Stage Parenting: The Good, the Bad and the Exhausted
Monday, March 16, 2015
By Melissa Hillman
We're all familiar with the idea of the stage parent: pushy, entitled, overbearing, demanding, obsessed with her child's career and living vicariously through her child's potential. Anyone who's worked in a youth program has seen it: parents making unreasonable demands of a director, disparaging children in larger roles, or attempting to override a director's note. Even people who write about youth theatre have witnessed stage parent excesses in the form of hysterical emails insisting that an article or review is going to "ruin" the career of a young actor or beloved teacher.
Carol Delton's daughter Bessie Zolno doing homework between scenes at the Victoria Theatre
in a rehearsal for Circle of Life Theatre's Wait Until Dark, 2014. Photo: Otto Pippenger.
While that faction creates the stereotype, however, anyone who's worked for a youth program has also seen parents volunteering to feed the cast and crew during tech, teaching their children to be generous team players and cheerfully giving up hours of their free time to build sets or costumes. Anyone who's worked for a youth program has seen parents counsel, console, inspire and support.
While stage parents are stereotyped as being overinvolved with their kids, behaving badly and making unreasonable demands, how often is that actually the case? "Not as often as most people think," says Kimberly Dooley, freelance director and teaching artist. "Most stage parents are open-minded, appreciative and really dedicated to their child." Brian Larsen, the production manager at the Harker School, agrees: "I find in my realm that the majority of the parents understand what the boundaries are, and appreciate the energy we as teachers and production people are trying to bring to the game."
While we're using "stage parent" for this article, most people are familiar with the term "stage mother." Page Barnes, mother of actress Tyler Barnes and board member of Alameda Children's Musical Theatre and Tomorrow Youth Rep, thinks gender bias may have something to do with the stereotype. "It's interesting that society has given a negative stereotype to all 'stage parents' when 'sports parents' can be just as bad and don't seem to have the same negative stereotype. I think there may be an element of sexism to the 'stage parent' stereotype because the stereotype is stage mothers who are pushy and overly involved, whereas the stereotype of sports parents is fathers who are positively encouraging competitiveness, aggressiveness and excellence in their kids' sports endeavors. It's effectively the same behavior, but it's given a negative connotation for 'stage mothers.' And anyway, neither stereotype is accurate."
All parenting is a challenge, but parenting a young performer comes with unique challenges and unique opportunities. Carol Delton, mother of actress Bessie Zolno, says, "I think it is much like other parts of parenting: how much support and scaffolding versus how much letting go so your child can gain independence, including letting the child make mistakes s/he can learn from. I personally try to provide background support but let the child take the lead." Clive Worsley, director of artistic learning at California Shakespeare Theater, speaks from experience about some of the excellent stage parenting he's seen: "A good stage parent helps to prepare their young actor for rejection—not necessarily getting the part he or she wants—and helps them manage their feelings about it privately. A good stage parent helps their actor to prepare but doesn't try to control or 'direct' their student. Parents should encourage their students and then know when to remove themselves from the process and be supportive without being controlling. A parent who can be involved while treating all the student participants equally is a rare and wonderful thing to find."
All of the parents I spoke with greatly valued youth theatre's ability to teach responsibility and independence, completely unlike the stereotype of the overinvolved, controlling stage parent. Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton, mother of actor Alfie Dayton, sees good stage parenting as "the ability to allow young people to experience rehearsal and performance as their own. The definition of 'stage parent,' at least anecdotally, is that of a person hungry for a vicarious experience. We all live through our kids to some degree, willingly or not. But performance is an opportunity to try to consciously step back in the interest of leaving achievement squarely in kids' hands." Carol Delton adds, "I admire the families that sacrifice their personal preferences to organize their schedules around production needs (so much driving and waiting!), but I also feel it is important to model boundaries and priorities, and to have children take on more responsibility as they're able."
Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton's son Alfie Dayton in Stage Door Conservatory's
2013 production of Legally Blonde. Photo: Anne Phillips
Professionals who regularly work with stage parents see a lot to admire in them, especially when parents see the production staff as partners in educating their children. "I admire parents who take casting disappointments as an opportunity to help the child grow, as opposed to a chance to attack the director or staff," says Brian Larsen. "Those who can ask their child, 'What did you learn from this experience? How did the audition go for you?' We have always welcomed and encouraged kids who didn't 'get in' to come meet with and talk to the director, to learn what worked and what didn't work in their audition. When the parents empower the students to take responsibility for their own growth and improvement, the students blossom in confidence and determination. When the parents come in and berate the director for not casting their child, there is no growth, and there is also the unfortunate aftermath of the director remembering that student's name as associated with unpleasant or overbearing parents."
