Last night, Jill and I spoke to parents and students at Colgan High School of the Fine and Performing Arts about our experiences raising child (now adult) performers. Ben and Emma contributed a video answering pre-selected questions from the audience.
Jill and I have never presented together, and we really enjoyed having the opportunity to bring our various strengths to what turned out to be a very interactive two-hour presentation with about 70 people. It was a lot of fun.
Recently, the father of a 13-year-old girl wrote asking if I could help her with a class project by answering some questions about photography. The dad explained that his daughter — a dancer and a big “Newsies” fan — had started following my work because of my ongoing “Art & Dance” series and had gotten a camera for Christmas.
As a dad, it’s hard to turn down this type of request, especially when a parent takes the time to ask for help for his daughter. As a photographer, I’m more collegial than competitive, and always happy to help others.
Answering her questions was an interesting exercise. Since Jill and I reached 50 last year, we both find ourselves reflecting on why we do what we do, what drives us to continue, and what we like/dislike about our roles in this life. As the child of two teachers, this was my teachable moment, an opportunity to explain the craft I've come to love.
Over the next four days, I’d like to share edited — and in some cases enhanced — versions of the responses. (Call it a “director’s cut” if you will.) If you follow my writing and this blog, chances are you’ve seen some of this before. But I hope you find it an entertaining read nonetheless.
What was your inspiration to become a professional photographer?
My dad was a visual artist who could paint, sculpt, or draw anything that came to mind. I can't draw a stick figure, but I've always had his eye for composition, just not the creativity (or sadly, the fine motor skills) to create something out of nothing.
When I first went to New York with our son, Ben, in 2009, I thought of my dad often as I was drawn to the visual explosion that is the city. Dad died in 2007 and never visited New York, but in so many ways, the stuff I see walking around serves as a constant reminder of his interests, insights, and influence on my life. Also, when in New York, I spend most of my time on foot as opposed to in a car, so I see things differently when I’m there.
On a beautiful spring day, I took out my camera, started taking random pictures of the things I saw, and found I have a knack for it. I shared the photos to Facebook, found my friends liked them too, and just continued with it.
What do you like most about photography?
Capturing moments in time, whether it is through the dance pictures, an unusual or visually interesting place, or through portraits I take of people. People seem to appreciate that I can do it and like my work, which is very gratifying.
Photography also has allowed me to make connections I never would have imagined — such as the one I’m making with you right now — and several folks from far-flung places have said they became interested in picking up a camera after seeing my random noodlings. I've been lucky to go out on photo shoots with a variety of other weekend warriors, all of whom I've learned from and whose talents are greater than mine.
Here’s what I say to anyone who has an interest in taking pictures: Try it and see what happens. You might find you like it and have a previously untapped talent. It’s something you can do alone or with others. It gives you a chance to be creative in ways you might never have imagined.
This is the last in a three-part series based on conversations and surveys I've had with other parents of child actors about their experiences and lessons learned. The series has been published over the past week on the DC Metro Theatre Arts website and is cross-posted to the blog here.
Over the past two columns, I have written about what other parents have to say about raising a child in show business. We’ve looked at challenges they face and what they wished they had known.
In this final segment, I asked them for their best advice for other parents. Not surprisingly, some of the answers overlap from the previous two columns, but it really comes down to three things:
• Make sure this is right for your family and your child.
• It is a business.
• Be prepared to audition and get as much training as you can.
Here is what my cadre of parents advised:
• “Only pursue this if it is truly what your child wants and not what you want for your child. There is a huge difference and parents know this. It is great when they love it and horrible to see when they do not.”
• “As you get deeper along, remember, they don’t call it ‘show light bulb’ or ‘show airplane,’ but rather show ‘business.’ It is a business and a very competitive and harsh (at times) one. Don’t ever think or be lulled to think otherwise.”
• “Try not to put your life on hold, although this could be tricky. Try to fit show business into your life. Don’t stop your life for show biz. Have your child experience all kinds of things. Don’t make them a singing, dancing, acting machine. If they truly love to do this, a lot of it will be natural for them with a little training on the side. But every child is different and every family unique.”
