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  • MYT Performs 'columbinus'

    Last night, in a small, sweltering room on the 18th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, I shot production photos for Metropolitan Youth Theater’s production of “columbinus,” a provocative and troubling play that that focuses on “the dark recesses of American adolescence.”

    Suggested by the April 1999 Columbine shooting, with a script that includes excerpts from discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders in Littleton, Colo., the play was created by the United States Theatre project and performed Off-Broadway in 2006. It runs at 8:30 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Saturday in the Black Box Theatre at Metropolitan School of the Arts.

    The cast of eight opens the show as teenage archetypes, without names but labels (Loner, Freak, AP (Advanced Placement), Rebel, Faith, Perfect, Prep, and Jock). Freak and Loner are bullied by their classmates and morph into Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the start of Act 2. The rest of the show, which takes its script from the journals and videos of Klebold and Harris, shows what happens in the days approaching Columbine and their subsequent suicides. An epilogue features survivors, parents, and townspeople reflecting on the events.

    Warning: Given the subject matter and language, this is not a play for young or impressionable children. It is, however, a courageous step forward for Metropolitan Youth Theatre, which was founded in 2014 by three high school students who wanted area youth to perform in shows with adult themes. Past productions, all musicals put on entirely by high school and college students, have included “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.”

    “columbinus,” is directed by Chad Vann, a Hayfield High School senior who is one of the group’s co-founders. Vann also is one of the eight cast members (Jock). The rest of the cast includes Brian Perry (Loner/Dylan Klebold), Danny Waldman (Freak/Eric Harris), AP (Joshua Mutterpearl), Rebel (Bridgette Saverine), Faith (Erin Claeys), Perfect (Hallie Friedman), and Prep (Jackson Miller). Madison Hite is the understudy for Faith.

    Alyssa Denton is producing the show, with Hailey Parker-Combes serving as the costume designer and Delaney Claussen as the sound designer.

    A limited number of tickets are available at the box office for the shows. MSA is located at 5775 Barclay Drive, Suite 4 in Alexandria, Va., 22315.

    To see more photos from the production, go to my Facebook page here.

  • Headshots: Anissa

    Headshot season is heating up! Check out these photos of Anissa, taken this summer in New York City, at http://glenncook.virb.com/anissa and schedule your session today!

  • The Art & Humor of Vegetables

    Ben is a kid who doesn’t like to eat any food that hasn’t been processed at least twice, which turns every adventure with any natural product that is green in origin into a standup comedy routine. At 13, he’s getting better (or at least acknowledging) that eating fruit is good for you, but vegetables remain another story.

    Between shows recently, he was bribed (or shamed, depending on how you look at it) into eating a piece of lettuce, a cucumber, and a tomato. Asked whether he wanted dressing (aka sauce) to go with it, he asked his friend Neil, “What is sauce?”

    These pictures show my son performing his own version of dinner theater, And by the way, he ate 2 out of 3, but the chickpea-for-tomato trade went nowhere.

  • Random Thoughts on Parenting

    Life with Jeremiah:

    Jeremiah marks his one-year anniversary of living with us this month. No question, the last year has been an adventure for him and for us, but we are extremely proud of the progress he has made in a bunch of areas — academically, socially, and in his dance/performing arts training. He’s a sweet kid. 

    Still, some things continue to need work, such as his understanding of Rock & Roll 101, for which he is currently in remediation. Examples last night at the dinner table include:

    • “Little Richard — is that the guy who sang ‘Hello’?” (Lionel Ritchie — same initials, slightly different approach.)

    
• “Liberace — was he a member of Queen?” (No, that would be Freddie Mercury. Let’s just leave it at that.)

    ••••••

    If the Google translator app worked on teen speech:

    • "But I don't have time" = "It's not something I want to do, and I only make time for the things I want to do."

    • "I'm (fill in the blank) years old. You don't have to watch over me so closely" = "Give me freedom. Give me liberty. Just don't make me pay for my car, insurance or cell phone."

    • "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you were saying" = "I was too busy ignoring you to hear what you said."


    • "Of course I have proper table manners." = "I know how to text surreptitiously with one hand."

    Age is not the only reason parents have gray hair.

  • Parenting: The Imperfect Process

    Sometimes when I can't sleep, I write... So here goes.

    As much as I love my children, parenting has to be the hardest job in the world.

