Life Upon the Wicked Stage

31 01 2010

The scores and books of classic musicals are full of the warnings: “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t never what a girl supposes…” sings a winsome young gal in Act Two of “Show Boat,” (widely considered the first American ‘book’ musical).   An aging chorine in Sondheim’s brilliant masterpiece “Follies”  remembers “walkin’ off my tired feet, poundin’ 42nd street, to be in a show….,”  Margot Channing, the heroine of “Applause” (the musical version of the classic show biz story ‘All About Eve”) welcomes Eve to the theater with the warm lines ‘welcome to a life of laryngitis, welcome to dark toilets in the hall!”  The daughters of that stage mother of all stage mothers in “Gypsy” lament how normal life could be if only “Momma was Married” rather than bellowing “Sing out Louise! Smile baby!” from the back of countless vaudeville theaters.   And truthfully, what sane responsible parent would want this for their child?  A life of constant competition, a merry go round of dance, voice and acting classes, perennially cold rehearsal spaces, scratchy costumes, far-too-late-for-your-age bedtimes, throat lozenges, and homework done while spread out on the dusty musty floors of theaters and studio spaces?

The answer of course is no sane parent.  What responsible mother would say to their child “why yes it’s a fine idea to spend all of your formative years learning skills that if you’re supremely lucky and are in the right place at the right time and know the right people and look exactly the right way possibly maybe could one day net you some unreliable and low-paying work!”  This isn’t exactly what the stuff of sensible parenting is made of.  And yet, when theater is as much a part of your world as your morning coffee, when words like “blocking,’ “off-book,” and “downstage” are as much a part of your vernacular as ‘bread and milk,” when “call” is not something you get on the phone and “house” is not the place you live, how could you deny your child the chance to also learn about, live, move and be in that world?

The love for theater runs deep in my family. My  father grew up in New Haven in the 1920s and 30s when all the major Broadway shows had their out-of-town tryouts.  He and his best friend Keith Brown were classic stage-door Johnnies, even one time sneaking into Katherine Hepburn’s dressing room only to be thrown out when she found out they were not in fact Yale men.   From this world my father carried his love of musical theater into the rest of his life as a husband and father taking my mother to New York for their honeymoon to see the original production of “Guys and Dolls,” and, years later, singing his youngest daughter to sleep with medleys from “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “Anything Goes.”  (Although I do need to point out that my father knew about 5 lines of every show tune ever written he never seemed to know any song in its entirety.  Only in my adulthood did I discover that not all of these songs shared “la de dum dum” as a lyric).  This early exposure to Rogers and Hammerstein, Hart, and Porter, instilled in me a love for and fascination with the world of musical comedy and an often unsettling feeling that I should be ‘doing that.’  My parents indulged my interest, taking me to five shows a summer at Maine State Theater ( formerly the Brunswick Summer Music Theater) where I insisted we sit in the front row so I could be as close to the stage as possible.

When I was in the fourth grade a troupe from the Children’s Theater of Maine came to visit my elementary school.  At the end of their riotous performance they invited any of the students to come sign up for their summer theater camp.  At ten I was pudgy to put it politely, awkward and quite shy but I remember marching up to one of the actors and announcing I was going to go to their camp, then praying I could convince my mother to let me.   Well of course she let me, if anything my parents were probably overjoyed I was finally venturing out a bit from the safety of the cocoon of my family life.   I will never forget that summer, the long hot days spent in a dilapidated warehouse doing odd acting exercises and playing a court jester in a show about the princess who wanted the moon. To this day I still remember the lesson one actor taught me about how to make it look convincing on stage when you’re drinking out of a cup with nothing in it.   To say that summer changed my life might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was the first time I felt truly at home, truly with people who understood what I knew – that there was no better place to be, no better way to spend your time.  And my parents gave me what was quite possibly the greatest gift ever.  They never tried to talk me out of it, to tell me it was a foolish pursuit, or I should spend my time studying something more practical.  They never missed a performance – even the edgy experimental student written shows in college that they didn’t understand. And at every show my mother would cry tears of pride and my father would announce ‘that’s my daughter” to everyone around him.  After college my inherent cowardice and fear of being able to navigate a big city kept me from ever making a full-time career out of acting,  but I  have been able to carve out a satisfying life working in arts management by day and occasionally treading the boards at night.

