Book in January by Amazon and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Last week, on the one-year anniversary of Better Nate Than Ever’s publication, Tim taught master classes at Metropolitan School of the Arts (MSA) in Lorton and Alexandria. He was ending a two-week tour to promote both books, having come in from Milwaukee the night before.
Audiences on the tour have been receptive to the books, which was wonderful to hear after Nate generated minor controversy last fall. The book references the main character’s emerging sexuality (albeit in an age appropriate, chaste way), a development that led to some cancellations from schools, including Tim’s own suburban middle school in Pennsylvania.
No such problems have been reported in this area, and MSA welcomed him with open arms. The school is where all of my kids have received their dance training, and founder Melissa Dobbs connected with Tim after our family and her fellow teachers raved about the book.
For high school students at the MSA Academy in Lorton, Federle taught a dance combination, advised students on their singing and monologues, and offered audition techniques they can use. He then went to MSA's Alexandria studio and conducted a second class for about 40 students ranging from elementary to high school.
At both sessions, you could hear Nate’s voice come through Tim; yes, he admits, he was writing about what he knows — musical theater. He told stories of his Broadway experiences and provided sound advice for the students about pursuing their passion and dreams.
As much as I enjoyed watching the classes, I was even happier to see the students and teachers benefit from Tim’s knowledge, wisdom, and humor. Sometimes, good guys do finish first.
For more photos from the visit, go to my Facebook album here.
Above: My photo from Ben's final curtain call for "Billy Elliot" on May 19, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Note: Over the past two years, I've written a number of columns for DC Metro Theater Arts, a website that covers local and regional theater in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. Most have focused on our family's journey and the lessons we have learned from having a child stage actor. You can find other "Stage Dad" columns by clicking on the Category tab on this blog or by going to the DC Metro Theater Arts website.
My son and I seem to be in a “dead zone” career wise, and neither of us is too happy about it.
The difference, of course, is that Ben turned 16 in December and, as of mid-January, I’m one year shy of 50. Or, as my oldest daughter said as I started writing this, “You’re not a teenager, Dad. You’re old.”
2013 was a strange and memorable year for our family, filled with several highs and numerous, at times devastating lows. Fortunately, 2014 has started out on a more positive note, despite my desire to wring the neck of a certain groundhog whose prediction of a never-ending winter has been all too true this year.
I digress, but on the “Stage Dad” front, there hasn’t been much to report over the past several months. In both cases, we’re still finding our way.
When this column last appeared in mid-May 2013, I wrote about the end of Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” and the uncertainty we faced as he returned home after living in New York and on tour for four years.
Two weeks later, my employer eliminated my position in a restructuring. After 30 years as a working journalist, communications director, and nonprofit professional, I was looking for work. I still am.
The next month, Ben returned from New York. He said he was ready to take “a break” after working steadily since he’d turned 10. Within days, he was doing pirouettes and turns in the living room.
As I’ve written before, all teen actors face career uncertainty during their high school years, especially those who make their living on stage. It’s called the dead zone primarily for financial reasons, because it’s often easier and less costly for a young-looking 18-year-old to play 15. You don’t have to have tutors or adult supervision, which (understandably and justifiably) is required for minors.
That means a producer has to take a huge financial chance to hire a minor for those late-teen roles. And in the volatile, financially risky world of professional theater, especially Broadway, that’s a risk many producers aren’t willing to take.
Twice, Ben has been called back to audition in New York for shows that — in the end — “hired older.” In the D.C. area, matters are complicated by the fact that Ben is a member of Actors Equity, and the many fine theatre companies here — with the exception of the Kennedy Center — do not have the financial capacity to hire Equity actors for teen roles. In most cases, they won’t even have him audition, knowing they can’t hire him.
He’s disappointed when these types of things happen, but that’s the reality he faces now. It is, as we say, part of the business of performing. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.
TV, movies, and commercial work are options, but they can be an even bigger crapshoot than landing a stage show in New York. In September, Ben was cast in a role on HBO’s “Veep” (it’s scheduled to air April 13), but otherwise has spent his time dancing, training, and being a teenager.
In many ways, after the whirlwind of the past several years, having him back at home with his twin Emma and older sister Kate has been wonderful for our family. However, the spectre of long-term unemployment has loomed over our heads as I face my own “dead zone.” The economics of journalism have squeezed out too many of my colleagues, many of whom have more advanced degrees and pedigrees than me.
In the middle of this uncertainty, we’ve been very fortunate that my wife, Jill, has a good job with medical benefits. I’ve also found freelance writing jobs and have started a photography business that focuses primarily on headshots, portraits, and events as well as some fine art.
One of my favorite jobs has been working as a photographer for the Metropolitan School of the Arts, where Ben and Emma receive their dance training. They have a great group of friends that are based at the school as well as a terrific outlet to train and perform.
I enjoy being around for those performances, and have learned a great deal about photography as a result. It also gives me a reason to be close to them at a time when, as teenagers, they likely would prefer not to have me around.
So that, as they say, is the status update. Or, to sum it up in a sentence, “It’s been one heckuva year.”
Ben looks out onto the stage prior to his final Las Vegas performance. (Photo by Richard Vollmer)
When I was a kid, I was always intrigued by the things my parents said I could not do. If they told me, “Don't touch the hot light bulb” or “Please don’t run up the stairs,” I did it anyway. And often I found, as in the case of the light bulb, my parents were correct.
Fortunately, my parents reserved most of their “don’ts” for the stuff that would put me in some type of physical danger. In terms of intellectual pursuits, I was lucky: They never tried to prevent me from reading a book because of its subject matter, or because a character did not match their view of the world.
In middle school, I read Catch 22, M*A*S*H (the novel), The Shining, and The Stand. In high school, I absorbed — and learned valuable lessons from — Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
All of those books have, at one point or another, been controversial. In some cases they have been banned from community and school libraries in an effort to prevent them from being accessed by young minds.
That means Tim Federle is in good company. And that’s too bad.
Tim, a family friend, is the author of one of the best young adult novels I have ever read, Better Nate Than Ever. Nate is a teenager who has the passion and desire to do something extraordinary — audition for a Broadway musical. The book is a wise and hilarious coming-of-age tale, written by a kind, knowing, and witty first-time author who was inspired in part by his own childhood and his experience auditioning kids who were in “Billy Elliot.”
Deservedly, Nate has received rapturous reviews from major publications, including the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Time. (A sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, will be published in January.) But the book also has spawned a backlash, largely due to a subplot that involves “a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.”
In a blog entry published Monday as part of “National Banned Books Week,” Tim writes about having visits to schools cancelled because Nate’s emerging sexuality is presented in a matter-of-fact — though still chaste — way. Included among the cancellations: the suburban Pittsburgh middle school he attended as a youth.
“All kinds of people deserve all kinds of stories,” Tim wrote in the blog. “When we support books that feature diverse kids, we're telling those kids that we support them too, that they are, more than anything, OK. The opposite is true when we shut those kinds of books down.”
Sadly, I’m not surprised this happened, given our nation’s ostrich-like history of avoiding discussions around topics that make us feel uncomfortable (Example: Congress) or challenge our worldview. Having worked in and around schools for most of my life, I also understand why teachers, librarians, and administrators are skittish about raising the wrath of angry parents or community groups.
But come on, folks. We’re at a point in our nation’s history where attitudes toward bullying, homosexuality, and same sex marriage are finally — if still fitfully — changing. More than 60 percent of people ages 18-34 support same sex marriage, according to a recent Gallup poll, and the number is higher among teens, at least anecdotally.
What makes Nate’s character so endearing is how this child who feels ostracized finds the guts and guile to chase his dreams and pursue the impossible. It’s a timeless theme in literature, brought up to modern times. And it’s a message kids — especially those who feel like they don’t fit in — should be hearing, seeing, and reading about, even as they play 24/7 on their electronic devices of choice.
If the notion of reading a book makes me old fashioned, then so be it. Just don’t tell me which books I — and my kids — should or should not read. My parents didn’t, and I’m better for it.
Flowers at a street fair — Boston, August 2012
Farmer’s Market, Boston — August 2012: Last summer, the entire family (including my mom) went to Boston to see Ben in “Billy Elliot.” Walking around one late weekend morning before Ben went to the show, we stopped at a farmer’s market downtown. I liked the many different colors of carrots on display, and snapped this photo.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City — November 2011: For two-plus years, we had an apartment in midtown Manhattan and were fortunate to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade up close and personal. This time was special, because Ben had left New York for the "Billy Elliot" tour and his guardian, Ginno Murphy, was living in the apartment while waiting for the show's Broadway run to end in January.
Because the tour was in Philadelphia, we decided to make the trek into New York and invited two friends, Kim and Zach Manske, to join the six of us and Ginno for the parade and Thanksgiving dinner in the tiny one-bedroom apartment. We didn't arrive in Manhattan until after midnight, and several of us went to a nearby pub after getting into town, making the early morning wake up call a little difficult.