• “Learn how to Skype.”
• “Make sure this is right for your family. Yes, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that many people dream of and work all their lives to accomplish — but you need to know what it would cost your family emotionally and financially. Your child will not have a typical childhood and might regret that. The time spent away from the rest of family will also have an impact. We made sure that one parent was in the city, and one at home … but it made the time for us as husband and wife hard to come by.”
• “Everyone who is interested should pursue this but don’t expect anything. Be prepared to spend a lot of time auditioning and also a lot of money training. Get as much training as possible and be thoroughly prepared for each audition. Get terrific headshots and update them as needed. Be ready to go to every audition you are sent on (unless you feel the content is not appropriate) If you say ‘no’ too many times to agents they will forget about you. Pursue non-professional work to gain experience.”
• “My advice to parents is to always remember to ask yourself, truly, ‘Are you doing this because your kid wants it or because you want it?’ If you answered yes to the second half of the question, you need to look inside and fulfill your own dreams.”
• “Be involved, supportive, helpful and aware but allow your kid to be who they are not who you want them to be. Children want your approval more than anything; they will do anything for it. So give them lots of acceptance and love and know that we each have our own path to follow in this life. It is our job as parents to encourage them to find their own way and let them know they are loved no matter what they choose.”
• “Don’t push a kid into it, but if they want to perform then try to make it happen. It’s grueling fun!”
• “Listen to your children, and don’t push them. Love them and cheer wildly for them whether they play customer number 10 in their elementary school play or Annie in Annie on Broadway!”
• “Remember that you are responsible for instilling values in him or her. Those values will serve them in life far more than any role they get while they are a child actor. Your job is to raise a person, not an actor. Let the professionals teach them to be good on stage, and you teach them to be good in life. Applaud them for their achievements as a person, not just as an actor.”
That’s sound advice all around. Thanks to my fellow parents for sharing it…
To see the previous posts, clickhereandhere. For more Stage Dad columns and related writing, gohere.
This is the second in a three-part series based on conversations and surveys I've had with other parents of child actors about their experiences and lessons learned. The series is being published over the next week on the DC Metro Theatre Arts website and cross-posted to the blog here.
One of my favorite television shows is Friday Night Lights, a beautifully written, small-scale drama that focuses on a small Texas town and its obsession with high school football. The show’s overarching theme is “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose” – a motto that all parents should adopt when they have a child who wants to perform professionally.
That’s easier said than done, because entering with your child into the professional world of acting and performing is an ongoing test. Schedules get blown up, sibling rivalry can be on steroids, and you often will find yourself asking more questions in a never-ending quest for answers.
We’ve faced those challenges as parents of a performer, and in talking to others in similar situations, I found a wealth of great advice – and a few warnings. Here are excerpts from my e-mail interviews with more than 20 parents, this time centering on the question: What do you wish you had known before you pursued this as a family?
“There is so much I did not know,” one parent said. “I guess maybe it would have helped to really understand the demanding schedule these kids have, but truthfully you can’t really understand it until you live it.”
Unless you land that million-to-one role, make sure you prepare your child for a lot of grunt work along the way. “We learned that much was involved before acting in movies,” said one parent, “including ‘learning to act’ – classes, practice, etc. – local training, local theatre, finding an agent, beginning the work. A wise coach taught us that an actor’s job is going on auditions.”
Parents say you have to be prepared – at least as much as you can be – for lengthy separations. The cost of relocating to New York or Los Angeles is likely more than you expect, especially if there are periods of unemployment.
“I wish I had known more about the business end and the rights and costs associated with being in a union,” one parent said. “We learned the hard way that after everyone took their percentage, we were not left with enough money to cover the cost of travel, tolls, parking and food.”
One parent regrets not spotting his daughter’s desire to perform sooner and doing something about it. “I wish that we had acted sooner, that we had taken her to have her talents evaluated before we did,” he said. “It would have allowed us to plan more.”
