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Child Actor Tip: 5 Myths About Stage Moms

Stage Moms: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…

I just watched Jamie’s voice coach, Cynthia Gibb, in her Emmy-nominated role in Gypsy—the true story of Gypsy Rose Lee (played by Gibb), a renowned stripper on the burlesque circuit, and her pushy mom. Mama Rose, played by Bette Midler, was the mother of all stage moms. In her last ditch effort for at least one of her kids to be a star, Mama Rose offers up her teenage daughter Louise when the headlining stripper goes AWOL one evening at the theater where they are performing a vaudeville act. That act had been the center of Louise and her sister June’s peripatetic existence since they were old enough to stand on a stage and sing.

Gypsy

Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in “Gypsy”

The meek and mediocre sister, Louise takes to her new risque role like a randy man to black lace and morphs into star stripper “Gypsy Rose Lee.” With her newfound fame, she finally develops enough confidence to reject her mother’s dictatorial role in her life. It’s a story we’ve seen played out over and over in the media with famous child actors and their infamous parents: McCauley Culkin, Brooke Shields (the parallel is most striking here, considering Teri Shields’ agreement to have 12-year-old Brooke appear nude in Pretty Baby), Lindsay Lohan… People love a good overbearing stage-mom story.

Brooke Shield's Tell-All Book

Brooke Shield’s Stage-Mom Tell-All

BUT, the vast majority of stage moms don’t deserve the bad rap. In honor of hardworking, selfless stage moms everywhere, let’s dispel a few myths!

Stage Mom Myths

1. Myth: Most child actors are pushed by a relentless stage mom.

Truth: It’s highly unlikely a child actor will succeed on the big stage (meaning Broadway, national TV, feature films) without a tremendous amount of parental support, both financial and time-wise. Grooming a child star means researching the best coaches, the best agencies, and learning the intricacies of how the business works. It means traveling to and sitting around for hours at auditions, workshops, rehearsals, and shoots. It means networking and nudging your child to practice (that is the same nudging that parents generally have to do no matter what activity their kids are involved in). If that sounds exhausting to an indifferent adult, imagine how a kid who isn’t really interested would react. The child has to want it, and the parent needs to understand that desire and nurture it.

2. Myth: Most parents are in it to make money off their kids.

Truth: There are now child actor laws in place that require parents to put a percentage of earnings into a trust. In California, that percentage is 100%; none of your little Shirley Temple’s money can be used to cover travel and lodging. By and large, with tiny odds of a kid landing a big-paying gig, this is a losing proposition for parents. Those who are in it for the wrong reasons will learn this quickly and drop out.

3. Myth: If a parent scolds a child after an audition or flashes the evil eye, she is clearly a stage mom of the worst kind.

Truth: I’ve been in this situation. Here’s the scene: I’m in the audition waiting room and it’s one of those rare occasions when the casting room is nearby and not sound proof. I can hear my son as he blanks out on his lines. Then he tries again and flubs again. It’s a disaster. He exits the room and I flash him a look of a fury that the assistant in the room notices. At this point, she probably  scrawls STAGE MOM across his file. But what she did not see and does not know is that during the hour train ride on the way there (the train ride that I paid for and that I embarked on after leaving my other three kids at home with a sitter), my son insisted on playing video games on his phone rather than rehearsing his lines because he said he knew them. I reiterated a lesson he had already learned (or not quite learned) the hard way several times: It is 10x as hard to remember your lines once you are in the room in front of the casting director than when you are practicing at home. They need to be so engrained that the actor can relax and think about the acting, not just the lines. Every actor messes up sometimes, and I get that. But in this case, my son had wasted my time and his, not to mention the casting director’s! I had the right to get a little peeved.

4. Myth: Stage moms are insensitive and are robbing their kids of their childhoods.

Truth: Most parents of child actors worry about this a lot; I know I do! We are constantly debating what is the right balance between helping our kids follow their dreams and making sure the whole process doesn’t turn into an overwhelming nightmare. All actors, children included, audition a lot. That means facing rejection a lot, like 100 times more often than your average cocooned child these days. A little rejection definitely builds character; too much can whittle away at self-esteem. It is hard for these little people to understand the tremendous competition they are up against, to get how abysmally low the odds are of booking anything. This means a stage mom has to add cheerleader to her duties, keep spirits up, and determine when a kid needs a sleepover more than a shot at a Broadway show. There is a lot of gray area here. But it was quite black and white when an audition came in for Broadway’s Finding Neverland at 5:30 PM on Halloween! I know my son—he wasn’t gonna make that sacrifice, but believe it or not some child prodigies happily would. The producers of Finding Neverland must have been looking for that kind of freakish kid! They are out there and a lot of their parents have never had to push; they actually force their kids to go to prom and graduation. Badiene Magaziner, accomplished opera singer and vocal coach to a growing glittery list of child stars, says that was the case when she was a kid. She would have chosen the audition. In fact, most people I’ve quizzed, who were exceptional performers as children, don’t regret the missed parties; they say they actually wish they had worked harder and achieved even more. So, we stage moms have the tough job of determining what our kids will complain about later: that we didn’t push hard enough or that we pushed too hard. I’m pretty sure we can’t win either way.

5. Myth: Stage moms are catty and cutthroat with each other.

Truth: Despite the impression the ladies on Dance Moms make, most moms I’ve met are nice, supportive, and helpful. As a mom of a boy actor, I know I may have a skewed perspective. The boys tend to be less competitive with each other than the girls—partly because there are fewer of them—and the parents follow suit. Broadway auditions usually involve hours to kill, and I have made some good friends with other moms during these long, suspenseful windows of time. We e-mail each other and commiserate about the biz, give a heads up when we hear about roles that might be good for each other’s sons, and compare notes on coaches and agencies. These friendships have been invaluable to us and nice for our boys as well.

Have any crazy or encouraging stage-mom stories to share?  Let’s hear ‘em!

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