That said, we went downstairs and onto 7th Avenue to watch the parade proceedings, then spent much of the afternoon together in Central Park before having one of the tastiest turkeys I've ever enjoyed.
It was a Thanksgiving we'll never forget.
Ron Bohmer, Born for Broadway — New York City, May 2012
This photo means a lot to me for a host of reasons.
I have served as a photographer for “Born for Broadway” for the past two years, and in the process learned a great deal about the need to raise money for paralysis-based organizations such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. It gave me a chance to meet some wonderful people, among them Sarah Galli, who created the show as a student-sponsored cabaret at Marymount Manhattan College. She started the program after her brother sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1998 diving accident.
The gala, performed in New York, also has served as a mini-reunion for my son, Ben. He has performed in the show under the direction of his “Ragtime” director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and reunited — albeit briefly — with a number of his fellow cast members from the production.
The first time, in 2010, was emotional because “Ragtime” had closed prematurely in January of that year. “Born for Broadway” served as an opportunity to reunite the four kids — Little Boy and Little Girl and their understudies (one of whom was Ben) — who had performed in the show. It also gave audience members a chance to hear Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform “Our Children” — a song that still brings a tear to my eye.
The second show came as Ben was rehearsing in New York, five weeks before he finally became “Billy Elliot.” He was the youngest entertainer to solo in the event, and performed “I Can Do That” from “A Chorus Line,” bringing his career at that point full circle.
I distinctly remember him auditioning for his manager with a dance to “I Can Do That” when he was 9. Seeing him perform it for an audience that had come to see Broadway and TV stars donating their time and talent, with absolute self confidence after a long day of rehearsals on a rainy New York evening, was both gratifying and fulfilling.
That I managed to get this picture of Ron Bohmer, who starred as Father in “Ragtime,” performing the show’s “Journey On” at the conclusion of the event is just a bonus.
I picked this photo today because the fourth annual cabaret was announced this week. It will be performed at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 at 54 Below, less than a block from our old apartment on West 54th Street. And I’m planning to take pictures again.
Capitol Rotunda, Austin — December 2012: My father taught seventh grade Texas history for years, but I only recall visiting the state Capitol once during my childhood. So when I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Austin area last December, the Capitol was one place I wanted to see.
Accompanied by my mom and Ginno Murphy, Ben’s guardian on the “Billy Elliot” tour, we trekked off on an overcast morning to see the largest and one of the most interesting buildings to house state government in the U.S.
Dedicated in 1888, the facility is distinguished by its red granite exterior and was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. It houses both branches of the Texas Legislature as well as the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor.
Interesting bit of trivia: According to Robert E. Cotner’s definitive history (appropriately named The Texas State Capitol), the construction of the capitol was funded in one of the largest barter transactions in recorded history. The Capitol Syndicate, as the builders of the facility were known, was paid with more than 3 million acres of public land in the Texas Panhandle. Even though the actual construction was done largely by more than 1,000 convicts and migrant workers, the Syndicate used the land to build the XIT Ranch, which is the largest cattle ranch in the world.
Standing on the top floor accessible to visitors, I took this photo of the Capitol Rotunda, which features portraits of every person who served as president of the Republic of Texas or governor once it became a state in 1845.
In researching more about the building’s history (yes, I’m my father’s son), I read that the rotunda is also a whispering gallery similar to the one found at Grand Central Station in New York. Only one other state capitol (Missouri) has such a gallery, which allows whispered communication from “any part of the internal side of the circumference to any other part,” according to Wikipedia.
Translation: You could literally hear a pin drop.
Memphis — September 2012: Last fall, I spent several days in Memphis during the “Billy Elliot” tour stop there. Near our hotel was Confederate Park, and I walked past it almost daily. Similar to what I’ve seen in many urban city parks, a miscellaneous group of people — 95 percent of them men — sat on the benches. Some were sleeping, others were just laughing and cutting up, and still others were looking for a quick dollar or clump of change from passersby.
Every day, this man was sitting on the same bench by himself. Finally visiting with my camera just before we left, I walked past, turned and took his picture as he stared at me. He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t either.
December 2012, outside Austin: The Hamilton Pool and Nature Preserve, located on the convergance point of the Perdernales River and Hamilton Creek about 25 miles west of Austin, is a collapsed grotto and canyon formed by thousands of years of water erosion. Cultural remains dating back 8,000 years have been found at Hamilton Pool. Tonkawa and Lipan Apache tribes were attracted to the lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and natural shelter provided by the grotto.
Since the 1960s, Hamilton Pool has been a favorite summer swimming spot for Austin visitors and residents. The reserve consists of 232 acres of protected natural habitat featuring a jade green pool into which a waterfall flows. The pool is surrounded by huge slabs of limestone that rest by the water's edge; large stalactites grow from the ceiling high above. The ceiling and surrounding cliffs of the grotto are home to moss, maidenhair fern and cliff swallows. The Ashe juniper (cedar) uplands of the preserve are home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Unfortunately, the area has been hit by a drought that turned the waterfall into a trickle when I visited the area with my mom and Ginno Murphy on a gray mid-December afternoon. But there is no denying that this is one of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen in my home state.
Madison, Wis., July 2012: I went to the capital of Wisconsin for a couple of days to see Ben and the "Billy Elliot" gang and was told of the beautiful summer sunsets on Lake Mendota. This one did not disappoint.
Washington, D.C., December 2011: Through our friend, Tom Pratt, we arranged for the cast of "Billy Elliot" to tour the White House while they were performing at the Kennedy Center. While there, a White House employee whispered that President Obama would be leaving on his helicopter in a few minutes and that we could watch. And so we did.
In November, Ben decided to read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a nonfiction account of the 1999 school shooting that left 15 people dead and shook the world.
He had just finished the book when the shootings in Newtown, Conn., occurred. Minutes after it was first reported, I received a text from him.
“Did you hear? Can you believe it? ... Why?”
More than a month has passed, and it’s still unbelievable—the shooting that led to the deaths of 20 elementary school children, six adults at the school, the gunman’s mother at home, and the gunman himself. It affected us so profoundly that our president was left teary-eyed, that donations were so overwhelming that townspeople had to ask us to stop sending them.
On Dec. 14, I was in Austin, preparing for my extended Texas family to come and see my son perform in a show the following evening. The next morning, my cousin was coming to meet us when he was killed in a head-on collision.
Over two days the next week, as my mom and I drove out to his small West Texas town for the funeral, I thought about my son’s question and then back to my magazine’s 10th anniversary coverage of the Columbine tragedy.
The events that led to the Newtown and Columbine shootings could not be less similar, but both cases resulted in a tragic and senseless loss of life. Both continue to raise vexing questions about our society—some involving schools, others not.
Interestingly, in the small town of Albany, Texas (population: 2,034), the person who officiated at my cousin’s funeral also brought up the tragedy that had occurred thousands of miles away. He pointed to the people in attendance—a great percentage of them gun owners—and told them it was OK to cry, and to ask why these events occurred within 24 hours of each other.
He said this knowing no clear cut answers exist. Sometimes, he noted, there’s no logical reason why.
This video, shot during the Boston run of "Billy Elliot," features Ben explaining his love for dance, what has inspired him, and what it feels like to be the title character in the show.
Ben conceptualized, shot, and edited this video of the Billy Elliot tour cast in late February and early March. Within a few weeks, it had more than 5,000 views. Four minutes of fun.
No question, it’s time.
I knew those words would come at some point, so it’s not a shock to the system, but I’m somewhat surprised by how much emotion accompanies them. Our son, Ben, is leaving “Billy Elliot” this weekend; his final show is scheduled for Sunday in Las Vegas.
He’s 15 now and growing, with a deeper speaking voice in a show that tells the story of a pre-pubescent boy who just wants to dance. Like every child that has played Billy before (and after) him, the role has a certain shelf life. The average Billy’s run is 12 to 18 months, with most of the boys starting at age 11; Ben started rehearsals for the role last May at age 14.
But our family’s “Billy” story goes back much farther than that, which I chronicled in a series of posts that started last May. When the curtain falls Sunday, it will be the conclusion of a journey that started 5? years ago with his first audition and almost three years after he debuted as Tall Boy/Posh Boy in the Broadway ensemble. Over the past 19 months, he has been to 45 cities in 25 states and Canada.
It’s a remarkable achievement, especially for a teenage boy.
Writing is one of my lifelong passions. It allows me to step back, reflect, and process major and minor events. For several years, I have had this blog, and then for several months I wrote the “Stage Dad” column for DC Metro Theater Arts.
Then I just stopped.
Why, you ask? Call it a series of cumulative events. I had a minor health scare, several relatives passed away within a short period of time (my wife’s father, uncle, and aunt; my aunt and cousin), and we faced the usual life/work/family commitments/challenges that come when parents have two careers, three teenagers and one college student.
Shortly after the tour began, we hired Ginno Murphy to be Ben’s guardian, which meant that we didn’t have to employ Sheldon Cooper to develop a cloning device that would allow us to be in two places simultaneously. Using vacation somewhat sparingly, and tagging on stops to a couple of work-related trips meant we could see Ben and Ginno every three to four weeks.
