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…