I'll never forget the first time I took my son to a movie.
It was Thanksgiving Day in 1999. We were living in North Carolina, and my family was visiting from Texas. On a whim, we decided to take the foursome to Toy Story 2, even though Ben and Emma weren’t yet 2.
We knew it would be a challenge, and true to form, Emma and Kate decided to check out every seat, and lap, in our row. Nicholas kicked back amid the madness and feigned moderate interest; he had already seen the movie.
Ben sat in his chair, riveted, the entire time, eating his popcorn by the kernel and taking occasional sips from his Sierra Mist. His feet extended barely past the seat cushion.
We should have known something was different then.
Parents of child actors are on the periphery. You observe, evaluate, question, and wonder. You pursue PhDs in personal and professional juggling, trying to strike the balance between the actor, your other children, and your respective careers.
And you schlep — a lot.
At age 9, Ben decided he wanted to pursue this as a profession, with the encouragement of his dance teacher and a couple of others who had spotted his talent — and, more important, his presence — on stage. Talent is something you can nurture and teach; presence is innate. You either have it or you don’t.
Making this level of commitment was something Jill and I were willing to do, but we agreed in advance to several rules that we would not bend. Among them:
• He has to maintain good grades; none of this matters if he ends up flunking out of school.
• He has to be professional when he’s on the job.
• He has to be a kid when he’s not.
We also decided that we would make a conscious effort not to be your stereotypical stage parents, those who constantly criticize and critique everyone else’s work while extolling the virtues of their “perfect child.” You see these parents over and over at tryouts, acting/dance classes, and other informal gatherings rife with politics that could rival any legislature or Congress. (Suburban PTA meetings have nothing on a professional audition.)
Some parents want to sit and watch auditions and rehearsals and are shocked when they can’t, not realizing that this is work. (After all, would you want to accompany your teenage child to a job in a fast food restaurant? “Hey, Mom, can you please move? I’ve got to get this customer their fries.”)
That, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration. Many parents, like us, are making tremendous sacrifices for their children. But, just as in any competitive sport, we've seen some kids that are either coddled or pressured to such an extreme that you wonder how they will survive it. And sadly, tabloids have been littered with those who ultimately didn't.
Our philosophy always has been to be as unobtrusive as possible. We are there for support, not to interfere, which largely translates into a lot of picking up and dropping off. Our big questions are of the “Is he doing OK?” and “How can he improve?” variety. It’s the same approach we use with Ben and his other siblings with regard to school. While we have opinions, we’re not the professionals at this, and far be it for us to tell professionals how to do their jobs.
Most important is this simple fact: Our personal success is not rooted in Ben’s professional success. Instead, it’s rooted in whether we help our good, talented children become good, talented adults.
Today, at 12, Ben has worked more than some adults I know. Over the past year, he has been in four productions — two of the "Ragtime" revival and two world premieres ("The Heavens Are Hung in Black" and "Golden Age").
In many ways, this is his golden age.
Two years ago tonight, he finished a role as Young McDuff in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Macbeth.” It was a spectacular show, filled with magic, illusion, special effects, and buckets (yes, buckets) of blood. Pretty cool for a then-10-year-old, eh?
As parents, we were initially queasy about our son dying on stage 53 times, and watching him be stabbed and then carted off by his shirt (he had to wear a harness underneath) was shocking the first time.
But as the play’s run progressed, it started becoming routine.
“So how was the death scene tonight, son?”
“Pretty cool. I made a lady scream from the balcony.”
Theater is filled with these types of situations, populated as it is by exquisitely talented people who are wonderful characters in their own lives as well as on stage. Few are anarchists about earning “a decent wage,” but they are willing to do whatever it takes in exchange for the love their craft provides.
By and large, the people Ben has met in the professional world are not your stereotypical divas and jerks, although we know those folks are out there. In his case, it’s been exactly the opposite; people have been extremely supportive of him as a child actor navigating his way. They see his joy for the stage, his genuine love for the craft, and they see someone who — no matter what happens down the line professionally — is a lifer. And they have responded to that.
As much as Ben deals with the actors, most of our interaction on a show is with the “handler” — also known as a “wrangler” — who is hired to follow the child around and make sure that he/she is on time, always safe, and ready for his/her cues. (They also serve as big brother/big sister, psychiatrist, watchdog, and gentle chastiser.)
In many ways, it’s a thankless job, but one for which we are grateful. Ben has formed many deep, wonderful relationships with the people who were assigned to watch over him. We don’t know what we — or he — would do without them.
Two years ago, when “Macbeth” ended, Ben was extremely down, having come face to face with the reality that his life would be a series of meeting and making miniature families that would disintegrate when the curtain fell one last time.
Unfortunately, that’s the business piece of the art, which he also has learned the hard way in a short period of time. The closing of “Ragtime” remains something he doesn’t emotionally grasp, although he accepts with dismay the practical reality of it.
All of this has had an impact on his family, too. Emma, his twin sister, has learned to become more independent without him around. She no longer trails in his shadow. Nicholas is learning to appreciate the talent that his “little brother” has in addition to the opportunities he has not received.
Jill and I are learning to endure time apart, which makes our time together that much more precious. (Look up the clichés on absence and hearts and you’ll get my drift.) In life’s grand scheme (hey, I was in the cliché dictionary just a second ago), we realize our time doing this is relatively (and blessedly) short.
If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s how to become a cheerleader for my children. In addition to providing me with rafts of great material — this blog for example — they also bring me great joy. Having watched my own father struggle just to stay afloat, I realize how blessed I am to have the good health (as well as a good job) that allows me to give this back to my children.
I am proud to be a stage dad; in many respects it’s the best job I’ll ever have.
One thing we learned early on is that Ben feels lost without having a show to do. He is relentlessly creative, and at an age in which he is a sponge for knowledge, but having the structure of a regular schedule comforts him. This is the same child who, at age 3, wondered aloud what the schedule was, and was visibly upset that we had nothing planned on a Saturday.
“Dad,” Ben proclaimed recently (at 12 he is prone to proclamations), “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m enjoying being around adults. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a kid, and I like kids. It’s just that kids are… so limited. I think adults are much more interesting.”
After the premature demise of “Ragtime,” we were fortunate that Ben was back on the job within a few weeks. This time, it was a new play — Terrence McNally’s “Golden Age” — at the Kennedy Center.
Ben was the only child in “Golden Age,” which was set backstage at the premiere of an opera in 1835. It’s not your typical topic for a 12-year-old who is content to make nerf gun videos during his time off. (As if to rub his still somewhat analog father’s nose in it, he announced today that he has more than 1,000 subscribers to his bentwins10097 YouTube channel)
But remember, this is the child who didn’t like to read, then found himself doing Dickens and Shakespeare in his first two plays. Whether he realizes it or not, the training he is receiving is in the work of some of the greatest playwrights of all time, and he gets to work with top-of-the-line actors, directors, and others as well.
“Golden Age” was presented as part of a trilogy of McNally’s plays devoted to opera; the others were the Tony Award-winning “Master Class” and the superb “Lisbon Traviata.” Like many new plays, it is a work in progress, but the writing is often funny, thought provoking, and in many instances for me, very profound. It is the work of a true artist, a combination of thoughts and perspectives on critics, commerce, and the joys and fears of creating something new and different, something the world needs but hasn’t yet seen.
Now “Golden Age” has ended, and the five-week DC to New York respite we received has ended, too. We’re back in the land of “Who knows what’s next?” again, facing a variety of new and sure-to-be interesting transitions.
And with that coda, I have only one last thing to say: Run like the wind, Bullseye.