When Ben lived in New York, I was on a train or bus once or twice a week, which gave me opportunities to think and write. For several months, we’ve been so busy moving forward and from side to side that I haven’t taken the time to reflect.
The other night after dinner, my wife and I talked about what this weekend represents. We agreed: It’s time for everyone to move on, but not having our child and this show inextricably linked will be very different. Or as Jill described it, there will be “a void.”
That’s the right word to describe it. And it’s the word that led me to reflect, and start writing again.
“Billy Elliot,” like the current Broadway hit “Matilda” (also a London import with much of the same creative team), is different from your usual musical. Most shows have a rehearsal period, followed by tech, previews, and then the run. Rehearsals during the run are rare, and usually occur when a major creative change is scheduled or replacement cast members are being put into the show.
That’s not how it works with “Billy,” which rotates four boys in the title role. Because the show is so physically taxing, each does two shows a week and serves as standby for two others. Two boys also share the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. Billys and, to a lesser extent, Michaels take classes in cardio, ballet, tap, and acrobatics in addition to spending 15 to 20 hours a week in school.
When Ben started with the show, he was cast as Tall Boy/Posh Boy, a member of the ensemble, and performed eight times a week. Over a 15-month period, he racked up more than 500 performances while understudying Michael. The tour, which started in October 2011, gave him an opportunity to perform as Michael and train for Billy, which is somewhat unique because the roles are very different.
On Sunday, he will have totaled more than 640 performances in the show, including 61 as Michael and 71 as Billy. That’s not a record; two of the tour’s Ballet Girls (Madison Barnes and Brionna Trilling) have more than 1,000 performances, and long-serving ensemble members have done many more shows than our son.
Other Billys and Michaels have performed in more shows as well. But with one notable exception — Kylend Hetherington (one of Ben’s best friends) who was Tall Boy, then Michael for a short time, then Billy for two years — our son is the only one in North America who has played all three boy roles for a substantial period.
That speaks to his versatility, and his never-say-quit nature. I think he willed himself to stay short and not go through a voice change until he played Billy. He practiced and turned and practiced and turned deep into more nights than we can count. More than once, my wife and I discussed whether he should quit, only to decide that he had to be allowed to pursue his dream.
Down the line, when Ben has time to reflect on it, even he will see what an accomplishment that is.
For the past month, the big question we get is, “What’s next?” And my only answer is, “We’ll see.”
That’s not meant as a cop out. The truth is, we don’t know. For now, Ben is going back to New York to finish his ninth-grade year at Professional Performing Arts School, which he loves. Then, he’s back here for the summer and perhaps into the fall and spring.
He wants to continue to dance, sing, and act. Someday he hopes to be part of the Broadway musical “Newsies,” but can’t do that until he turns 16. He’s working on audition songs, making plans to take dance classes, and keeping his fingers crossed that he can stay in New York.
No question, this is a transitional period for Ben. He is officially nestled in the “dead zone,” that period where teens are too old to play children and too young to be out from under the necessary rules that are designed to protect them until they turn 18. It may be weeks or months until he books something, or it could be years.
If nothing bears fruit, then his return to Northern Virginia will be long-term, at least until he and his sisters go on to college. And that will be different for all of us, because he’s been away from our day-to-day home life for almost four years.
Actually, as I think about it, we do know a couple of things.
We know Ben has the work ethic, desire, and love for performing to do whatever it takes to pursue his passion. He’s proven that. And we know it will be good to be back together as a family under the same roof, for whatever length of time that is.
As for the rest, we’ll see.
I’m in recovery from a bipolar week, and Kate’s disorder is not the culprit this time.
“It” is still there, lurking as always on the surface of our lives. But the extreme highs and terrible lows that took place within a few short days pushed even her disorder to the periphery — a rare feat.
The adventure our family has been on for the past year has taken so many twists and turns that I thought I was prepared for anything. But as I sort through a series of events that occurred over a 48-hour period earlier this month, and the potential long-term effects on our family, I have only one (non-profane) word to describe it:
In short order, here’s what happened:
• “Ragtime” received multiple Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations, further validating the artistic success of a show that should still be running on Broadway.
• My magazine was named a finalist for six national education publishing awards, including Periodical of the Year, validating the hard work, dedication, and experience of our staff.
• Ben went to a final callback for a role in “Billy Elliot,” the show that has frustrated and challenged him in so many ways.
• Budget cuts at my office meant two of my staff had to be let go.
• My boss — a longtime friend and one of my career mentors — announced she was leaving in a reorganization that shakes up the top management of the association.
The purpose of this blog is not to examine or evaluate my professional career. Suffice it to say, my organization has suffered from the same economic smack down as others in the non-profit and for-profit worlds, and next year is not looking much better than the previous two. Sticking our proverbial heads deeper into the sand is not the solution; managing our way through an economic crisis is.
The result: A reorganization of some kind had been promised for some time, and that time is now. From a business standpoint, it's easy to understand why these events occurred.
From an emotional standpoint, things like this are never easy. And reeling is the only way to describe my initial reaction to everything that happened within those two days. From euphoria to sadness, with little to no equilibrium, I can only imagine this is how Kate feels in the course of her daily life, never knowing what’s coming next.
Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.
My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.
I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.
The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.
I wished I knew what she was thinking.
Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.
She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.
The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.
“Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.
I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.
We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.
Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.
The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.
She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.
We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.
The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.
“It was a good movie,” she said.
We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.
Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.
She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.
I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.
Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.
I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.
“Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.
She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.
“Yes, it was a good movie.”
A year ago, Ben made his Broadway debut in "Ragtime." Tonight, he is on stage again, marking his 158th consecutive performance in “Billy Elliot.”
At home in Virginia, Kate is sitting downstairs drawing and painting, finally calm after an operatic outburst, an outburst that’s sad in large part because it was so predictable.
If Latin were not a dead language, this would be called “parentis extremis.”
I didn’t expect to be writing this on Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d be running errands that need to be complete. But I can’t. Emotionally and physically spent, all I can do is sit here and type — a RSS feed of pride and hurt, joyful emotion and deflating sadness.
I am super proud of my children, and do my best not to disappoint them. All I want is for them to do their best and be kind to others in the process. Much of the time we are successful, but sometimes we’re not, especially when a mental disorder lurks in the background — never dormant, always waiting.
You really don’t realize how hard stage actors work until you are around them. Ben has done eight shows a week, six days a week, since July 7. It's something that would test anyone's stamina, let alone that of a 12-year-old.
Sometimes, we get asked why he's doing this, why we do it. Certainly this has tested our entire family’s stamina. At the same time, Ben wants this and works on it tirelessly. He sings in the shower, dances in the living room, and does his homework between scenes. He remains a kid at heart, and a good one at that.
Some people wonder why we would “push” our child into this. I have met and gotten to know people who live vicariously through their children and I can tell you with certainty that’s not us. Life would be much less complicated if we didn’t go back and forth to New York every week.
The thing is this: You do what you can for your children, whether it’s Broadway or travel soccer. And as long as they hold up their end of the bargain, you do it as long as you can.
Is it wrong to admit that sometimes I don’t enjoy being a parent? Or that I get tired of all the requisite b.s. that goes along with the job?
Yes, parenting is a job — some days with benefits, some days without. According to life’s HMO, you have to be in network to enjoy it.
Many days that network includes your fellow parents, people with whom you bond while waiting in the parking lot at dance, or over a baseball practice. Something changes once you welcome another person — one completely dependent on you — into your life. Friendships that meant everything to you fade and sometimes disappear, replaced by diapers, then carpools in messy vans, then middle school football games on Thursday (not Friday) nights.
The people you meet and are social with rarely are the same friends from college, the ones who could discuss obscure literature or music with you until 4 a.m., drunk on cheap beer or tequila (everyone has a bad cheap tequila story). Life’s great mysteries always seemed solved by a simple night of semi-lucid conversation on the couch. That is, until the next morning, when a new set of mysteries popped up again.
Nostalgically, we say we miss those times, when in fact what we miss is the freedom they offered. Some crave that freedom like a drug, believing it is better to be on parole from daily responsibility. Others embrace the new reality that parenting and family brings.
It took me a long time, well into my 30s, to embrace that reality. If anything, being a single parent for much of the past year has turned that embrace into a bear hug, reminding me how lucky I am to have Jill and these four talented children.
But occasionally, the embrace feels like a chokehold.
Life with teenagers is not easy, as my fellow parents will attest. Kate’s doctor says teens lose 10 years of maturity from the moment they become prepubescent and don’t get it back until the hormone surges slow down several years later.
I can’t wait for that to happen.
The bipolar/puberty combination has turned our daughter with a mood disorder into someone I don’t understand. She can be so sweet one minute, showing the kind, lovely, talented girl we know exists in there. Then on a dime, she becomes “Toxic Teenager,” host of her own pity party, and believer that she is the monosyllabic snark mistress of the universe.