Child actors are faced with a short window of time, something I’ve discussed in previous columns. Once you reach puberty, get too tall, or your voice changes, the chances of you being hired until you reach 18 become few. In most cases, small or young-looking adult actors can be hired to play teens.
“It’s a lot of work and time involved. When our daughter was asked to go on tour we decided not to because my husband and I had commitments here, another daughter still living at home and homeschooling, so that wasn’t an option,” said one parent, who also was a child performer. “Then our daughter became too tall, so her options for Broadway were cut very short.”
With our son, one of the most difficult things has been the long periods of separation. For the first year, my wife and I split our time going back and forth to New York, but we had to hire a full-time guardian when he went out on tour.
“I wish I knew how hard it was to be separated,” one parent said. “But that may have stopped me from pursuing this, so I’m glad I didn’t know.”
Parenting, under perceived normal circumstances, often leaves you with more questions than answers. Are we doing what’s right for our child and for the rest of our family?
“Like everything in life, choices must be made,” one parent told me. “Do we want to move? Do we want to split up our family? What about the other kids, spouse, friends, community? For each choice (action), there is a consequence (reaction). We have learned our personal preferences along the journey and so far they have worked well for us and our child.”
And most important, the parents said, remember that you’re helping your child achieve their dream, not living out yours.
“I had been a performer,” said one parent. “I knew somewhat what we would be getting into and I try to never push her into anything she doesn’t want to do. It’s not fair to her.”
Coming Next: Parents give their best advice.
To see the previous post, click here. For more Stage Dad columns and related writing, go here.
At some point every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my inner cynic starts thinking: Maybe Scrooge had a point.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about the holidays that bring out my inner churl, but it is hard to escape a simple fact: Every year for more than a decade, starting at age 8, I spent part of the holiday season visiting relatives in the hospital, waiting and wondering when the dreaded shoe was going to drop like an anvil on a member of my immediate family.
And after that lucky streak, I upped the ante by becoming Charlie Brown in my own Christmas special.
My father’s illness covered my tween years; my grandfather’s my early teens. After my grandfather died nine days before Christmas in 1981, the pattern became more erratic, even if the result didn’t. One year it was my dad’s gallbladder operation, the next it was my uncle having a car radiator explode in his face just before Thanksgiving.
(If there’s one thing I can safely say about my uncle, it’s that his failure to differentiate between a warm engine and a hot toddy made him the winner in the “Most Unique Reason to Spend the Holiday in a Hospital” category. And that was the year we won the medical triple crown, with my mother separating her shoulder and my dad having knee surgery. But again, I digress…)
Remarkably, as they did throughout their married lives, Mom and Dad managed.
As my mother recently noted, I had a thing for things; as a parent, I have found this is an affliction many children have. This presented an ongoing management challenge for my parents, who scraped pennies together to make ends meet against our wishes for the next big thing, which ultimately would be pushed aside in pursuit of the next-next big thing. (After all, my birthday is in mid-January...)
Looking back, I now see how hard it must have been. To my mom’s everlasting credit, she worked tirelessly to ensure that my sister and I had a nice holiday season, even if that meant excavating me from my traditional sleeping spot under the tree late on Christmas Eve, or putting our dog Frisky’s paw on a rubber stamp pad so the “reindeer” could sign Santa’s thank you note for the milk and cookies.
They did this while somehow putting food on the table, paying the bills on time, and getting us what we wanted (within reason), even if that meant they had to recycle bows and wrapping paper from year to year and event to event. It also meant that the largest Christmas present always came in "the bag," which was then folded and put away until the next year.
I didn't realize then how small blessings, built up over time, could turn into large ones. One of those blessings came from my second set of “parents” — Fran and Bill, the childless neighbors from across the street who “adopted” us as theirs. Having them always made the holidays a little easier.