Youth theatre professionals see stage parents at their best, as well as at their worst. "Stage parents who are on your team are the best production assets you can have," says Larsen. "They support the process, they rally concessions and sell them at the shows, they can paint and build and sew to make things work. They show up and understand it's about more than just them or their performer. Stage parents who aren't on your team see the production process as a means to an end. They are product driven, tend to be entitled and demanding and refuse to take no for an answer, when sometimes no is the answer." Kimberly Dooley agrees: "Stage parents are usually incredibly dedicated parents. Occasionally, they can't see the whole picture and focus on details that ultimately aren't important, like the role given." "The worst part about working with stage parents," says Worsley, "is having to deal with parents who think they have the right to complain about which role their students were cast in, and who count the lines their child will deliver, compare their children to others in a negative fashion, give their students directorial 'notes' or needle directors in attempts to get their child cast in a particular role. The best parts are having even-tempered parents who encourage their young actors to be their best, set reasonable expectations and boundaries for their children, and are encouraging without pushing too hard or expecting too much."
Of course, stage parents see theatres and youth programs at their best and worst as well. Page Barnes has some great advice for theatres that work with young actors: "Communication and planning are key. Give parents a schedule as soon a possible, and stick to it. Also, remember that parents have jobs and other family commitments. Starting rehearsal at 5:00 on a weeknight can be a real burden. Kids need time for homework, time to eat and a little bit of downtime every day, even during tech week. And try to release them at a reasonable hour, but not earlier than scheduled." This last piece of advice was repeated by several parents I spoke with. Many student actors are too young to drive, and parents are planning around a certain pick-up time. An early release means a parent must drop everything and rush to the theatre. Delton agrees that communication is key. "If there are expectations of certain types of support (publicity, costuming, ushering) for the project, be clear about that at the time of sign on."
Kimberly Dooley. Photo: Ken Levin
Barnes also weighs in on the controversial practice of charging parents costly fees (often deceptively labeled "tuition") for their young actors to appear alongside adults in mainstage shows. "I would discourage theatres from treating youth actors in their 'professional' or 'mainstage' company productions differently than the adult actors in the same production. If you are not charging the adults to participate, don't charge the kids. The demands in terms of time and responsibility are often the same for the adults and for the kids in those productions, so it can leave the parents and kids feeling like they've been exploited if they're being charged while the adults are being paid."
Theatre can be life-changing for young actors and exhilarating for parents seeing their children exceed expectations, achieve excellence and experience the joy of performing. But it can also be difficult, frustrating and exhausting for parents, and it can be a challenge to understand what's appropriate and what's not for parents with no professional theatre experience themselves. Barnes advises, "Be a model of good behavior for the kids and keep a positive attitude. The point is to have fun while learning something. Remind your kid that the production is a team effort and that everyone else is relying on your kid to do what is expected. Keep your expectations in check and the complaints to a minimum."
Young actor Tyler Barnes, daughter of Page Barnes. Photo: Ben Krantz
Youth theatre professionals recognize that stage parents are working hard to give their children an invaluable experience. "One simply cannot produce or direct student performances without the participation, on some level, of parents," says Worsley. "They are an essential partner in the process. The best thing you can do for your child is to get them involved in the performing arts." Larsen adds, "The secret to being a good stage parent is simple: Be open to your children and their passions. Support them in their successes. Love them through their disappointments. Show up to their performances. Make them know that what they're doing has value and is important to you."
Most theatre professionals started out doing youth productions. Most of us, at one point, had stage parents—driving us to rehearsals and performances (and to the diner afterward!), scrambling for a last-minute costume, showing up to tech with cupcakes and smiling proudly in the audience on opening night. Hardworking, dedicated stage parents are helping to create the next generation of theatre artists, while helping to support the current generation of teaching artists through tuition, fees and volunteer hours. It's time to set aside the tired, inaccurate stereotype of the "stage mother" and honor stage parents for their support.
Melissa Hillman is the artistic director of Impact Theatre and the casting director at Bay Area Children's Theatre. She does private audition coaching (melissahillman.com) and blogs as Bitter Gertrude at bittergertrude.com.