All the while screaming and crying at the top of her lungs.
The verbal warfare during these times is intense, and it’s only gotten worse as her shape has changed and she’s gotten taller. The Chinese ping-pong team could learn serve and volley from us. Aaron Sorkin could write our scripts.
The adrenaline that surges through her body during these fits and episodes dissipates almost as quickly, leaving her drained and remorseful. I try to remind myself, and her siblings, that the verbal venom we have to fend off is just as filled with self loathing.
I started writing this piece yesterday, but couldn’t finish it, too tired and exhausted from the afternoon battle to continue while Kate continued her painting. Today, I returned to it, drained and suffering from the post-traumatic stress disorder that another round brought.
Right now, at this moment, I take comfort in four things:
• That Kate finds comfort in art and ballet.
• That Ben is doing so well.
• That Nicholas and Emma are such good people and such good siblings.
• That Jill is coming home tonight so we can be together for two nights before the Thanksgiving round robin begins, another week of adventures for our family.
That’s enough right now.
Several weeks ago, on a late Saturday afternoon, my 13-year-old son and I walked into a store on 50th Street in midtown Manhattan to buy him a pair of shoes.
Ballet shoes. White canvas ballet shoes.
And then Ben went home to play Call of Duty: Black Ops during his dinner break, practicing his turns in second in the small living room while waiting for the game to load. An hour later, I took him back to work.
That wasn’t the first time I realized that this not the stereotypical father/son relationship. It wasn’t even the first time that day.
Nothing about the relationship with my youngest child — by a minute, his twin notes — is stereotypical, or even typical if you try to put it in conventional terms. Of course, few things are typical about Ben.
Born small for a boy at just 5 pounds and 10 ounces, he’s still small in stature — less than 5 feet and only 83 pounds. But it doesn’t bother him. In fact, small is a good thing given the short career span of child actors, especially one who loves the stage.
This afternoon, Ben will be wearing a dress on a Broadway stage, making his debut as Michael in “Billy Elliot.” Two months ago, he uttered the word “orgasm” on national television. And a couple of weeks ago, he went to a movie with a girl, then told me about it, and asked if he had handled things correctly.
See what I mean by atypical?
Not too long ago, I bumped into Jim Moore, the musical director for “Ragtime,” while Ben was in a ballet class.
“Did you realize what we were getting you into?” he asked.
We laughed for a moment — fleeting moments are all you seem to get when one show ends and the search for another begins — and soon parted ways.
This is one of theatre’s little oddities that no one prepares a parent for — watching your child have extremely intense, fulfilling relationships with people whose talents far outnumber yours, then seeing those relationships evaporate or be forever altered within moments or days. The boomerang of emotions your child feels is sometimes more dramatic than what you see on stage.
Fortunately, as we’ve learned, the theatre community in general is small and close knit. Chances are, if you go from show to show, you’ll always meet someone with a connection to someone you know. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll work with people you like (and who you hope feel the same about you) more than once.
Ben has been extremely fortunate to work with a variety of interesting, creative people over the past four-plus years he has been doing this. When each show has ended, he has mourned its loss, and wondered if he would ever see those people again. We try to reassure him, and let him know that he will, just in a different context.
Perspective is a funny thing, and in many ways, it’s only gained by experience and the passage of time. Little things — fragments of memory — that seemed insignificant in the moment take on greater resonance with perspective. Things that once seemed huge shrink and drift away when new memories or experiences are added.
As parents, this is something we try to teach our kids, that perspective and context do matter. It’s hard for kids — and in some cases, adults — to understand that a break up, or a show closing, or a high school sporting event that didn’t end well is not the end of the world. It’s even tougher to comprehend that something you cared so passionately about is but a memory.
That last sentence applies to parents, too. When you see your child immersed and psyched about an activity, no matter what it is, the end and subsequent transition always is a bit of a shock to the system. You’ve juggled and scrambled and rescheduled to successfully achieve the impossible, and then it’s done and over in a flash. Yes, inevitably we are relieved to get our lives back — until the next thing comes along, that is — but we often miss it, too.
Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” — he marked 10 months in the show last week — has been a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. And even though it is a long-running show with no chance of closing any time soon, it has presented a number of challenges on the transition front. Ben has seen a number of kids — castmates and peers — leave as their voices change and contracts end.
The reality of the business — that nothing is ever permanent — regularly hits home.
Almost two years ago, I had no way of realizing the impact that “Ragtime” would have on the lives of everyone in our family. The show’s abrupt end caught all of us off guard, and it took a while to bounce back. It was such a close-knit group of people, which is something I’m reminded of every time we see someone from the show on the street.
I can see now, far more clearly, why people try to work with the same folks over and over. The ability to collaborate and create is made far easier when you have people you know who are just as passionate as you about a particular project. Ben is extremely fortunate to have known so many kind people who have that ongoing passion.
Two years ago, taking that leap into the unknown — a leap of faith without a bungee cord attached — was exciting, thrilling, exhausting and scary as hell for everyone in our family. And it remains just as exciting, thrilling, and yes, exhausting and scary today.
No matter what happens next, it’s been one heckuva ride.
I periodically take breaks from writing to concentrate on other things in life — job, spouse, children, the usual stuff. Ideas are constantly coming and going like cars on the autobahn, but something prevents me from turning them into something that’s at least somewhat entertaining.
Recently, when I’ve had the time to work on a blog entry or something for work, my brain/fingers don’t cooperate. When the brain is working – shower, in the car -- the time is never right. And then everything else gets in the way.
I realized earlier this week that I had not filed a blog entry since early July. Wondering why, I decided to check my version of a diary — status updates on Facebook. (Remember, all status updates start with your name. I try to finish the phrase by starting with a verb, but that’s not always successful.)
See if you notice a trend...
End of June:
• I've spent the days of summer (3 thus far) in a darkened auditorium taking pictures of my girls (and anyone else I could shoot) doing 5-hour rehearsals of "Grease" (w/dance recital material thrown in for good measure). It is almost July, and I still look like someone who has not had sun since 1998.
• It's been a good day ... on many levels. Wish Jill was here to celebrate the many things we all have to be thankful for. (To my editor friends, sorry for ending that last sentence in a preposition, but it's late.)
• Has had a wonderful day with Emma. Toured the Harry Potter Exhibition at Discovery Times Square (her version of nerdvana), ate treats at the Cake Boss cafe (see 13th b'day pics if you want to know why that's important), and had a good time with Ben, Neil and Ginno during the dinner break. It's been a lot of fun.
• Made the pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial with the kids tonight, something we do every time Nicholas is in town. I'm truly amazed by how much they have grown up over the past year.
• Congratulates Ben on his one-year anniversary in Billy Elliot! He has performed in 416 consecutive shows without missing a beat — a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old who also went to school full-time. We are very proud of you, son!!!
• Has another one of those weekends lined up. Jill is in Boone today and tomorrow moving her dad. Kate is at a camp. Emma is meeting me in NY tonight and we'll get Ben. Nick is in North Carolina and going out of town. Yes, it is summer...
• Survived the midnight premiere of the last "Harry Potter" and is at work while the kids sleep in...
• Has taken Ben and Neil McCaffrey (happy 13th birthday, Neil!) to the train station, is schlepping Kate to camp, and has seen Jill off to her meeting in Georgia. And it's not even 9 a.m...
• Took Katharine to a two-week wilderness camp today, a 520-mile roundtrip that featured three vicious storms, a 12-mile stretch of interstate that took an hour and a half to slog through, a few photos of rural Virginia, and a very happy 14-year-old. So I guess it was worth it...
• Is getting ready to leave NY with Ben, who after 451 straight performances in Billy Elliot is doing something he's never done in his professional life — taking a vacation.
• Had a great time with Jill and the kids. Of course, we had dinner and a show. Ben sang, Emma danced, Kate laughed (at herself, not her siblings), and Nick created food art in the middle of his plate. A typical family evening!
• Has put Ben on a NY bound train. Nicholas is heading back to NC with the McFarlands this afternoon, while Jill and the girls are returning from Wintergreen. As for me, I'm going home to take a nap, and it not even 7:30 yet...
• Had an amazing evening at Steve Earle's show (thanks again, Jill and kids), which reminded me of the power of music and how it can rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. As part of it, saw/heard a new favorite band called The Mastersons. Check them out on FB; some of the best new music I've heard in some time.
• Blew two tires just before 1 p.m. and thought that would be my news of the day. Just before 2, at a gas station next to a very pregnant woman, the earthquake hit. 45 seconds later, we stood there wondering what happened. She said, "I thought my water just broke." I told her, "I'm sure a lot of people felt the same."
• Presents the week in headlines: Ben as Michael; 4 tires and an earthquake; Kate in field hockey scrimmages; Nicholas off to college; finding a way home to VA in a hurricane watch with Emma. Next week's prediction: Frogs falling from the sky.
