Passing the Baton:Teaching Your Young Actor to Advocate For Her Own Worth

I have been navigating the entertainment industry with my three children for thirteen years now.  Although I don’t consider myself an expert by any means in the industry, I do consider myself experienced . But, my experience lies more in PARENTING my children rather than in STAGE parenting them. What I mean by that is that my job, and my husband’s as well, has always been first and foremost to keep our kids healthy, happy, and grounded in their pursuits, just as any loving parent would for any child.  This involves making sure they have proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper downtime, and even a little fun mixed in to keep them emotionally healthy.

There are certain things we never concern ourselves with for our children when they are working on a project, for example things like: make up, costumes, blocking, stage time, memorizing material, taking notes from the director, etc. Basically, anything that has to do with the production performance or final product is of no concern to us because our children need to be on top of their own game and in direct communication with the creatives for whom they are working since they have chosen this particular pursuit. All three of them know how to manage these types of things, and we have never stepped in or tried to affect their actual work in any way. We trust that they have it covered, as they have proven over and over.

There are instances though when we do have to step in. Unfortunately, there are times in this business where actors are exploited or mistreated for various reasons, not always intentionally, and sometimes as a means to an end. BUT- we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, it has been our job as parents to step in and make things right for our young actors and often the other actors on set as well.  The times we have stepped in are when there is a concern for health or safety be it emotional or physical.  This could mean things like working too long or too late of hours, ignoring illness or physical stress, harsh punishment backstage, or ignoring signs of emotional distress.

There is so much talk around pushing oneself for “the craft” and really going as far as one needs to both physically and emotionally to make the performance what it needs to be. I understand that because any level of greatness has a level of sacrifice. If a person chooses to push himself or herself to some outer limits, that is a choice she makes. But, when someone else makes that choice for you, the game changes. My children need to learn when the line has been crossed and they are no longer being treated in a humane fashion. They are HUMANS first and then actors or singers or dancers or musicians or whatever they are pursuing at the moment. And when a parent makes reasonable requests on a child’s behalf based on safety or health concerns, the child himself should know that mom or dad is advocating on his behalf , not to make the production have difficulties, but to declare the value and worth of the young actor to have his or her needs met.

So mom and dad are not going to be there forever on the sidelines. As my son fast approaches eighteen, it is time for us to pass the baton. He needs to know when his own line has been crossed, and the proper ways to advocate for himself.  Rather than having a fit and breakdown on set, which we have witnessed before unfortunately, he needs to see the signs of distress in himself before it gets to that point.  Once an actor feels that her line has been crossed, there are steps she can take.  I suggest that young actors are aware of their union rules for work hours, breaks, meal times, etc.  This gives them leverage when talking to production, which is where they may begin. If production doesn’t take requests seriously, an actor, or her representation on his behalf,  has every right to call his or her union representative from SAG/AFTRA, AEA or AGMA. The union of which professional actors pay dues will then step in on their behalf immediately.  ( I know folks may say that this makes an actor look difficult. But, honestly if the actor’s requests are reasonable and warranted, the union is the only means of protection and was created just for this purpose. It may be a risk one takes to be treated fairly.) If the actor has representation, she should always involve the agent or manager to act on her behalf as well.  Actors should read their contracts carefully BEFORE signing, and know what they are signing on for.

It is not worth sacrificing humane treatment for a work of art or entertainment. It is absolutely imperative that young actors know their own worth and value and that it is their right to speak on their own behalf. The end goal is that young actors know their value and how to advocate for themselves so that they are treated in the way they deserve.

 

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Children Should Play Children on Broadway

In a recent article in Theatermania about children performing on Broadway, Zachary Stewart asserts, “… and while I’m sympathetic to the call for representation of all types of people onstage, I don’t think it needs to be perfectly literal. Ultimately, by insisting on actual kids to play kids, we’re encouraging unimaginative storytelling for unimaginative audiences.”  I wholeheartedly disagree with his assumptions from the standpoint of not only an audience member, but also as a mother of three professional, child actors working in the industry for over ten years.