    December, as anyone who has read this knows, is birthday month at our house.  Nicholas, Ben and Emma have birthdays within three days of each other, and the twins are the same age as Katharine for two weeks and two days, until her birthday on Dec. 27.

    As a result, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas — that never-too-stressful time the rest of you call the holiday season — is no picnic for us.

    I don’t mean to complain. It also is a time of tremendous joy and pride, to see that they have made it through another year on this earth with 12 more months of life experience under their belts. And that holds true even if the months and days haven’t always been the easiest.

    When people hear the story about having three kids in a single calendar year, they often shake their heads and say how tough that period must have been. And there’s no denying that it was hard on the body (and sometimes spirit) because of the sheer amount of work required.

    But when they ask if it’s easier now, I can’t say that it is. It’s just, as I may have mentioned before, different. The physical demands are nothing compared to the psychological stamina that raising three teenagers (with a fourth, Jeremiah, as a value add) requires. 

    I hated being a teenager, and I’ve never understood why people look back nostalgically on their those years and refer to them as the best time ever. In many respects, life didn’t really start for me until I was in my 30s, even though there were some memorable events and occurrences that took place before then.

    What I’ve learned, although I’m not always good at practicing what I preach, is that letting them find their own way is more difficult than I imagined it would be when I was a teen. And as anyone who knows us knows, we’ve raised a brood that is choosing paths that are taking them in many different, divergent directions.

    The natural, almost innate trust that you have in your children (and vice versa) is chipped at as they grow up and push boundaries in directions no one anticipated or came fully equipped to deal with. Accompanying that is a sense of — and I’m not sure this is the right word — fear. 

    Fear, as you know, is something that constantly nibbles at trust. It sits there whispering in a voice that hasn’t been that steady or persistent since your spouse was carrying the child (or children) in the womb, or the (literal) birth day. Recently, I mentioned that I used to say that 99 times out of 100, nothing would go wrong. Pretty good odds, except when you become a parent, you worry about the 1.

    Parenting is not linear or autocratic, although it requires a form of upper management skills that can and should out earn even the highest-paid CEOs. It is a form of shared responsibility that is far messier than democracy. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise our kids in the best way we know how, but it is by no means a perfect process. And — at least in my case — no amount of effort will earn an “A.”

    If you’ve taken the time to read this far, don’t be alarmed. Writing is how I process, and there’s a lot of that to do every year around this time. We’ve been so busy this fall that our vacation in St. Thomas feels like it was six years — not six months — ago.

    All in all, things have been good. They could always be better (and as I struggle to remind myself at times, will be), but I would not trade my family and this time with my kids for anything.

    Not even a regular, full-time job, but if that comes along, I’m game. Compared to parenting, anything else is bound to be a piece of cake.

  • It's Time to Wake Up

    Get ready for a rant. But first, a few questions to warm you up.

    What will it take to improve the state of our country’s mental health care system? When will our elected officials stop being so polarized and shortsighted about the lack of funding, beds, and available care? When will health insurance companies get their hands out of our wallets and take steps to promote mental as well as physical wellness?

    I’m not terribly optimistic. Nor was I terribly surprised when a study released this week said more than half of teens with psychiatric disorders go untreated. Also not surprising: Those who do receive treatment get it more often from school counselors, pediatricians, and probation officers instead of mental health specialists.

    As a country, we should be ashamed.

    Yesterday, a Virginia state senator and former gubernatorial candidate was stabbed multiple times at his home. The culprit: His 24-year-old son, who received an emergency mental health evaluation on Monday but was sent home after authorities could find no psychiatric beds in Western Virginia.

    Today, Creigh Deeds is in the hospital in fair condtion. His son, Gus, is dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

    ••••••

    My wife and I have a teenage daughter who has been diagnosed ADHD/bipolar, a genetic one-two punch that leaves her vulnerable to irritability, manic highs and deep, deep lows. Throw in a propensity for anxiety — one that manifests itself in physical tics that are often painful spasms — and it is a constant struggle for her to manage her mood.

    Bipolar, or “it” as we used to call the disorder, lurks just below the surface, ready to erupt at a moment’s notice. One day you have rapid, pressured speech and feelings of invincibility; by that evening, you might see anger, extreme sadness, or the desire to do absolutely nothing.