• Amid unprecedented plans to shut down NYC, Emma is on a roll. We're scheduled to be on — literally — the last train out of the city, and she wants to stop at American Eagle one last time. My response: I've been shopping with you more this summer than at any time in your life, so why now? Fluttering her eyes (I swear), she said: You've raised my expectations.
• Is back in Virginia with Emma, exhausted and thankful that the train ride was smooth. Full, but smooth...
Given our lives for the past two years, it was an unusual summer. Nothing earth shattering, just a lot of back and forth, and — fortunately — some quality time spent with all of the kids. I guess you could say there hasn’t been much to blog at home about, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But now that it’s September, and things are picking up steam, I’m sure I’ll be back in this space soon.
The typicals: Family, marriage, job, photography, raising four children — one in college, one in high school, one in dance, one on the Billy Elliot tour.
The atypicals: Four birthdays in December, which also includes Christmas, a small car wreck, a trip to the hospital (unrelated to the wreck), 10 to 20 trips to DC a week, one trip to the Billy Elliot closing in New York, major ticket brokering (with no commission) and the fact that the Cook Hostelry has been doing a thriving business for the past month.
That’s why I haven’t been here for a while. Lots of material and no time to write about it. I hope to be back soon…
January 8: So, here we are, riding on a train to New York again. Ben is napping next to me, having finished a 13-hour, two show day only a few hours before, and we are going to see "Billy Elliot."
It's the final show on Broadway, a place we left behind three months before when Ben joined the “Billy” national tour. For the past four weeks, the tour has been at the Kennedy Center, a 20-mile drive from our house and one of the places where this journey began.
Immediately I flash back to our first train trip almost five years ago, when my little boy was trying to learn Gavroche's song. He didn't really know what he was doing, didn't really understand how the audition process worked, didn't really comprehend what was ultimately ahead.
Neither did we.
The "Les Miserables" audition was not a success, obviously. Nor was the first of many "Billy Elliot" auditions that started when he was 10. But there was progress; he kept getting calls to go back. And he kept going back.
At that point, we had no idea where all this would lead, just that we had a child who had found an all-consuming passion and managed to remain a kid at the same time.
That's our job as parents, striking the delicate balance between nurturing the passion and ensuring that he is a regular kid. The questions Jill and I receive most often are around this subject.
"Has this changed him?"
January 30: Three very long weeks have passed since I started writing this essay, and it’s been since last fall that I’ve contributed to this blog. That happens when you live in a Petri dish of puberty. Change is the constant in your life, and the weeks are long ones.
Today I’m driving to Pittsburgh to pick up Ben and Ginno, the fifth “child” in our household. Ginno, who cared for Ben for the last several months in New York, has been serving as his guardian on the road for the past two weeks. He truly cares for our son; we’ve been fortunate to have him in our lives, along with Brian, Jill’s cousin and another one of the masses that help take care of our little boy.
The 570-mile drive up and back is arduous and long, something I’ve gotten used to as a long-distance parent. For several years when my oldest, Nicholas, was in high school, I made the drive to North Carolina and back on the same, long day. Now Nick can come see us — a blessed development. He has matured so much and, at 19, is rapidly becoming the adult I always hoped.
For the longest time, I have said I’m interested in being friends with my kids when they are adults. With Nicholas, there is reason to be encouraged.
Ben has an Achilles tendon strain, which occurred in a ballet class in Cincinnati, and he’s out of the show for an undetermined period of time. Even though the injury is considered minor, it means he won’t play Michael, Billy’s best friend, because he’s supposed to be training for the show’s lead character.
Billy, the elusive Billy Elliot. A boy who has warmed the hearts of millions and changed a lot of people’s worlds since the 2000 movie and subsequent stage musical. Ben has pursued the part for almost four years now, his first audition coming just after he received his first professional gig in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre.
That seems so long ago.
February 11: It’s a stressful time, and we’ve become pros at handling stress.
Kate, our oldest daughter, is struggling. It’s something that seems to happen during this time each year, when the days become shorter and colder. She spent 18 days in an outpatient program over Christmas and New Year’s. Her freshman year in high school, which started so promisingly, has deteriorated.
Starting shortly after Thanksgiving, Kate became progressively more manic. Her chances for academic success, which are subject to the cycles that come with being a bipolar teen, seem to be deteriorating as well.
We are trying to transfer her to another school, one that is better equipped to serve students with emotional disabilities. One of her teachers — her case worker, no less — explains that if she would just turn in her work, her grades would be better.
It’s become a familiar drill: Every time something new happens — new school, new meds, new teachers, new counselors — Jill and I have to recite again what has brought us to this point. Diagnoses, family histories, flaws, foibles — all are exposed yet again. Improvement, continuous though fragile, is the long-term goal.
Ten weeks into a hyper manic cycle, we are worried.
I had a chance to talk to Nicholas at length this week while waiting for the kids to get out from a movie. It was great to catch up, learn about his classes — he’s taking a buttload of hours and getting a new roommate — and hear about his upcoming audition. It’s a stressful time for him, too, but I’m proud of how he’s handling it all.
Ben and I went out to take pictures today. It was bitterly cold, and the wind made things that much worse, but it was good to get out for a while. The boy has been housebound largely since he got home, although the PT has gone well and he seems to be feeling better. Ginno has returned to New York; we still don’t know what Ben’s training will look like.
The sunset, however, is beautiful.
February 17: I’m in Houston, visiting my mom for the first time on her home turf in two years, attending a conference related to my work. The weather stinks, but I manage to sneak out and take some pictures. Photography is a source of comfort, especially when I’m having such trouble writing.
We’ve decided to send Ben back to New York, still not knowing with certainty what will happen with Billy and the tour. He needs to be away, to get back to some semblance of the life he has lived for 2+ years, and we know that. We’re still not sure what the next few months will bring. Even though things seem to be taking shape, we still have questions.
Ben is not used to long periods of inactivity, not surprising given that he has worked steadily for the past three years. He is bored and restless, trying to make the best of the first major injury he has had as a performer. New York seems to be the perfect temporary antidote.
As parents, that can be tough to accept, to realize your child — at the tender age of 14 — belongs in a place so far removed from the nuclear family life. And yet Ben has done the three things we’ve asked of him — stayed engaged in school, acted and worked professionally in a professional environment, and yet somehow remained a kid who still loves and needs his family.
Once he plays Billy, Ben will be only the second child in North America to play the show’s three young male roles (Kylend Hetherington, one of the current Billys on tour, is the other.) That speaks to Ben’s versatility and, ultimately, his will.
I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure I understand how we do it, either.
The doctor has changed Kate’s meds, but getting her into another school has been slowed by yet another bureaucratic hurdle, as has the process for getting Emma into her high school of choice. Emma has done everything right; she has good grades and exhibits patience at home and school that are beyond her years. But red tape threatens her ability to attend the school where she has thrived.
In Houston, I call an official at the school that both my daughters — for completely different reasons — want to leave behind. Because a long holiday weekend is coming, we won’t get a call back until Tuesday.
February 21: Things are starting to take shape. A plan is moving into place for Ben, who will resume his formal Billy training in Los Angeles in April, then return to New York in May for five weeks before rejoining the tour in June. If we’ve learned anything about life with “Billy Elliot,” it’s that patience is required.
The school official calls. No word on Emma’s placement, but we have a transfer meeting set up for later in the week for Kate. I’m back in Virginia for three days before we head to New York to see the boy and Ginno. The bigger task: moving out of the apartment we’ve had for 2½ years.
One problem: I left my wallet on the airplane when I came back from Houston.
Fortunately, I don’t have a pile of credit cards to cancel, but it’s still painful. And it’s really no surprise, given everything that has taken place over the past couple of months, that I would do something so stupid.
Almost two months before, driving in D.C. with Ben and a very volatile Kate, I had a minor fender bender. No one was injured, but I struck a car that was being driven by a member of the District of Columbia’s law enforcement community. And the car I was driving — a 2002 Volvo with 150,000 miles on it — decided it was time to hang it up.
Things have to get better.
February 27: Today is Kate’s last day at her old school. Later in the week she will start fresh in a new program. She is more stable than she has been since before Thanksgiving, and for that we are thankful.
Jill and I drove up to New York the day before, to start packing the little apartment we moved into when this adventure began with “Ragtime.” It’s a day we’ve dreaded, in part because we’re leaving our son and some wonderful friends and memories there, and because it represents the end of a tremendously significant era in our lives.
One reason Ben is on the tour is because it gives him a chance to play Billy. Another is because he could play Michael, a principal role, when the show was at the Kennedy Center over the holidays. Sadly, the show’s closing on Broadway meant that he made the right move in leaving New York when he did. Happily, going on tour gave him a chance to perform in front of friends and acquaintances that otherwise would not have seen why we do what we do.
Now all we have to do is finish packing.
We’ve decided to let Ben stay in New York for the next month, return to school during that time, and see how things go until he resumes training. Friends that we’ve made because of this experience — Ginno, Carol, Bernadette, Katie, Ruby, Todd, and Carole — are helping us with the transition.