I can say for certain, that as a child, I would not have enjoyed a grown Orphan Annie or Mary Lennox or Little Red or Oliver. When I saw those shows, and when I see shows with children in the cast now, I want to connect with the innocence of a child and the childlike realness that she or he brings to the character.  I enjoy hearing child like voices and their timbre singing the songs that are written in keys to capture their wonder and possibility. This is certainly not unimaginative, yet the opposite. I would not have enjoyed adults playing kids in Runaways, which was recently at The Delacorte this past summer after playing Off-Broadway at New York City Center two years ago. My young teenage son could bring a depth, connection, and understanding to the role that a grown person could not. I find it difficult to accuse the late Elizabeth Swados of “unimaginative storytelling”, or for that matter Sam Pinkleton or The Public Theater who chose to cast children and teens to represent them at their annual gala this past year. The same could be said for the creatives of Billy Elliot, or The King and I, or A Christmas Story, or even Macbeth where the murder of a child is best represented by a child. ( My children have had the good fortune to be in all of these shows.) Many stories cannot be told properly without children being a part of the story telling. No amount of “imagination” is going to change that.

The argument could be that this is work, and it is just unethical to allow children to work.  Anyone who knows any Broadway children and families personally will know that when children are as passionate as these kids are, the most ethical and moral thing to do as a parent is to help them pursue their passions.  Broadway children are akin to Olympic athletes. They have a drive and motivation that is hard to contain. We would not thwart our young chess champ or violin prodigy; so why would we stop a child who is capable of the juggling and balance that professional performing requires?  And yes, each show is different in the way children are treated backstage, but I can assure you, there is no child doing this who does not love it! It is not possible because a child works two full-time jobs when he is on Broadway, and this takes discipline and focus, but it does not mean childhood is lost.  Every family that I have met over the years focuses on keeping the balance for their children. It just isn’t what it seems like to the outside world. Ninety-nine percent of the kids who work on stage are the most humble, hard-working people you will ever meet. It is wrong to even imply that time in a Broadway show could somehow make any child actors divas or that “… done wrong,you can definitely find some zonked-out robots who sound like they’ve been media-trained by Stepford Wives…” as quoted by Hayley Levitt in the same article in Theatermania. In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Reporting this kind of stereotype, even saying that it may only happen occasionally, just perpetuates the idea of Mama Rose and the unwilling child actor. I personally know over 50 child actors, many who have sat in my home studying for tests, writing music, planning benefit concerts, singing karaoke, baking cupcakes for the Broadway Flea Market…just being genuinely good people.

Did performing in a show harm those kids or enrich their lives?  Did having them in the show enhance the performance or hinder it? Did the life skills that child actors gained of:  time management, delaying gratification, self-motivation, patience, problem-solving, collaboration, innovation, creativity, fortitude, cooperation, and self-sacrifice contribute to the building blocks of their character? As my youngest child, William Poon said, “Kids need to be played by kids. Kids can do this.” He knows as well as anyone even at age twelve, having been on the international tour of Beauty and the Beast and then playing a royal child in The King and I at Lincoln Center all the while juggling third and fourth grades.  Kids in Broadway shows are a special breed for all the right reasons, and they should continue to be an integral part of the Broadway community and bring a realness to the stage that only youth can afford.

Nobody Has Your Kid’s Back Except You!

I have now been navigating this showbiz arena for twelve years with my children. And if time and experience have taught me one thing for certain, it is that no one else has your child’s back except for you.  And quite honestly, if you are going into this industry with your child, you should know this from the start.

In the beginning, our family had a myriad of teachers, and coaches, and photographers, and other grown folks whom we paid to help our kids. The operative word here is PAID. As time has marched on, that circle of folks has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and even smaller because my eyes have become more open to what this industry brings. It is a business, and hopeful children bring with them a lot of parental support and money. Now mind you, we still have a very small team of individuals who train our children- three to be exact.  These people are trusted and loved by us, and hopefully they know who they are.  But, overall we have been shown time and time again that this is about money.

