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  • Stage Dad: Three Simple Rules

    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. 

  • Stage Dad: What I Wish I Had Known...

    Occasionally, I get questions from others whose children are interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts. Usually, they want to know how to pursue an agent or manager, and what they should expect.

    Often I point them to the BizParentz Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that provides “education, advocacy, and charitable support to parents and children engaged in the entertainment industry.” The foundation has a wealth of information about child labor laws and regulations as well solid, common sense advice for parents.

    But in conversation, I also have developed a list that I’ve titled, “What I wish I had known…”

    Here it is:

    Simple facts of your new life

    This is a job. Just because your child has a manager and/or an agent, their success will not mean less work for you as a parent. If anything, it will mean more. They will not drive/fly/walk/train your child to an audition/callback/rehearsal/show. You are responsible for that.

    “Entertainment” is first and foremost a business. Your child may be pursuing this because they love to entertain, but the goal for the producers/production companies ultimately is profitability and sustainability. You could be working on the best project in the world today and be on the unemployment line tomorrow. Be prepared to prepare your child for that inevitability.

    Training is a costly — and necessary — proposition. Kids who perform professionally are expected to be able to sing, dance, and act. Not being able to do so is to their disadvantage, and that becomes readily apparent the minute they walk into an audition. So start looking for people who can help you, and be prepared to pay. (Advantage: Training is a tax write off in most cases.)

    Auditions

    Auditions are tough, no matter how prepared you are. Look at how your child handles difficult, stressful, and/or trying situations. Do they hate auditions? Are they making progress from one to the next? Are they more comfortable? Do they feel like they’ve learned anything new?

    Reality Check #1: Be prepared for disappointment. Know going in that auditions are a crapshoot. Chances are that you won’t get the part nine times out of 10, but all it takes is one.

    Audition spaces are not as fancy as they look. If you think auditions and rehearsals are held at beautiful, spacious Park Avenue studios, think again. Don’t let the appearance of the place you are going deceive you; professional shows have been cast or rehearsed in spaces that ordinarily would be classified as dumps. That said, be sure to be on the lookout for troubling signs that your child is not safe or in good hands.

    On time means early, even if you have to wait. Chances are pretty good that arriving 15 minutes early means you will have to wait 45 minutes to be called, but it may not. Someone scheduled before you might not show up, and you need to be prepared.

    Reality Check #2: You will drive three hours for five minutes with someone who may or may not give you the time of day. That’s one of your biggest adjustments, given the amount of prep time your child must put into a project.

    Arm your child with the tools necessary to be successful. This means headshots, shoes, sheet music, notebooks, water, etc. They need to be prepared for every possible scenario, without being overwhelmed. For parents, wear comfortable clothes and bring a book/e-reader/hobby of choice. You never know when you’ll be stuck for two hours with nothing to do.

    Don’t court distractions. It is natural for young performers, especially novice, nervous ones in a room with other, equally talented kids, to want to show off their skills. Save your best for the audition instead. This goes for parents, too. Don’t spend your time talking about your child’s talents, no matter how multiple and varied they might be. 

    Reality Check #3: You likely won’t get feedback. Even though you’re dying to know what your child could/should have done better, chances are that you’ll hear nothing. Casting directors, in most cases, simply don’t have or take the time.

    That’s my list, but I’ve saved the most important for last: Have fun. 

    You have a rare opportunity to do something that could end up being amazing (or not). Yes, it’s a rollercoaster, but it has a tremendous upside, so enjoy the ride.