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.





The Anxious Parent

24 09 2009

In August Liza, her dad, and her stepmother welcomed a beautiful baby girl to their family. I’m told she sleeps nearly all day long and posesses a calm happy demeanor. The few times I’ve seen her I’ve been awestruck by her flawless infant skin, big eyes, and adorable rose-bud of a mouth. I’m delighted for Liza and her family and love seeing my ex husband practice his patented “one –arm baby holding” pose. But I can’t help but be struck by the difference between this baby and Liza during her infancy. Where her baby sister is calm and placid Liza came screaming into the world as a red faced ball of fury. Nothing seemed to pacify her – not slings or swings or toys or walks in the stroller. The only things that would calm her were sleeping on top of one of us, her pacifiers, or music (although even the she could be finicky – eschewing soothing ballads she seemed to prefer patter songs such as “Pick a Pocket or Two” or “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” ). The hazy blur of her first year is punctuated by moments of utter exhausted desperation as I searched vainly for something to make her happy. I became convinced that the problem was not my fussy frantic baby – it was me. Why were other moms so good at this when I was so very very bad? This notion that resurfaced last weekend when I commented to my ex husband how lovely his sleeping baby daughter was and he jokingly replied “yeah, I guess we know where Liza’s fussiness came from huh?”. I know he was teasing but there exists a grain of truth in every jest and the truth here was clear – I was the anxious parent and I had given birth to the anxious child.

When I was pregnant I imagined myself taking to parenting like a duck to water. I’d lovingly sing my baby to sleep, we’d stroll the neighborhood where passersby would comment on how cute and good she was, I’d manage it all, going back to work handily and still finding time to come up with creative and educational ways to bond with my daughter.

Boy did reality dope slap me “upside the head’ (as we say in Maine).

My maternity leave passed in a blur of days when I could barely get myself showered, of crying hunched over my screaming child as I heard my ex husband’s car pull out of the driveway on his way to freedom each morning. “What do you WANT?” I would wail , wondering what fates had given me this baby when clearly I was supposed to have the happy smiling babies in the pampers ads. Even bringing her on simple outings gave birth to fits of worry – how far could I drive before she started screaming? Days at home stretched endlessly – could I make it through a shower without her wailing? Would she sleep more than 30 minutes at a stretch? The days and nights blurred together and I remember especially sitting with her at midnight in the rocking chair of the nursery watching the lights of my neighbor’s houses go out one by one and feeling so utterly totally alone. I tried to return to my beloved jazzercise classes, taking advantage of the free babysitting, only to get called out of class after class to retrieve my furious baby. My return to work was full of calls from her daycare a block away “she’s still crying can you come get her/hold her/ rock her? ” Honestly looking back on that first year of Liza’s life I don’t know who cried more, me or her. We tried gas drops and different formulas, let her sleep in her vibrating bouncy seat and held her until I felt as though my arm would literally fall off. I reached out to a dear friend who had a baby just two months older thinking we could spend our time commiserating about the trials of new motherhood. What a shock to my system to discover not only had she morphed into an uber-mom but her daughter was nothing like mine. While her baby spent literal hours examining the wonder of her own hand, mine discarded every new discovery within minutes as if to say “is that all you got? Come ON I’m bored here!” Instead of a comrade in arms all I found was the puzzled stare of a woman unfamiliar with the utter terror I felt at being a mom. My anxiety around Liza’s temperament grew stronger with each passing year . Surely a better parent would handle her better. Surely a better parent would be calm. Surely a better parent would not have slammed the wall over the changing table so hard in frustration that the photos on the other side of the wall came crashing down. Surely a better parent was anyone other than me. Other parents talked about bringing their children out to eat with them at any number of restaurants – I had a child who shook and hyperventilated if you brought her anywhere she “hadn’t been before,” a child who at 5 ran screaming down the block outside a bagel shop because she was convinced the steam from the bagels meant the shop was on fire. I”d love to tell you that I handled her anxiety with aplomb, calmly guiding her through new experiences and soothing her fears. I didn’t. The worse her worries got the worse my anxiety about her worries got. Like the worst kind of relationship between addict and enabler we fed off of each other in a vicious cycle. I grew used to the tightening in my chest every time I had to navigate another experience that could lead to one of her meltdowns, and the resulting sigh of relief as we got through one unscathed. Years later Kelly would tell me that one friend even expressed her sympathy that Kelly had to ‘spend time with that child.” That friend isn’t in our lives any more.

That horrible first year is now a decade in the past. Liza’s grown into a funny, talented, sarcastic young lady who shares my love of Sondheim, a passion for ice cream, and a budding fascination with HGTV. We share the same thighs, the same belly and the same walk. Together we’ve weathere d ten years of tears at the onset of new experiences — tears on the soccer field, tears at the rock climbing birthday party, tears at clowns at the circus, tears on countless school mornings , worries about fire drills and thunderstorms , tests and gym class. Ten years of crying behind my sunglasses on the way to work wondering what I’d done wrong, why all around me were parents with kids who moved easily from one thing to another, parents who didn’t live with a tension in their chest all day. Ten years of waking up praying that the morning would go smoothly. To Liza’s credit she’s worked hard, grown up, agreed to some outside help which has been a huge benefit, found her niche in acting and dance thanks to encouraging and nurturing teachers and directors, and come into a calmer more confident place in her life. Her dad and stepmom created a warm secure home for her, extended family has wrapped her in love and Kelly and my friends have hung in there with her time and time again with love and patience even when it’s been hard to understand. I’m often seized with a desire to clutch her fiercely to me as if to stop the relentless march of time . As Liza grows more mature and calmer she’s helping me do the same and we’ve found our way to a better place. But as I coo and exlaim over her adorable baby sister I’m seized with a longing to go back in time – to hold that angry squalling baby one more time and murmer in her ear that it would all be alright and that Liza and momma would get through it all and that most of all …there was nothing to worry about after all.

Peas in a Pod

Peas in a Pod