Flash forward thirty -our years from that summer with Children’s Theater and now I’m the one driving my ten year old to theater camps, rehearsals, dance classes, and performances.  When Liza was a baby I used to say I didn’t care if she ever set foot on stage I just wanted her to grow up loving the experience of going to the theater, nothing else was important.  Then, one fateful night as I was bathing three year old Liza she sat up in the tub, looked at me, frowned and said “momma, this is how I look angry…!”’  Then she laughed and said “this is how I look happy,” after making a wide-eyed faced she announced “and THIS is how I look surprised!”  I knew in that moment it was hopeless.  It was in her blood.   At first I humored her, not really ready to believe that maybe there was something there in her.  But after nearly eight years of dance classes, acting classes, summer theater camps, she continually surprises me with her tenacity, her drive, and yes her talent.  Believe me I’m no Mama Rose, (much as I would give anything to play her).  I never seem to have the right makeup or hair accessories for a given recital or performance,  I never embellish her costumes so she’ll stand out on stage.  I run errands or do crossword puzzles during her rehearsals rather than watching her and the chubby shy girl I was as a child keeps me from fully entering into conversations with the moms around me.  I don’t enroll her in the glitzy programs at better equipped theaters where local Baby Junes smile from the stage in sparkly outfits at their clapping moms, but rather in a comfortable challenging program in a run down old church basement where her teachers embrace the funny, smart, quirky girl she is while pushing her to try a little harder, reach a little higher, and soar on her own wings.  Where she comes home spouting about Chekhov, Sondheim and “the fourth wall” and “realism.”  Where she has found friends that are closer to her than her school friends. Where she is home.

I often hear from other moms, “I can’t believe how much performing she does!  It’s unreal.”  I wonder sometimes if my co-worker with the two children on multiple travel hockey teams and soccer teams hears the same thing.  If that children in sports are granted a pass that children in the arts may not be.   I hear that surely Liza must need more “down time,” and yet when she has that precious down time she spends it singing, dancing and putting on shows in our living room.  Our conversations in the car and at bedtime are about the plots of musicals, backstage goings-on, and what colleges offer good theater majors. She pores over my Broadway books, my sheet music collection and obsesses about what part she could play in Chorus Line or Wicked someday.

I’ll admit I do worry for her,  worry that my sensitive, funny girl will be lost in the shuffle of a business that all too often is based on looks.  (And let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow ‘em tiny and blonde in this family).  But mostly I worry the opposite of what the women on the ivillage messageboards think I should worry about. ( On ivillage, to publicly admit you have no qualms about your child pursuing a degree and career in the arts is right up there with admitting you didn’t breastfeed and that your child watches Family Guy – both also true in my case).  I worry that she’ll repeat my pattern and be too timid to really give it a shot.  Yet as Kelly points out to me time and time again, Liza is not me and her successes are not mine and her mistakes and triumphs will be different than mine were.   So for now, I drive her where she needs to be, I never miss a performance,  I hug her when she cries because a show is over,  and I cry tears of pride when she sings, and tell everyone in earshot she’s my daughter.   And somewhere, my dad is smiling as the tradition continues.

Sing out Liza.   We’re all listening.

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An Every Other Week Mother

24 09 2009

Thanksgiving week for most moms of nine year olds most likely includes a flurry of shopping and cooking. Perhaps board games with the family, visits from grandma, another trip to the movies for a second or third viewing of High School Musical 3, or decorating the house for the holidays. Most of my daughter’s friends have moms who are there every day of every week doing what moms do – whether they work outside the home or not — they are there in their lives every day of every week. Not my daughter. My daughter has an every-other-week mother.

Liza lives with her dad for a week at a time and then with me for a week at a time, changing houses after school every Monday. Don’t misunderstand. I am grateful beyond words that Liza is blessed with a father who packs lunches, and signs permission slips. Who can finesse a “ballet bun” in her hair on dance class days. Who takes her to the dentist and shopping for winter boots. I am grateful her stepmother provides a warm and loving home for her with the home-cooked meals that I seem incapable of producing, and craft projects and shopping trips that were truly designed to meet the mercurial whims of a tween girl. We are amicable and friendly – helping each other out when our work schedules intervene in the afterschool pickup/dance class drop off/ soccer game-to rehearsal carousel of Liza’s schedule. We have forged a new kind of family from our divorce. A family so strong that I hesitate at times to even call myself a “single mom” since I rarely if ever feel as though I am raising Liza on my own. I’m not. I’m just an Every Other Week Mother.

In high school and college I was awkward and shy. Fat and clumsy and completely baffled by the social mores of my peers I sequestered myself in the theater department where my social life consisted of the occassional cast party. But in my thirties and forties after surviving a divorce and coming out of the closet I found myself experiencing what one friend called my ‘second twenties’ On the weeks when Liza is living with her dad I find myself living a life I never lived in my all-too-serious youth. I go dancing at Women’s T dances in Ogunquit. I work a delightful second job in a friends bookstore where I’m not haunted by any major responsibilities other than correct change and ability to alphabetize. I sleep late on Sundays and read the paper over coffee with Kelly. I hit the gym at odd hours and eat meals of cheese and crackers instead of proper dinners. I send text messages to my new twenty-something friends from my “Company” cast and stay out until midnight on a work night. I put up the Christmas decorations alone with only the company of George Winston’s “December” on the cd player. I tell myself how great this is. This break. This quiet. This freedom. This….stillness of a house without Liza.