As the years passed and the hospital visits mounted, however, I found myself approaching mid-November waiting for the other shoe to drop. My deeply jaded side wanted to conduct an office pool under the title of “Which member of Glenn’s family will be subjected to the holiday drama trauma this year?” (Double points if it was anyone but my father.)
My (italics added for emphasis) bad luck almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bah humbug, indeed…
Note: Last night, I found myself watching "Up" on DVD and it reminded me of this essay I wrote on the second anniversary of my dad's death. I posted it to Facebook but not to the blog, and wanted to put it up here.
Two years ago, my father died. Six weeks after, on Sept. 11, the woman I referred to as my second mom passed away as well.
It felt like the Twin Towers of my childhood were coming down around me. Fortunately, the foundation of much of that childhood — my mom — is still standing.
My entry into this not-so-exclusive club — adult children who lose their parents — was not dissimilar to many who are my age. Nor, as I continue to learn, are the emotions that to this day catch me off guard.
For example, I took my kids to see "Up," the new Disney movie, this past weekend. In what is a bravura sequence of filmmaking (animated, CGI, or not), the audience watches an almost 10 minute sequence that represents the arc of a lifetime for Carl and Ellie. As you watch the adventure they go through, that of the mundane day-to-day tasks and miscellaneous hardships and barriers that prevent them from going to the land unknown, I dare anyone not to tear up.
Or, as in my case (and to the horror of my suddenly self-conscious children), you might start blubbering like a baby.
The reason for this, I later figured out, was because the relationship represented everything I saw in my parents. Life's barriers, big and small, kept blocking their path, but they never stopped living their adventure. Not until after the very end. Two years and two days ago, my father waved goodbye to me and to my sister before slipping into a final, fitful coma. His death, or some form of life without him, was something I had prepared myself for almost daily since childhood.
Truism #1: No matter how prepared you may be, you are never prepared for life after the end.
The death of my second mom was not as much of a shock, even though Fran's dramatic decline in such a short period was traumatic in its own way.
The numbness of these two events started wearing off after about 4 months. The holidays brought a flood of memories and feelings I had anticipated, but was not able to deal with at the time. No matter how “prepared” I thought I was, I wasn’t ready to see a movie I knew my father would like and not be able to call him, or to find a book or CD that he would enjoy and realize I couldn’t buy it and put it away for Chrismas or his birthday.
Truism #2: Memories live as long as you breathe life into them.
Over time, I found myself welcoming other friends into my not-so-exclusive club. We now exchange knowing nods, e-mails, and phone calls as critical days and anniversaries pass, times in which we are transported back to childhood and reminded of the things (big and small) that we encountered with our parents on life's great adventure.
Two years after his death, I remember my father’s life, and all that it represented. On days like today, days in which my mom and I share conversations about mundane things and find ourselves beset by awkward long distance pauses, I can’t help but think about the end.
On days like today, I wonder why I forget the simplest things, like remembering to put on my watch, or carrying my phone with me to a lunch meeting that runs late. I wonder why my mom’s phone call about finding some of my father’s sketches makes me feel like I’m 8 years old all over again, or why I feel compelled to write this now to share with the world.
I wonder why, on a day in which I received a promotion that would make my father beam with pride, I feel so ambivalent. And then I realize it’s because of what’s been lost, that nothing can replace the presence of a parent in your life.
And then I look at my own kids, those who exasperate and upset me so while bringing such joy to my life, and I know. I just know.
In our family, March is one of those months — like December — that makes me shake my head. Somehow, without help from the NCAA Tournament, we have managed to jam a year’s worth of madness into a single 31-day period we revisit every 12 months.
From birth to marriage to death, our family has it all. And considering that we’re a theatrical bunch, we also have musicals, comedies, and dramas.
The last week of the month is larded with psychological landmines, none more than March 27, the day of my parents’ wedding anniversary and the day in which my second “dad” died.
Bill’s death, six years ago, fell on my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It was not completely unexpected, because he had been in poor health for several months. What was unexpected was the chain of loss that would follow, with my father and second “mom” (Bill’s wife, Fran) and Jill’s mother dying in the next three years.
