Stage Dad: The Juggle
Raising a child performer out of town while your other kids are at home requires outside help and patience — lots of it
True story: Ten years ago this week, our 14-year-old son danced for Cloris Leachman in the lobby of a Hollywood theater and got so excited that he dropped his phone in the toilet.
True story #2: This week, our now 24-year-old was back in California for the premiere of Showtime’s “The First Lady,” the series where he has a small role as Betty Ford’s son, Steven. His phone, as best we can tell, survived.
The same week 10 years apart: Ben and Cloris Leachman show off their steps (left) and with his partner, Gaby Diaz, at the premiere of “The First Lady” (right).
With that (drum roll please), I welcome you to the third installment of this “Stage Dad” series.
We’ve all seen caricatures of horrendous stage moms and dads — no question, they’re out there — but most parents and caregivers want to do what’s best for their kids. Unfortunately, they often don’t know where to start, who to turn to, or how to seek guidance.
For those of you who may have missed the first two essays (here and here), “Stage Dad” is a behind-the-scenes look at raising and supporting a child who wants to pursue performing as a career. In this series, I will write about our adventures, provide some hard-learned advice, and try to explain some of the complex ecosystem that is professional theater. In addition, I’m also interviewing professionals on the business, education, and performance sides to help explain what they do and get advice for parents as well.
As parents, I wish we had known then what we know now. My hope is other parents — not just the artistic ones — find information and value (plus some humor) in the stories that are being told.
Speaking of which…
‘Dance, kid, dance!’
On that night 10 years ago, Ben had just gone to Los Angeles to start his final training for the title role in “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” He had been injured while playing Michael on the national tour that January, spent several weeks recovering, and then trained for a month in New York before rejoining the company during its L.A. run.
He was watching the show’s opening night at The Pantages Theater, ironically the same location where "Newsies: The Broadway Musical" was filmed almost five years later. Ginno Murphy (our “adopted son” and Ben’s guardian on the tour) was selling merchandise for the show, so Ben went to the lobby when it ended.
Up walks Leachman, who proceeded to ask Ben if he was playing Billy. He responded that he was in training for the role. Leachman — who had just appeared on "Dancing With the Stars" — told him to show her some moves.
I can almost hear her voice: “Dance, kid, dance!”
Apparently, “No” was not an acceptable answer to give the 86-year-old winner of an Oscar and eight acting Primetime Emmys (tied for the most ever as a performer with Julia Louis-Dreyfus). So Ben showed off with a few steps; Cloris showed him a couple of hers.
Ginno took photos of Ben with Leachman, who later went backstage to meet the cast, and texted them to us that night. The next morning, Ginno called to tell me what had happened. When I asked why Ben hadn’t called himself, Ginno put him on to tell me about his phone.
It’s worth noting that Jill and I weren’t present for either California event, although we’ve been to our share of surreal occurrences over the past 15 years. While it’s tempting at times to get ourselves geeked up by the celebrity of it all, our goal as parents has been to help Ben keep a level head on his shoulders. We’re fortunate that he does.
When this all started with local theater, Jill and I divvied things up between the kids. She is naturally an early riser and I’m the night owl, so that usually meant she would drive him into D.C. and I would do the evening pickup. When Ben moved to New York at 11 for “Ragtime,” we split the weeks for the first year, commuting back and forth to Virginia every three days or so.
That year — as my wife and I readily tell anyone who will listen — was exhausting. And for some time, it was hard on the girls.
Emma was without her twin as she navigated through all but one year of middle and high school; Kate was in the throes of a difficult adolescence. It also was tough on Nick, who at the time was an aspiring performer living with his other family in Greensboro. In essence, we were operating as single parents while trying to hold on to our jobs.
Somehow, after making modifications, accommodations, and the like, we survived the experience.
After that first year, we had to find outside help so Jill and I could live under the same roof and, hopefully, hold on to our jobs. (Ironically, it wasn’t until the kids were mostly out of the house that Jill’s office went virtual. Early on, the place where I worked was flexible and allowed me to spend two to three days a week working outside the office.)
When Ben moved into “Billy Elliot” on Broadway in June 2010, a rotating group of college students and families volunteering to schlep in exchange for a free place to stay took care of him for much of the summer. When school started, we split time in New York with another family whose son also was in the show.
Then Ginno lived in the apartment in exchange for making sure Ben made it back and forth to school, rehearsal, and the theatre.
In the fall of 2011, Ben was cast as Michael on the “Billy Elliot” national tour and started training for the title role. That brought with it an entirely different set of circumstances and complications.
When the tour started, we called on Ben’s cousin, Brian, who was looking for a job and helped for several weeks. Ginno came on board after the Broadway “Billy” closed in January 2012. Nicholas chipped in that summer during his break from college. Jill and I flew to different tour stops as often as possible, with the goal of seeing our son at least every two weeks.
The performer’s life, especially when that performer is a child on a national tour, is something of a strange existence for the caregivers. You stay in hotels, board buses and planes, and find a new set of grocery stores, laundromats, and eating establishments every one to three weeks. And all the while, you schlep the child back and forth at all hours.
Constantly you find yourself weighing the benefits, the risks, and the costs. On one hand, you have an opportunity to do something for your child that few parents get, to give them the experience of a lifetime at a relatively young age. On the other, you and your child miss having the day-to-day connection you get by being under the same roof. It takes a lot of trust, a lot of hope, and a lot of juggling.
Ultimately, we decided life is always a juggling act. It just depends on how many balls you want to have in the air.
Do you have suggestions for this Stage Dad series? Questions? Feedback? Let me know in the comments or send me an email.
On the Run
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a family conversation turned to running (I just listened). Nick had just finished his first marathon with his wife Conner in Chicago and Emma was intrigued. Nick mentioned that he was scheduled to run a race in April — the Tar Heel 10 Miler — in Chapel Hill.
Emma said she would do it if her Uncle Michael would as well. Michael agreed, and the race to last Saturday's race was on.
Emma, who had never "run" a 10 miler — she and Jill did one years ago, but Emma walked portions of it while watching “Despicable Me” on her phone — trained and successfully completed the run as did Michael. Both finished faster than their stated goal times. Nick ran the 10 miles, plus a 4-mile "warmup" (why I'll never know) beforehand — cutting 1 minutes off his time from 2019.
Congratulations to all three for doing something I never could. It was great to be here to watch and provide my standard "tech support."
The Daily Photos
Here are the Daily Photos posted for the week of April 11-17 to my Facebook business page. The photos represent the random things I capture during travels to various places. To see a larger version of this image on your desktop, just click on the photo.
If you’re on Facebook, you can check out the full-size images and more details about them there. If not, you can view my page by clicking on the link above. (You don’t have to be on Facebook to see my page.)
If you have any questions or are interested in purchasing a print, let me know in the comments or by sending an email.
See you next week!