I find myself in two worlds, straddling the life lived by my childless or single friends and that lived by my friends with children. Some of my married friends with children say “I’m so jealous! I”d love a break from MY kids sometime. what fun you must have!” Others say “oh I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go a week without my child. I can’t see HOW you can do it.” Yes. I do have fun. Yes. But every day and every night of those “off weeks” I feel a niggling in the back of my mind and an emptiness in my chest and I think “what is she doing now?” Does she miss me on those weeks when her life more typically resembles a traditional family? Does she wonder what I’m doing? How I am? Did she pass that test on state capitals? Did she practice her clarinet? Did she show her dad her loose tooth? How is her cough? How. Is. She? Every other Monday I tell her “you know you can call me ANYTIME right?” Yet the phone remains silent. I should be happy. This means she’s happy, she’s content and after all that’s what any mother wants for their child. Yet every day I hope for a call from her to show she needs me. Every day I battle with myself about calling her. More often than not when I do I call I’m often greeted with her relctant “what?” My calls intrude on a life she lives without me. A life I can not claim or encroach upon. I am unwanted and in that moment I feel like a lovestruck girl begging her crush to acknowledge her.

I’ve never been a great mother. At times I haven’t even been a good mother. But I’m her mother. An Every-Other-Week Mother. And I can only hope that, for Liza, that’s good enough.





Night Terrors

24 09 2009

Some nights you can set your clock by them. Mentally I do the math — if Liza falls asleep between 9 and 9:30 the first one should hit between 11pm and 12:30am. Should I go to sleep early and stock up on rest before the first cry comes from her room, or stay up and hope to nip the first one in the bud before falling into bed myself? Night Terrors have stalked my child from the tender age of three and made every night a waiting and watching game. “She’ll grow out of them,” pediatrician after pediatrician has assured us. She’s nine and I’m still waiting.

I remember the first times I heard those screams in the night. I’d rush in prepared to do battle with whatever demons invaded my baby’s sleep. To wrest her back from whatever dark place she had gone to. But over time I learned, through experience, through research and through just plain sleep deprivation these nightmares could not be woken from. No mother’s hug can soothe and comfort these away. I have to let her battle them on her own.

They always begin the same way. A strangled gutteral ‘NOOOOOOOOO’ from the next room, often followed by nonsense, gibberish, or the occasional phrase that makes sense “that’s mine!” “i need more!” “stay away!” . But the refrain is always the same, “no no no no no no no no no.” Sometimes a sob. Sometimes a cry that scrapes her throat raw . Often on those long nights I”ll channel my acting days and think idly “she’s hurting her vocal cords.” Has it really come to this that I can lie in my bed listening to my child scream in the next room?

Sometimes I can calm her with a light touch on the back, rearrange her covers, put on her nightime cd (“American Idol Season 2 Greatest Hits”, now worn and scratchy from nearly seven years of nonstop play) and her breathing will regulate and quiet will fall. Those are the easy nights. The nights the terrors leave her after one visit and let us both fall back to sleep. But sometimes we’re in for the long haul. They strike in 45 minute intervals, each one louder and more violent. Wild eyes that look but don’t see me, hair snarled in and matted with sweat, pajamas twisted sometimes even removed, pillows thrown from the bed, and epithets hurled. “GET OUT momma!” “COME HERE momma!” and always, always ,always, “no no no no no no no.” On those nights I know I can’t touch her or even go near her. She swings and flails, hits, throws, scratches and shrieks and all the time remains unbelievably asleep. On those nights I sit on the floor of her room and wait… wait …. wait for that magic switch to be thrown and for her to fall like a broken doll back onto her pillow in soundless sleep. My thoughts wander on those nights. “It’s colder now, i should keep a sweatshirt by my bed so I don’t freeze while I sit here.” ‘I must remember to tell my neighbors Liza had a night terror tonight so they don’t think I was beating her at 2am.” She will not remember this night. She never does. She will wake rested( her body slept after all) and wonder why her pillows are on the floor, why her nightgown is so tangled, why her throat hurts. But she will not remember the way her face twisted in anger and fear -the way black eyes shot beams of hate at me while I sat wrapped in a blanket next to her bed. She will only say “did I have one momma?” Yes honey. Yes you did.

Liza has always been a child of fears — of thunderstorms, and fire alarms, of clowns and the sound the wind makes in the trees behind our house, of big dogs, and falling off her bike. But those fears are the easy ones for momma to fight. We see them, name them, and face them together. Not so these desperate moments of the night that stalk her, invade her dreams, and drag me from my bed to sit by her side until they pass. I can not fight them for her. I can not fix them for her. I can not even name them as only she knows what forces she battles alone in the night. I can only sit, and wait , and pray. And in those dark nights at 1;30, 3:00, 4:15 I am more alone than I have ever been or ever will be as I settle in to wait out the night terrors.