Maybe this puts things into perspective: one tax season, my son’s deduction for training was $21,000. ( And that is just what we had receipts for.) I am not kidding! It happens very easily when lessons and one day workshops can range from $100- $700 a pop, not to mention the pay-to-plays or camps which run even more expensive, and one child takes several lessons a week. None of us want to talk about this, because it is really mind blowing. Not every kid is able to spend this kind of money on training, but so many of us do even if we cannot afford it.  I know many others who spend even more than this in a year’s time.  My point is, we shell out money for people to train our children, and that is what we get in return. It is a business partnership we enter into with the teacher receiving the paycheck. It is transactional and not relational.  Again,  I am not saying my children haven’t gained a few relationships during these “transactions”.  As  I said, there are the three people we have held onto who continue to work with our kids because they don’t just instruct but are role models and mentors as well. ( But again since it is a business, not everything can be about my child to each instructor; so, I always have to be the one advocating for the kids regardless.)

And for good measure, I will contradict myself here a little bit.  Ironically, three other women have emerged in my children’s lives who have never received anything from us in the form of payment. These women, each in their different ways, have taught my children about service, giving back, being confident in who they are, and using their gifts to shed light on issues and serve others. So for those women, I am eternally grateful. I hope all of your children have a few of the people in their lives whom you don’t have to pay a penny, but who shine their light onto your children.

So what is the take away from all of this? I think the take away is to really be on top of what is happening with your child. As much as you trust teachers and coaches, remember, you are paying those folks. Money often times makes people do funny things, like giving false promises or false praises so you keep coming back.  There are so many more things I would love to write about this, but I don’t want to offend or alienate more than I already have… Just remember, you and only you will go to bat for your child each and every time.

I will leave you with this. Something happened today in my family around this topic, and my sixteen year old said to me, ” People don’t really care about each other. It is just all about making money.”  Was this the lesson  I want my son to learn from pursuing his passions? It broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes that he is well aware of this harsh reality. So if sharing our experiences can help even one family avoid some of the heartaches and pitfalls we have encountered, then it is well worth the risk of putting ourselves out there.

 

 

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

I know I have written before that there is no set formula when you have children with pursuits in the professional performing arts. I am learning this to be more true every day as I raise my own children and as I get to know many more supportive families in the industry.  Sometimes it is easy to look around and see other families and compare ourselves and think, oh I should send my child to that $250 a session voice teacher, or that dance class, or I should quit my job to tour with my child, or oh I would never allow my child to do x, y, or z….Just like anything we do in raising our children, one size does not fit all, and many ways can work.  This applies to every facet of show biz.

Firstly, lessons and training. There are many fabulous coaches out there that I even recommend for others, but they aren’t the right fit for my children for various reasons or they are just simply too expensive for our budget. And that is completely o.k. It doesn’t mean one teacher is better than another, it just means what can work for one child might not work for another. But, the results can be the same regardless.

Schooling is also another area of concern for many families. We are told in our society that children need to be in traditional schools, several hours a day to gain proper instruction. As a teacher going into my twenty-first year of teaching, I can say with certainty that not every child needs this type of education.  One thing that I do know from experience is that traditional schooling can work for performing children, but they might not be in attendance 100% of the time, and again that is o.k. There are so many good options that parents may choose from now such as homeschool, online school, private schools, and public school with a tutor provided by production.  A parent need not feel that any one educational path is the only option.  I have had three kids on a myriad of different shows and have done ALL of the above for what worked in each circumstance with each child. (In fact, I have one doing online school right now.)

I have heard parents over the years say absolute statements such as, “I would NEVER send my child on tour with a guardian. I would NEVER pull my kid out of her expensive, elite private school for a show. I would NEVER allow my child to stay up until 4 a.m. I would NEVER put my career on hold to support my child. I would NEVER leave my other children while I toured….” And the list goes on. This business is one of the most unpredictable, unstable, trying, yet thrilling businesses there could ever be! ( And just imagine what this must be like for a child?)  There is not a right answer to those absolutes, but again, I have done ALL of the above at different times.  I have been on five separate tours with my three children, and each and every one has led me to do things that others may say they will NEVER do. It’s not a right or wrong decision, it just is what worked at the time.  Some parents are able to bring another child along on tour. I know one family who turned tour into a family adventure and bought an RV to follow the tour for a whole year around the country! Our solution was to fly home as often as possible and to fly the family back and forth as much as possible and hire guardians as needed to travel with which ever one of my children I was leaving at the time. There is not only one way to make this work. I even hire guardians at times for local work and auditions when I am unavailable. It really does take a village, and there’s no shame in that.  There’s not one way that will work for everyone, and there’s not one way that is better than any other.

