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.
Currently showing posts tagged Billy Elliot
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.
Check out these headshots of Shane, taken during a mini session in Boston in the middle of tech week for “Billy Elliot” in late January. The gallery is at http://glenncook.virb.com/shane. Shane played Michael for most of the month-long run as well as the title character.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Ben ended his run in "Billy Elliot" in Las Vegas. What a long, strange year it's been...
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)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The school-to-summer transition always is a strange time.
May and June, like the holiday period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, always is a crazy period in our lives. Inevitably, we’re dragging the kids to the finish line for school, tired and weary ourselves from getting up early and going to bed late. Meanwhile, all the end-of-year activities jam the calendar, leaving us to rush from one place to the next at a more chaotic pace than usual.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Alexandria. My daughters are up the hill, dancing in the first of two performances of “Grease.” Ben is in New York, performing in the matinee and evening “Billy Elliot.” Jill is in Seattle at her conference. And Nicholas is in North Carolina with his other family and his girlfriend.
For the first time, it looks like our family won’t be able to take an extended summer vacation. As the kids get older, and activities become even more diverse, it’s becoming more and more difficult to string a week of days together that everyone can be together.
This is a transitional period in our lives as a family, a cycle that every nuclear unit goes through to a certain extent. It has been extremely difficult for Jill, much more so than for me, because I find transitions and changes generally come easily. For Jill, this time of year is doubly hard because of the work/family conflict caused by her conference and the recital always falling on the same weekend.
Despite our best efforts, cloning is not something we’ve managed to master.
At times like this, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve lived in Northern Virginia for 10 years, that my kids really were 3, 3, 4, and 8 when we moved here.
This year, more than any other, I’ve been aware of that transition, which is one reason I’ve been hanging around the auditorium where the “Grease” dress rehearsals took place. Normally, I can’t wait to get out, to the point where my kids have perfected the tuck and roll as the van hits the parking lot.
But this year is different. It likely will be Kate’s last year to dance; she’s planning to play field hockey starting this fall when she enters high school. Over the last few months, her enthusiasm for dance has waned. You can see she wants something different.
Emma, on the other hand, has really stepped it up. If anything, it’s another part of her emergence from the wide shadow cast by Ben and Kate, another example of how she is growing into her own.
Watching the girls and their peers, you can see transitions occurring for other families, too. Some are getting ready to go to college, like Nicholas. Others, the ones you remember from grade school, are driving themselves to the theatre.
Little kids — fortunately I’m seeing a lot more boys this year — are dressed up in their costumes and don’t want to leave. Their parents, having not been through the drill before, can’t wait to go home.
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…
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.
It's been a while since I've written about the stuff that many of you come here for ... Sorry about that.
Given everything that's been going on, I haven't had a compelling desire to feed the beast, shall we say. But I will be back, I promise...
For now, though, I'd like to leave you with a couple of videos of the kid performing. I know they bring a smile to my face. I hope they bring one to yours.
First up: Born for Broadway 2012.
Then, one from MetroJam earlier this year.
Then, performing "Dream Ballet" with Cal Alexander (Small Boy) during a Hootenanny In September. (Click on the link to go to the video.)