Everyone has heard horrible stories about stage parents.
Reality shows paint the worst pictures in vivid, cable-ready HD. Tabloids are littered with tales of the Lindsays, the Brittanys, the Mileys, the Gary Colemans, and other assorted child actors/personalities whose lives became train wrecks. Somewhere along the way, egos explode and lines get crossed. Advocates become asses.
For a parent, that possibility is frightening as you enter into this strange world. In our case, we had a child who found a passion very early in life, and we wanted to support his pursuit of that passion. But we were terrified of becoming anything resembling the stereotype.
Early on, my wife and I developed three simple rules that we live by regarding our son:
#1: Maintain good grades: Your education comes first. Yes, the education and training you receive by working with professional actors, writers, directors, choreographers and others is invaluable. Doing so at the expense of your formal education is not an option, however. The minute your grades go south is the time to reevaluate what’s important, no matter how good the professional opportunity.
Funny story: When Ben was in fourth grade, he got a role in the Folger Theater’s production of “Macbeth,” directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. Early on in the show’s run, he arbitrarily decided that math was not necessary for him to pursue an acting career. In Fairfax County, students receive interim report cards every three weeks. His grade was a “D."
That night, when I picked him up at the show at 10:30, I started drilling him on multiplication tables during the 30-minute drive home. The next night, the same. The following night, the same.
By the fourth night of 9x9 = 81, he looked at me exasperated and asked: “What do I have to do to get you to stop?” My response was simple: Get your grades up and I’ll stop. Otherwise, it will be a long 52 rides home for you.
He got the message.
#2: Be a professional when you are in a professional environment: You are working with adults who rely on this job for their living. You are lucky; you don’t have to do this to support your family. It doesn’t matter who you encounter — director, writer, choreographer, casting director, grip, stagehand, wrangler, costumer — everyone deserves equal respect. This is a very small world, which means you will encounter these people again at some point. How you represent yourself yesterday, today and tomorrow makes a difference.
Working on his first show, Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ben was five minutes late for a rehearsal. Traffic was bad and we did not plan accordingly. He arrived and promptly was chewed out by Mark Ramont; we were not late again.
Later, I asked Mark why he did that. His reasoning was simple: No matter how talented our son is, having a lax attitude toward his coworkers is disrespectful and not acceptable. Again, lesson learned.
And most important…
#3: When you’re not in a professional environment, don’t forget that you’re a kid. You don’t have to be on all the time. Play (safely). Enjoy time with your friends. Get away from the pressure cooker that this life presents. Yes, it’s a remarkable life and you are having some fabulous experiences, but striking the life/work balance is just as important.
We are lucky. Our son, and for that matter all of our kids, are still very much teenagers. Ben is interested in his technology, theme parks and Facebook. He has encountered the often-tangled ropes on relationships with girls. He still gets nervous when he’s facing a test in school or about to go on in a new role.
And yet, he’s still our little boy, not afraid to give me a hug in public, not ashamed to be seen talking to his dad, his mom, or other adults.
The best part of this entire experience is when friends and relatives see him now. Quickly, they discover the things we already know, that no matter how crazy and nontraditional things are, he has not become someone else. He is still “just Ben.”
I would like to think that’s because we have preached and preached these rules, and that he has taken them to heart. Yes, my wife and I are stage parents. Yes, I’m a stage dad.
But parent and dad come first.