I wish there was a magic step by step guide that could make navigating showbiz pursuits clear, but there really isn’t.  Every child and family has different wants and needs, and every project has different guidelines and requirements.  The best advice I can give parents, having lived this now for eleven years, is that you should do whatever works for your family and your child, and don’t worry what anybody else is doing. You know your child better than anyone in the world! There truly is more than one way to skin a cat!

Pay to Play: Why My Kids Don’t Do It

I know this post may offend some, but it is time I voice my opinions. If your kids have a passion or an interest in something, and you have the means to help them to live out their dreams, then fantastic! But, I want to get real about the pay to play programs for musical theater that seem to be EVERYWHERE now.  When you pay money for your child to be in a musical, or anyone in that musical pays, your child is NOT performing in a real Off-Broadway musical. Period. It can be billed whatever the organizer wishes to bill it, but it is not a real credit in a legitimate professional musical or play.  Does this diminish the fun or learning your child may gain, no, not necessarily, but they are not gaining true professional experience.

So many of these programs claim that they are training you in the manner that professional shows are run. I can tell you for certain, this is not the case.  No professional show will EVER ask an individual to pay to be in the show, help find his or her costumes, donate time, or buy a set amount of tickets to the production.  No professional production will post their cast lists and callback lists publicly on the internet for everyone in the world to view.  No professional production will ask performers to do written homework and turn it in to the directors. ( This is not to say that there isn’t homework involved in discovering aspects of one’s character, plotting dance numbers, or researching the time period or historical context etc., but this is often left up to the actor, and no written work is “handed in”. ) No professional production will cast their “favorites” over and over regardless of whether they are truly right for the part ,solely based on the amount of donations mommy and daddy throw at the organization, or how much ass kissing has occurred over the years. Most professional productions run for longer than 1- 10 shows total.

There is definitely a market for these programs, as even in NYC, where there is an abundance, and they seem to be full of kids scrambling to do these shows. And it is not the shows I have issue with as much as the promises and billing they are given. If we could call these camps, or workshops that end in a performance, I have a much better time stomaching that.  There are some wonderful people running some programs with children’s best interest at heart, and then there are some that are definitely in it for the almighty dollar, and taking advantage of parents’ ability to spend vast amounts of money to “make their kids a star.”  They use students’ names who have made it in the industry as examples of success stories from their programs. Yes, a few kids may have made it because of those programs, but most likely these kids would make it anyway and just found some training or fun out of their experiences in these pay to plays. Oftentimes, former Broadway kids do these shows just to fill time and to have something to do in between professional gigs. And, unbeknownst to many of the paying children, little do they know, that these former Broadway kids get their tuition waived and don’t have to pay for being in the show just so their expertise and already honed skills can be showcased amongst the newbies.

Some of the programs do invite industry professionals to view the shows, but primarily it is only friends and family buying repeated tickets to come and fill the seats. So, essentially, parents pay to have their kids do shows that they just come and watch and fill the seats on every performance.  The general public seldom, if ever, goes to watch any of these shows.  But again, if your motive is just giving your child an enjoyable activity, then great. Many of these productions are some good quality, entertaining shows too.

If we could just call these programs what they truly are, camps and workshops resulting in performances, rather than billing them as Off Broadway productions, then I think it is much more accurate in the description and promise set forth.  If professional training is an objective, NYC is FULL of training schools that will broaden and heighten performance skills, and the price tag is much smaller and the training is superb. For example, the training students can get at Broadway Dance Center comes with a very small price tag and will challenge them every single time they take a class, rather than learning some watered down choreography in a pay to play musical. Small workshops at A Class Act NY on improvisation or acting for the camera really help hone these skills. And private voice lessons or workshops will directly benefit the student involved. In short, if you are looking for a fun, social experience for your child, then go for a pay to play, but call it what it is.  But, if the result you are seeking is truly professional training, lessons, workshops,  and weekly study will most likely glean more skills for your child in the long run.