This year, I was fortunate to be with my mom on March 27, doing something I would not have thought possible in 2004: Driving more than 600 miles in one day to see my son, Nicholas, in a play. (The reason we drove up and back was because she saw Ben in his show the next evening.)
Although it was a long day, the trip was nice. We didn't focus on the past, but looked more at the present and future. And it's a bright future because my mom, thankfully, is in a good place now. For the first time in her life she is financially comfortable, and traveling as all people who worked for their entire lives should get to do.
More important, she has rebounded spectacularly from a hellish year that no one should replicate, in which she lost her husband, her best friend of more than 40 years, another close friend, and the woman who raised her — all in a four-month period.
The circle backs were in full swing on this day. We drove through Reidsville, where I lived when I moved from Texas to North Carolina, got a divorce, met Jill, had three children in a year, and saw the course of my life change forever. We were going to see Nicholas in “South Pacific,” a play I had seen only a few weeks earlier with Ben in New York, and one that tells the stories of servicemen and women similar to my grandfather’s.
As it tends to do, our conversation meandered from topic to topic. No great revelations, no family ghosts looking for skeletons. The occasional nod to the past.
I was born a third, left the hospital a middle, and have felt like an outsider for much of my life since.
Seventeen days after the Baby Boom era officially ended, I was christened John Glenn Cook III. Named after my father and grandfather, I was driven home from the hospital to the strains of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s inauguration ceremony on an AM radio.
Little did I know then, at three days old, that LBJ’s long, drawn out drawl (along with a couple of his social policies) would be one of the things that would help my parents veer permanently toward the Republican camp. For the longest time, I could not reconcile how my father could have John F. Kennedy’s speeches on album and yet claim to be a Republican.
Of course, I also didn’t realize that being a Democrat in Texas did not mean you were liberal in any way, shape, or form. But I digress…
My parents, married just nine months and 21 days when I was born, were fresh out of college and starting their careers. For my dad’s parents, my birth represented a number of positives — first grandchild, a namesake, and, most important, another reason my father would not go to Vietnam.
My grandfather (John Sr.) was an assistant postmaster in Longview, Texas, and was terrified that his son (John Jr.) would be forced to fight in a conflict that many people did not understand. When my dad’s number came up in an upcoming draft notice, he quickly drafted a plan for my parents to get married, noting a deferral that was granted to males who had recently wed.
So my parents got hitched on a Friday, moved my dad’s stuff 250 miles south over the weekend, and my mom went to work teaching school the following Monday. A few short months later, I came along, not knowing at the time that I already had been part of the first great compromise of my parents’ nascent marriage.
It goes something like this: I could be named after my father and grandfather, under the condition that my name really wasn’t John, but Glenn. Except for dooming me to a life of filling out forms with a name that I didn’t go by, and facing a lifetime of questions about being named after the astronaut, the moniker on my birth certificate has had little impact on my life.
“The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”
When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.
I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.
Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.
“I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.
She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.
“You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”
My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.
The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.
Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.
Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.
Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.
Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.
His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.
Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.
If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.
Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.
And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).
Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.
Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.
One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.
Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.
But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”
She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.
“In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”
“The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”
She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”
Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.
When I was growing up, my parents were storytellers. And sadly, I gave them no shortage of material.
Because they were both teachers, they loved to note how I mangled grammar and pronunciation. Of course, reminding them that I was a toddler at the time didn’t help.
“Garwhineits” was Weingartens. “Maimee Farceame” was Mainland Pharmacy. And there were others. But the biggest story — and I think one of my mom’s proudest moments — was when she learned I could read.
“Ford,” I said as the drove past the local car dealership. I was just 10 months old, and at that point, my academic career had nowhere to go but down.
I never understood why I heard these stories over and over again, except that I knew they found them funny and interesting. Now I realize that they were reliving a time that was not terribly complicated, a period from the first few years of marriage before my dad got sick and before life became a series of doctor’s visits and medical bills.
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…