Last night the Oscars were on, and we sat on the couch and watched as they marched predictably to form. Cheers went up when Meryl Streep won in what proved to be the night’s only surprise.
Today, Jill left to help Kate get ready for her new school, and found a surprise — a letter informing us that Emma will get into her school of choice as well. Ginno, Ben, and I continue packing. As day progresses into night, I go to my neighborhood bar with a friend.
While there, I get a message I never expected. Ben is nominated for an award for playing Michael in Washington, D.C. On our last night in New York, he gets recognized in his adopted hometown.
Things indeed have come full circle, tying us in knots at times in the process as we go through the extreme highs and the equally tough lows. These past 50 days have been one of the roughest periods we’ve experienced as parents and as a family.
Fortunately the pebbles we stumble across slowly fill the potholes along the way.
It’s Sunday night. Spring break has started for the kids, except for Nicholas, who had his a couple of weeks ago. Jill is in Boone with the trio visiting her dad, and we’re all heading to Los Angeles next week before Ben starts training for the “Billy Elliot” tour. I stayed behind to work, given that it’s budget time at my office and I have to save the few days of vacation that I have left between now and the end of the fiscal year.
In our household, that means there’s not much to report. And that’s not a bad thing, I guess, even if it is the calm before the storm. If anything, it's a welcome change from the past several months.
That said, the last week of March is tough for me, one that I find myself dreading annually and one that I'm glad to see pass. The reason: What used to be a week of celebrations has taken a 180-degree turn in a few short years.
It starts with Jill’s birthday, not itself a bad thing. Two days later is my mom and dad’s anniversary and the anniversary of Bill’s death, then two days after that is Fran’s birthday. It’s hard to believe Bill has been gone eight years, and that it has been five years since the long summer that saw our family lose my dad and Fran.
Time marches on — in so many ways. And so quickly, too. Soon, we'll be so busy that there won't be much time to reflect, or so we think. Memories have a way of popping up and surprising you...
Maybe I'll even write a few of them down.
Note: In May 2012, I was asked to write a column for a Washington, D.C., theatre website (www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com) on being a "Stage Dad." I'm crossposting the columns to this blog as well after they are published.
"I saw my sis go pitter pat. Said I can do that. I can do that.”
Five and a half years ago, my little boy Ben was dancing in the basement of a woman’s house in Maryland, showing off his gymnastics moves, taps and splits. Afterward, he answered a few questions from the woman we arranged to meet and then we left, not knowing what would happen next.
Really, we had no clue how that audition would change all of our lives.
That little boy is now a teen, getting ready to fly back from Los Angeles to New York, where he will train for the role he’s pursued since 2008 — the title part on the national tour of “Billy Elliot.” And in a couple of weeks, he’ll flashback to that afternoon in the basement when he performs “I Can Do That” in a benefit called “Born for Broadway” at the American Airlines Theater in New York.
Things in his life — and the lives of our family — are coming full circle, the pieces of a long and winding path finally connecting. It’s a path that has featured numerous adventures (of the mis and grand variety), including six professional shows in Washington, D.C., two Broadway productions, one national tour, and one cameo in a TV series that was filmed before a two-show day. It also has involved countless auditions, stealth-like schlepping (planes, trains, and motor vehicle versions), two residences, long days, and sleepless nights.
At least it’s not travel soccer.
Looking back at those adventures, as well as the lessons learned, is the purpose of this blog/column that Joel Markowitz asked me to write. For the past three years, I’ve written a personal blog — in an attempt to process what has taken place in our lives. Joel very graciously asked me to share some of those stories with his audience.
So let me set the scene for you.
My wife, Jill, and I have four teenagers — two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 14 to 19. My oldest, Nicholas, just was accepted into the BFA Acting program at Elon University in North Carolina. Katharine, the visual artist in the group, is finishing her freshman year in high school in Northern Virginia.
Emma, Ben’s twin sister, is in eighth grade at a different Northern Virginia school. Like her brother, she lives for dance. She also is forging, through hard work and good grades, her own path in life in a far more low-key way than her brother.
Now you can see why I like to say, with four kids in four schools in three states, “In our family, the only thing mellow is the drama.”
Over the next several months, I hope you will join us on this journey of what it is like to be a stage parent. We’ll chronicle the ups and downs, answer your questions, seek your thoughts and — I hope — provide you with some insight into the world in which we live.
What a world it is.
Being the parent of a professional child actor has a lot in common with triathlons. Sometimes you run, sometimes you spin around in circles, and sometimes you work heroically just to keep your head above water.
Take today for example. It’s just 10 a.m., and already it’s been a long morning.
I’m sitting on the Amtrak as I write this, heading back from New York to Virginia. It’s a familiar drill, one that we do a lot less frequently since Ben has been on the “Billy Elliot” tour. In fact, after making this trek almost weekly for more than two years, I’ve only been to “The City” — shorthand for what Manhattanites call the “true center of the universe” — three times since November.
Yesterday, however, was worth the commute, and the four 36-block roundtrips between the apartment and the rehearsal studio. It was the day — after numerous classes, callbacks, setbacks, hopes, dreams, and prayers — that Ben started formal rehearsals for the lead in a show he has pursued and been part of for more than four years.
And yet, it was just another day.
For stage parents, days and nights are broken into chunks, and show schedules can consume significant parts of your life. Professional guardians (more on that in a future installment) are hired by the show and assigned to the child when he/she is working. Parents and/or the child’s personal guardian (another future installment) are responsible for the rest — drop off, pick up, and the breaks in between.
How you handle the chunks is the difference between enjoying the experience and hating it. In my line of work, I use the uninterrupted two and three-hour windows to edit and do the tasks that require time to think. Over the past three years, Starbucks, diners with Wi-fi, and hotel lobbies have become my second office, and I’ve become one of those people you see with a squinting, scrunched up face working on a laptop.
I’m lucky that my job allows me to do that. Not everyone is.
When Ben was working in the D.C. area, it was more complicated. Our house is in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and it was a 30 to 45 minute drive home and back. That’s when I learned about chunks of time, because it was not worth it to take in, drop off, drive home, and return for pick ups. Jill and I would either split the difference or one of us would stay.
In New York, we also tried to make sure that commuting between the apartment and the theater was not a factor. It was a reasonable walk, except when the elements were against us, and even then it was a short cab ride. Most of the time, I didn’t go back to the apartment unless it was necessary, instead finding a place to work or indulging in my then new, now regular hobby — photography.
I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to deal with the chunks of time pretty easily, but making the most of them does require some advance planning and mapping out of your day. Otherwise, before you know it, it’s over.
Everyone handles these things differently. I’ve seen parents who arrive for pick up five minutes early, make no eye contact with the other adults, scoop up the child, and drive away without saying goodbye. They are doing this out of parental obligation, not out of love for their child’s passion, and they seem to resent it. That’s a shame.
Others hang around outside and peer in the stage door whenever it opens, obviously pained to spend any time night or day without their supervision. They don’t understand why they are not allowed to watch rehearsals or be part of things backstage.
That’s when you’re reminded that this is a business, folks.
Understanding that fact is foreign, at least at first. Recognizing that your child, no matter how large or small, is in a work environment while in elementary or middle school does not seem to compute. At the same time, you have to trust that your child receives good care while in the company of other professionals. Knowing how and when it’s appropriate to step in and advocate is a judgment call.
If your child is fortunate enough to be in this position, let them concentrate and enjoy it without having to worry about your lurking presence.
Of course, diligently showing up five minutes early won’t hurt anyone’s feelings, especially late at night. Just don’t forget to say hello. Other parents appreciate it, even if they don’t say so…
Like many parents with school-age children, a standing feature on many of our Saturdays is toting the kids to various lessons. For all of our kids, those precious weekend hours have revolved around one place: a dance studio in Northern Virginia.
Metropolitan Fine Arts Center, or MFAC as it is known, is a non-competitive dance studio that has branched out to offer classes in acting and voice. It also is the recipient of much of our family’s discretionary income over the past eight years.
While the studio’s emphasis is on the kids’ fun and enjoyment, it also is on skill building and performance training. The big picture goal, if kids and their families wish to go for it, is to develop performers who will pursue careers if they wish.
Throughout their elementary school years, all three of our Virginia-based children — Ben, Emma, and Kate — took multiple classes on multiple days and nights at MFAC. They participated in the annual spring production — a melding of the traditional dance recital and a musical theatre show — and summer dance and theatre camps. Nicholas, our oldest son who grew up in North Carolina, saw his passion ignited at a musical theatre camp; now he’s working toward a degree in acting at Elon University.
My wife and I have become friends/acquaintances with a number of the families that are part of our kids’ core group. As Ben started working professionally, most were extremely supportive and a number came to see him in DC-based shows. They’ve also watched out for our daughters, given them rides, and helped us out when we asked. You can tell they seem genuinely proud that “one of our own” is living his dream.