When Your Kid Bombs an Audition

So it happens.  Kids can have a bad day too just like adults. Yesterday my son came home from an audition and shared that he completely bombed it.  He told me about forgetting the lyrics to the song even though he had the sheet music in hand. He said he then had the sides all out of order and was flipping back and forth between pages to figure out where he was.  Now, this seems pretty funny to me as I visualize how foolish he must’ve seemed to the auditors behind the table.  Though, at the time of his reenactment of the audition for me, I didn’t find it so funny, and I immediately had the knee jerk response that I am not proud of.  I retorted that he should’ve been more prepared and it was his own fault.

He snapped at me that I was being a typical stage mom. He was completely right. Thank God it only took me thirty seconds to realize what an ass I was being.  S*** happens. Our performing kids are human and entitled to a bad audition once in a while or even a flawed performance.  It really is not the end of the world.  He got flustered and it happened. He’s had 100 superb auditions for that one stinky one.  He’s auditioned for nine years of his life. He knows the ropes, and it was a freak thing. Now mind you, I don’t do any prep with my kids for auditions. I set up a lesson or two for them, and that’s it. We don’t run lines nor practice songs.  Yes, he could’ve practiced a little more, or checked over his sides, but it really is OK. He was racing directly from school, leaving early and missing Spanish, in the pouring rain, to get to the appointment. ( Not excuses, just a fact.)

So after thirty seconds of being a jerk, I stepped back. I realized that here was my teenager sharing what was a difficult moment in time for him. I was grateful that he came to me. He could have just as easily said the audition was fine or good. Instead, he was looking to me for reassurance.  I told him I was sorry for my response. I told him that sometimes we aren’t perfect, and it’s okay. As the dust settled, he showed me how he was flipping the pages, and we laughed about it.  We talked about how the casting director had remembered him from casting him in The Secret Garden almost six years ago.  It became  a moment of bonding and connection between us rather than a moment of judgment and blame. I am glad he called me out so I could fix myself quickly.

My relationship with my son is more important than any audition or show will ever be. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the urgency of showbiz.  I have succumbed at times to  prioritizing  my kids’ auditions in hopes of landing roles above other things. But, as I get older and wiser, and my children become more independent, I place higher value on being their mom than on being their guide in showbiz, i.e. stage mom.

 

I Reject the Term Stage Mom

I am a mother. That’s it. Plain and simple.  My job is to mother my children in all facets of their beings. This is the primary reason I reject the term stage mom, and I utilize the term stage advocate instead. I cringe every time I hear a woman call herself a stage mom, or even worse see a woman title herself a stage mom in her hashtags, email addresses, or twitter names.  What happens to a mom’s identity if her child stops wanting to perform? Our title as mom should not be linked to what our child “does”.  I don’t see my siblings or friends hash tagging soccer mom or chess mom or ballet mom as if it is their sole identity.

We all know that “stage mom” carries with it negative connotations, and for good reason. We can remember the story of Gypsy and her crazy Mama Rose.  I have seen it fifty percent of the time when parents are too invested in their child’s performing successes and endeavors  and demonstrate that their own self worth as a parent is too tightly woven into their child. “Most important, Diller says, these kids grow up with fragile self-esteem. ‘They feel loved only when serving the needs of the parent.’ When they stop receiving that reward, they can crash and seek solace in substances. Feeling that approval is ever-conditional, children of stage moms grow up constantly looking for accolades from others.” ( Psychology Today, Field Guide to the Stage Mom: The Pusher, May 2013)

I won’t call myself a stage mom because my children are mutli-dimensional. If I were to call myself a stage mom, I would also have to call myself a scholar mom, a chess mom, a skateboard mom, a video editing mom, a french fry mom,….you get the idea. I choose to be an advocate for my children in all their pursuits and endeavors.  In that sense, my duties as a stage advocate involve keeping family first, considering performance as a hobby, stressing education, measuring my children’s pride and humility, validating my child’s character and self-worth for internal traits, balancing the needs of siblings, accepting rejection for my child, staying steadfast in my values and moral compass, monitoring what is best for my child each step of the way, and preparing for the possibility that my child may abandon performing altogether and grow up to be an engineer or taxidermist or airline pilot. My ultimate job is always to raise a human being- not a performer. Thus, just call me a mom please.