    In some ways that last description fits many teenagers who don’t have a formal diagnosis and a list of prescriptions a mile long. But what makes “it” so special is that it takes those typical teen urges and impulses and puts them on red alert.

    As Kate’s parents, we have tried almost everything medically imaginable to help. Testing, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, prescriptions. We’ve taken hard-line stances and tried to use kid gloves. What we’ve discovered is that what works one minute won’t necessarily work the next, and that’s exhausting for all involved.

    Especially for our daughter.

    ••••••

    Sadly, the survey results released Monday were almost predictable. More than 10,000 teens participated in the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement, a project led by Duke University professor E. Jane Costello. Of those surveyed, only 45 percent who have a psychiatric disorder received treatment in the last 12 months. Among the providers, mental health specialists ranked behind pediatricians, school counselors, and probation officers.

    Not surprisingly, the survey said those more likely to act out — i.e. the ones with ADHD, conduct disorder, or oppositional defiance disorder — were the ones most likely to receive services. Those with phobias and anxiety disorders were least likely to get treatment.

    Costello understated it when she said people don’t “take psychiatric conditions as seriously as they should … despite the fact that these conditions are linked to a whole host of other problems.” She blamed that in part on the lack of consistent care and the limited number of qualified mental health professionals who can address the issue.

    That’s something we’ve encountered when trying to find help for Kate. She has received the most assistance from caring people at her high school, even though it took us some time and a bunch of red tape to find the right fit. But due to a shortage of child psychiatrists in the area, she’s had only two since she was diagnosed — one an old-school practitioner who didn’t bother to have a computer, the other a doctor we found three years ago.

    Neither takes insurance; like all child psychiatrists we’ve spoken with, they prefer to leave that paperwork to the parents.

    Our options also are limited if we have to take our daughter to the emergency room for treatment related to her condition. The hospital will not let her stay overnight; if she is stable, she is sent home. If further (read “emergency”) treatment is needed, we have the option of one facility in Maryland, one in Washington, D.C., one near our home in Northern Virginia, and one in Richmond, 90 miles away.

    And that is only if they have an available bed at that time.

    Once admitted to one of those four facilities, all of which have the warmth of your average jail cell, the patient is kept until they are considered “medically stable” — no longer a threat to self or others. At that point, insurance — if you’re lucky enough to have it — stops paying. The bills, more than $1,000 a day, start adding up if you want to (or are allowed to) keep the patient there for additional treatment. Oh, and psychiatric services — remember the no insurance factor — are a separate bill.

    And we wonder why it is so difficult for people to receive treatment for mental health issues in this country?

    ••••••

    Fortunately, earlier this month, the Obama administration finally brought some “parity” to the process when it issued rules that require health insurance plans to offer the same coverage for mental health and substance abuse claims as they do for medical and surgical procedures.

    Prior to the rules being put into place, most insurance plans would pay 80 percent for medical care and only 50 percent for mental health claims. Now, thanks to those rules, insurance plans must cover the same number of inpatient hospital days for mental and physical illnesses. Insurers also can’t require many of the onerous preauthorizations — a bureaucratic maze in their own right — for mental health care like they did in the past.

    The rules are not perfect; Medicaid recipients and the Children’s Health Insurance Program still don’t have mental health parity requirements. But they are a great first step.

    And before you jump into the Obamacare debate over this one, note that the law was passed in 2008, as part of a gigantic Wall Street bailout that then-President Bush signed. It has taken five years for the rules to be issued, a shame in and of itself.

    ••••••

    There has always been a stigma of shame, along with a stinging level of insensitivity, around people who have mental health issues, especially among our young people. It's only when tragedy occurs — like the mass killing in Newtown, Conn., last year, or the one yesterday in Virginia — that attention seems to be brought to the topic. Ironically, research has shown the mentally ill are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators.

    Bipolar and ADHD do not have symbols, like pink ribbons or the faces of cute children, that we can rally around. Instead, those symbols — the faces of people like our beautiful daughter — remain largely anonymous. 

    How many more tragedies will it take before we finally wake up?

  • Stage Dad: A Race Against Time

    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.

    Finally.

    “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.

  • "Fragile"

    The other night, as I left the grocery store in the all-too-familiar rush to get somewhere, I heard Sting's song "Fragile" pour through the speakers.