That said, competition is embedded into any extracurricular activity, whether the team or studio competes for trophies or not. And some parents have definitely looked at our son’s pursuit of a professional career with a raised eyebrow, wondering if he was the recipient of favoritism, questioning why we “pushed” our child into a professional life at such a young age, and asking if this experience is “changing him.”
No question that, as a male who sings and dances, Ben has an advantage over females. Girls pursuing careers in the performing arts outnumber boys by a huge ratio, something you can see by peering into any class at MFAC or other dance studio. It is simply harder for girls to break in because of the numbers.
At the same time, the gender advantage also can be a disadvantage, simply because a boy who pursues a passion for dance is considered “different.” And, as diverse and open as Northern Virginia is about a number of things, “different” still is not widely embraced as you would hope, a theme echoed in “Billy Elliot.”
Natural talent and gender advantages would be all for naught, though, without passion and training. As parents, we are very fortunate. Our son — and to varying degrees, the rest of our kids — has passion for his craft in spades. When all the kids are at our house, dinner rapidly morphs into dinner and a show. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told Ben to stop doing turns in second in the living room, or feared that Emma would come through the ceiling while working on handstands in her room.
Jill and I have tried to support that passion by giving our kids the opportunities to get proper training. MFAC, for Ben, was a great start. For Emma, his twin, it is a great place to find her passions in life, an outlet and an opportunity for exercise, and a terrific social circle. For his older sister Kate, it remains a mostly fond memory.
When the “Billy Elliot” tour came to the Kennedy Center last December, MFAC supported the show by purchasing 100 tickets for parents and students. By the night of the performance, we had almost 200 people in the audience, many of whom had never seen our son perform professionally.
After the show ended, I saw a couple of people who had openly questioned our choice to allow Ben to pursue work as a professional performer. As he talked to his friends, one told me he looked “so comfortable” on stage. Another said she was glad to see he “hadn’t changed.”
In some respects, those are the best reviews he’s gotten yet.
Child actors face an inevitable reality — growing up. And that inevitable reality means they likely will be out of a job.
Think about it: Have you ever wondered why people obviously in their 20s or 30s were playing teens on a movie or your favorite TV show? Close your eyes for a moment, watch the faces flash by, and at the end of the slideshow, look for the dollar signs.
Child actors are a costly proposition, with productions having to provide tutoring – depending on the size of role — and an adult guardian to follow the kids around in the workplace. No question that it’s a necessary protection to prevent kids from being exploited, but the often razor thin line between profitability and loss means that, if producers can pick between hiring a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old to play 15, they’ll choose the latter 99 times out of 100.
That’s why casting notices, especially in theatre, are looking for actors who are under 4 foot, 10 inches. Once you hit puberty, you enter what is called “the dead zone.”
One of the many challenges of casting a show like “Billy Elliot” is that you must find boys who can dance, sing, and act — and still look and sound like a boy who hasn’t gone through puberty.
“They come into the show knowing it’s a temporary moment in time,” says Nora Brennan, the children’s casting director.
Over the past five years, Brennan has seen thousands of boys as the children’s casting director for the Broadway and touring productions. Sixteen boys played Billy on Broadway and 19 have performed in the role on the two-plus U.S. tours. The average run for a Billy is nine months to a year.
The physical requirements for a Billy are immense: In addition to being on stage in almost every scene during a 2 hour and 45 minute show, the character does ballet, tap, acrobatics in addition to acting and singing, all in a Northern English accent. As a rule, Billys perform two times a week; when they’re not on stage, they are in tutoring, taking dance classes, and rehearsing.
Later this month, our son will be the 20th tour Billy, which director Stephen Daldry describes as “playing Hamlet while running a marathon.” Andrea McArdle, star of the original “Annie” — another iconic child role — told the New York Timesthat, “Physically, Billy is way beyond Annie.”
Ben’s first audition for the role was almost five years ago, several months before the Broadway run opened. Every several months, he was called back — a nerve racking experience for him and his parents — and then returned home with advice for ways to improve.
And he did, even as other theatre opportunities came up. Multiple times, our hopes were raised, then no word. As our son became a teen, Billy was the role that perhaps he was destined not to perform.
In June 2010, Ben was cast as Tall Boy and a Michael understudy — the show has only three roles for older boys — in the Broadway company. For a time, he roomed with one of the Billys (Jacob Clemente) and watched, listened, and learned from the others.
Ironically, it was during the Broadway run that Ben grew into the role, even as we hoped he wouldn’t grow — physically at least — too much. As we watched the other boys cycle through the show, we saw them hit puberty and listened as their voices changed — occasionally painfully.
Last May, he went back for yet another Billy audition and aced it. His dance skills had improved dramatically, especially in ballet, and he was ready. Even though he was growing, it wasn’t too much, and his voice still hasn’t started to change.
But there were more setbacks — the two tours closed, as did the Broadway show — and we wondered again if it was all for naught.
Then we got the news about the new tour, which came through Washington last December and returns to Baltimore during the holiday season this year. Ben was offered a chance to be Michael full-time and train for Billy. Despite an injury earlier this year, he is now actively moving toward the role and is scheduled to be in the show this summer.
“We see how he works, what his temperament is like,” Brennan said in 2010 about the boys she ultimately casts in the role. “Is he determined? Does he give up easily? That’s very important. You need an enormous amount of determination and tenacity to go through the whole rehearsal process. It’s not something that’s done easily.”
She’s right about that.
I still get nervous when I see my children perform. It’s almost a reflex, a parent’s prayer to a higher being that they will enjoy it, that they will do their best, that nothing will go wrong and, if it does, that they’ll get out of it unscathed.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen my four kids perform in school plays, dance recitals, in college concerts, at venues across the country, and on Broadway. The same reflex kicks in every time.
But on June 30, after a tumultuous 18-hour period, storms on the runway flying to Louisville, Ky., four hours of sleep, and 4½ years of waiting/hoping/praying, I was almost too numb to be nervous.
Ben was finally going to be Billy Elliot.
My wife, Jill, and son, Nicholas, were sitting with me in the center orchestra section in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Ben’s manager, Linda Townsend, and her companion were on the same row. Also in the theatre were Ben’s road guardian, Ginno Murphy, his tutors, several cast members’ parents, and a number of Billy “super fans” who traveled long distances to see the show.
The night before, Jill and I sat on the runway at National Airport as the huge storm whipped through the greater Washington, D.C. area, leaving 1.2 million people in the area without power and forcing the cancellation of our daughter’s dance recital that was scheduled for that weekend. We took off after sitting on the small USAirways jet for two hours, and did not arrive in Kentucky until almost 2 a.m.
As we were catching a cab to the hotel, my phone rang. It was Ben. He could not sleep. He was nervous. Could I stop in his room when I got there?
I dropped off Jill, who had just finished an 80-hour work week and was at the end of a 20-hour day, in our room and knocked on his door. There was my little boy, now 14 and about to embark on a journey few have dreamed. He wanted to talk – something he shares in common with his dad – and he wanted me to rub his back like I have done thousands of times before when he could not sleep. I happily obliged.
Ben asked which number I was looking forward to the most. I said the finale, when Billy leads the cast in a fabulous tap curtain call. He asked why and I told him simply, “because then you’ll be done.”
After 15 minutes or so, I left and saw Nicholas, Ben’s older half-brother who served as his guardian during the final two weeks of tech rehearsals. Nicholas, now in college and also a talented performer in his own right, did a great job of taking care of his younger brother. The two discovered a deep bond during that two-week period, developing a new-found appreciation for each other.
Flash forward 11 hours. Bleary eyed, we’re sitting in the audience, the resident director has introduced Ben and our family, and the curtain comes up.
Almost three years before, Jill and I sat in the Neil Simon Theater in New York, with tears in our eyes as the curtain came up in “Ragtime.” Ben was the understudy to Little Boy, a principal character who opens and closes the show, and was performing on the first Saturday night of the Tony-nominated (though much too short-lived) revival.
We held on to each other through every scene, and I don’t think I exhaled until the cast took its final bow. There have been lots of curtain calls since, a few disappointments, and some trying times for our family as we juggle parenting, jobs, and the dreams, hopes, and setbacks of our children.
While he was training, Jill said she would not believe Ben was Billy until she saw it with her own eyes. Now, there he was on stage.
For the Billy character, the first act is relentless as he has some role in every number – “The Stars Look Down,” “Shine,” “Grandma’s Song,” “Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “The Letter,” “Born to Boogie,” and “Angry Dance.” Act II has fewer numbers but is no less strenuous for Billy, with the “Swan Lake” ballet sequence and the show’s finale, “Electricity.”
I teared up twice. The first time was at the end of “Solidarity,” when the audience sees Billy discovering his talent for dance. After a full day of school and a performance in the “Billy” Broadway company, where he played Tall Boy and understudied Michael, Ben performed the turns endless times in the middle of the night in our New York apartment. Despite our orders to go to bed, he kept pushing himself, working on the perfect turn.