    “On and on and on and on. How fragile we are. How fragile we are…”

    Hearing the song — when did I last hear a Sting song, I wondered, especially from his solo career? — made me pause as I watched my daughter walk quickly toward the car.

    How fragile we are — indeed.

    Jill and I have come to dread this time of year, when the days get shorter, the gap seems impossibly wide between fall and spring sports, and the mundane, day-to-day nature of the school year moves into a high-pitch duet of sharps, flats, and off-key moments in time.

    Our oldest daughter, who turns 16 next month, is ADHD/bipolar. For the past two years, the period from November to March has been an unsettled, contentious time in our household, tension always simmering under the surface.

    Tension that, like a pot of boiling water, sometimes overflows.

    ••••••

    Writing is my form of therapy. And over the past three years, I’ve written about Kate and the trials she and we have faced many times — in this space and in other places. If anything, this blog is as much about raising her as it is about raising a family of performers.

    I haven’t written recently, even though my Facebook friends will attest that I haven’t lacked for things to say. I’ve even started using Twitter, if for no other reason than I can’t seem to focus for more than 140 characters at a time.

    I’m definitely the ADD part of Kate – the “H,” if I had it, was squeezed out years ago by parenting and my profession. My gene pool also contributed to her stubborn, dig in your heels, and win-at-all-costs nature of rhetorical discourse, even if that discourse is simply yelling at the top of her lungs. Our arguments feel like they come from some bad sitcom featuring ethnic stereotypes, or a reality show on TLC.

    In the end, however, it’s “our reality show,” and fortunately for us, the cameras are not on when these things happen.

    ••••••

    Five random thoughts about parenting:

    • Nothing exposes your flaws like being a parent. It’s the single hardest job anyone has.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids – all four of them. And I  can’t believe how quickly time seems to be flying by, especially since they’ve become teenagers. I realize that, in many cases, we’re coming quickly to the end of the adolescent marathon.

    • Parenting has taught me about life in a time-suck continuum. Blink and your toddler is a teenager. Blink twice and they’re off to college. (A three-time blink is not recommended, however, because that means your now-grown child will be living on your couch.)

    • There are days when I would rather take shelter in a Home Depot than face another parenting problem, and I can’t stand Home Depot.

    • I don’t see how President Obama does it. Being the parent to two adolescent girls is enough to turn anyone gray.

    ••••••

    This is the time of year, however, when my flaws are more exposed than ever. The usual stress that the holidays bring, along with the addition of four teens’ birthdays in a single month (December no less), is enough to put anyone on edge. And then there is “It.”

    “It” is our name for the illness, which always lingers but tends to take a long-term sublet in our daughter as soon as the sun starts setting before 6 p.m. I’ve always said that Kate’s implied motto is, “If at first you don’t succeed, try something else…” The always-restless nature of the ADHD child exacerbates that, and puberty has been no help.

    “It” is interested in stirring things up, in keeping the family’s mood on a flying trapeze. When her body runs out of energy, or when faced with something too difficult to deal with emotionally, “It” shuts down and takes a brief nap in the middle of a conversation.

    “It” is what happens when the days become shorter and less structured, and she starts to run out of options. “It” tells her to stay home from school, to raid the fridge for comfort foods and sugar, to be combative when confronted.

    “It” is all about feeding “It.”

    ••••••

    Early on, Jill and I made the conscious decision to be open about parenting and this illness. This summer, representing the American School Counselor Association (where she works), Jill spoke to a group of dance teachers from around the state and country about the dealing with teens with mental health issues. It was a huge success; everyone in the audience appreciated her advocacy and sincerity.

    Being open pays other dividends. Over the past couple of years, Kate’s siblings and relatives have become much more sympathetic and understanding as their knowledge has deepened. And we have had conversations with other parents who, like us, find themselves in a quandary about what to do and how to help their child navigate the social and emotional landmines.

    We don’t know any more than anyone else, but we can listen and share.

    And that’s important, because the day-to-day intensity and lack of stability that this illness nurtures is tough for us as parents. Navigating the teenage years along with the frustrations that build among others and us in dealing with “It” is never easy. How I respond to those frustrations and confrontations is imperfect, even on the best days.

    Nowhere am I more flawed or vulnerable than in my role as Kate’s father. But the same can be said for my dealings with Ben, Emma, and Nicholas as well.

    How fragile we are. Indeed.