The second was during “Electricity,” the show stopping number at the end of Act II. It was the first song Ben learned from the show and one he practiced relentlessly. He had failed with the song and he had succeeded, and there he was performing it on stage.
In January, when the show closed on Broadway, I stood in the balcony and watched as the four Billys performed the number. At some point, I looked to my left and there stood Stephen Daldry, the show’s original director, a person I met twice. He patted me on the shoulder and winked before leaving. I wonder if he had something in his eye.
As a parent, there is no prouder moment than seeing your child work toward something and succeed. At the end of “Electricity,” Ben received a standing ovation, an amazing show of support from the crowd. We had come full circle.
It was time for the finale, an appropriate end to a perfect beginning. And I wasn’t nervous any more.
I became a better father when my dad died.
It was five years ago this past week — a lifetime in many respects. Dad had been ill for some time, thanks to a slightly toxic gene pool that forced him to fight a variety of physical maladies for years. My mom spent most of my childhood and a large chunk of my adult life caring for my dad, with a level of devotion that still amazes me.
Watching mom and dad deal with everything was one reason I never thought I would be a parent, let alone one with four children. I saw their sacrifices — even though in my self-centered youth, they may not have seemed like much at the time — and never believed I could do the same.
Of course, growing up in Texas, I didn’t think I would live in the Washington, D.C., area or that I would have a job that would take me to the corners of the U.S. and parts in between. I wistfully dreamed of going to parts unknown — before the reality of business travel kicked in — and never thought it would happen.
I never would have thought it, but it happened.
That brings me back to my dad and to his lasting effect, both in life, but especially in death.
This column is about being a stage parent, about the schlepping, trailing, and trolling my wife and I do to keep our traveling troupe of performers, artists, and athletes afloat. But, as I mentioned in my first column, “stage dad” is not what this is about, despite the tight verbiage that appeals to my inner editor.
“Parent” comes first.
Not that it always did. I’m a workaholic in a 12-step program, and to this day it is difficult to resist the temptation to put the job — or the task — first. For the longest time, I wanted to be a success at what I did for a living. I wanted to hit the home run and move as far from my hometown as I could.
And I did. But there were costs. I missed a lot of time with my children — all of them — when they were younger because I was working. I saw my parents less and less when I moved from home.
Until the last two to three years of his life, I did not realize how frail my father was. He had been in poor health for so long that I started to take it for granted. Dad felt bad — all the time.
You could see glimpses of his talent. A visual artist, he could draw anything, although his physical ailments made it tough to measure up to his perfectionist standards. So after an 18-month burst of creativity between my third and fourth grade year, he largely stopped, only picking up a pencil or pen to do a project for my mom or when the muse hit so strongly that he couldn’t resist.
To this day, I live in fear that the creative muse will leave and not return. For me, creativity is a way of focusing the chaos that’s inside my head.
So what happens when you need to give writer’s block an angioplasty?
Just in case you’re wondering, it’s been almost three weeks since the last “Stage Dad” column appeared and a month since my son opened in “Billy Elliot” in Louisville, Ky. I’ve had material, but even more, I’ve had convenient excuses.
Thanks to the fine coverage this website gave to the Fringe Festival, for two weeks there really wasn’t much space for a parent’s meanderings about raising a family of performers. And who would read this when they can watch NBC’s tape delays of the Olympics?
I jotted down thoughts, and started writing. And started. And started. I’ve started 10 essays over the past month and finished none. I worried that I had left the muse in Louisville, even after spending a few days with the tour in Madison, Wis., and making plans to visit Ben with our family in Boston.
For several days, I walked around with the lead to this column in my head — pondering what it meant. Is it true that I became a better parent when my dad died?
I think so. If anything, my father’s passing forced me to focus on the time I have with my own children, who are growing up all too quickly and soon will be in positions where calling their parents is not always high on the list (sorry, mom). The time I lost with Nicholas, my oldest son, due to a divorce forced me to realize that missed opportunities result in lifelong regrets.
It’s coincidence, perhaps, that my journey as a stage parent began the fall after my father died, when Ben got his first professional role. During a terribly difficult time, the late night car rides presented an opportunity to spend time with my son while mourning my father. Two years later, when Ben moved to New York for “Ragtime,” Jill or I went with him, essentially becoming single parents for almost a year until a new caregiver arrangement could be established. That forced me to focus on having quality time with all of my kids, because I was no longer in a position to be in the office 12 hours a day.
I realized last week that I could not finish this column until after our Boston trip. My mom, who still lives in Texas, decided to come see her grandson, who would be performing on the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death.
It became evident that Boston represented a chance to honor my dad’s memory, because my parents had a great two week trip up there more than a decade ago. My mom, a trouper, constantly recalled the places they had seen and the things they had done.
Several weeks ago, a friend who also lost his father and I talked about childhood memories and their effects on our parenting today. He had returned from a trip back to a place where he had lived when he was 11 or 12, and seemed perplexed that he did not feel the loss of his father more. I mentioned that it’s the same for me.
I miss my dad at times like this past Sunday, when my family saw Ben perform on stage, completely in his element and in total control. I miss him at gatherings, at holidays, at events where I should be able to turn and to see him.
But then, when I think about it, I see my dad every time I look in the mirror, and every time I look at one of my own children. And I know that he’s smiling from his seat in the balcony.
Being the parent of a child actor comes with a learning curve that has the potential to throw your life into chaos at any point. If you’re not willing to endure the ebbs and flows that come with your new role, don’t take it. There is no sense in making yourself, your child, or other family members miserable.
That said, you will never know if you can do it unless you try.
Three years ago this month, we were in New York, searching for an apartment and watching our son start rehearsals for the Broadway revival of “Ragtime.” My wife and I decided on a combination “what the heck/wait and see” approach to the entire endeavor, knowing that our lives would never be the same.
And they haven’t — not for a moment since.
The first year — as my wife and I readily tell anyone who will listen — was very tough, even as we wiped a number of things off of our parental bucket list in a very short time. We spent the time switching off between our girls in Northern Virginia and taking care of Ben in New York, in essence operating as single parents.
That worked for a time, and then we had to look for other options. When Ben moved into “Billy Elliot,” we hired someone to take care of him for a short time. Then we split time in New York with another family. Then someone lived in the apartment rent free in exchange for making sure Ben made it back and forth to school, rehearsal and the show.
When the tour started, we called on Ben’s cousin, who was looking for a job. Then Ginno, another friend who took care of our son in New York, came on board. Nicholas, my oldest, also has chipped in during his break this summer. Jill and I fly out every few weeks when we can.
The performer’s life, especially when that performer is a child on a national tour, is something of a strange existence for the caregivers. You stay in hotels, board buses and planes, and find a new set of grocery stores, laundromats, and eating establishments every one to three weeks. And all the while, you schlep the child back and forth to rehearsals and the show.
Constantly you find yourself weighing the benefits, the risks, and the costs. On one hand, you have an opportunity to do something for your child that few parents get, to give them the experience of a lifetime at a relatively young age. On the other, you and your child miss having the day to day to day connection that you get by being under the same roof. It takes a lot of trust, a lot of hope, and a lot of juggling.
But really, life is a juggling act. It just depends on how many balls you want to have in the air.
Over the past several weeks, while Ben has been in Boston, much of our family time was spent sitting around the television watching the Olympics. It was easy to get caught up in the drama of the games, and that night’s events became a point of conversation each evening.
In part, that’s intentional. Dick Ebersol, NBC’s Olympics guru for the past two decades, says the games are “one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together.” That’s one reason ratings were through the roof, even though most of the events were tape delayed.
What I found particularly interesting were the behind-the-scenes stories that focused on the athletes’ personal lives. Bookending each event, it seemed, was a story about parents making tremendous sacrifices for the athletes to pursue their passion. Gaby Douglass’ story, of moving from her home in Virginia Beach to train in Iowa, had particular resonance for us.
For some time, I’ve said that parents of top athletes and working actors have much in common. If anything, we have learned the art of sacrifice.
Last year, a friend of mine asked, “Is it wrong to want my child to have the fairytale?”
The reference was to the loss of her son’s team in the semifinals of the local Little League championship. The team had gone undefeated through the season and into the playoffs, only to lose to another squad that had less talent on paper but was peaking at the right time.
Sports and theatre, besides being inherently dramatic, have the fairytale factor in common. Watching your child deal with a tough loss — either in a game or in an audition — is heartbreaking because we want them to have that moment in the spotlight. More often than not, we rediscover over and over again that fairytales are just fiction, that “real life” rarely ends the way we would like.
Still, we try. That’s why we buy lottery tickets and compete in contests with little scraps of scratch off cardboard, hoping we’ll be the 1 in 8,373,722 that gets picked. It’s why parents twist and contort schedules and make them look like the intersections of the interstate highway system, just so our children can have opportunities we did not.
We’re very fortunate. Our son is living the fairytale in “Billy Elliot,” but it’s not due to a magic wand. Not by any means.
And we would never have known if we hadn’t tried.