How to appropriately advocate for your child: Part One

I became a mother two years ago to a fun and fearless energetic ball of joy named Penelope and even though she's still very young, I can already feel the Momma Bear inside of me that roars to life whenever I feel like she's in danger or needs protection.  So I understand the primal desire that stage moms feel when their child bursts into tears after the cast list gets posted and they are heartbroken with the results.  It's torture to watch your kid work their butt off to prepare for a role and then find themselves once again a member of the chorus.  And though your first instinct may be to write a scathing letter to the director about their poor casting skills, I have some other really helpful suggestions for channeling those feelings into a constructive way of supporting your child. 

The one who has the potential to turn me into my worst nightmare - a stage mom.

The one who has the potential to turn me into my worst nightmare - a stage mom.

1. Let your child do the talking.
Encourage your child to speak to their director themselves.  This is huge.  Allowing your child to take ownership of their feelings is incredibly important.  Often times it can be hard to ignore our own emotions and focus solely on how our children are feeling.  Even if you swear that you're "not really that kind of stage mom", you undoubtedly feel some sort of empathy for your kid when they get disappointed and sometimes that empathy can grow into anger or frustration that goes way beyond what your child is actually feeling (I have seen parents "advocate" on behalf of their child who was actually perfectly content to be cast as the third spear holder on the right).  We are Momma Bears, after all, and we are bound to have our own emotions to contend with when our children are upset.  So, to ensure that we don't accidentally attack the director with misplaced frustration when our son or daughter appears to be heartbroken over losing out on a part, encourage your kids to approach the director for feedback.  Email is a completely acceptable form of communication for this but I recommend doing it in person if possible.  Here's an example of a completely hypothetical conversation that I have had dozens of times.
ACTOR:  Excuse me, can I talk to you about my audition?
DIRECTOR:  Of course!
ACTOR:  I was wondering if you could give me some feedback about my audition and let me know what I should be working on if I'd like to be considered for leading roles.  I'm hoping to pursue acting as a career and I'd really like to know what I can do to move out of the chorus and into featured parts.

DIRECTOR: What an incredibly well thought out question.  I admire your dedication to your craft!
This is when the director will give gentle constructive criticism about the actor's audition.  Perhaps the leading roles in this show all have to be excellent tappers and the actor, who sang and acted the part beautifully, wasn't as experienced a tapper as another potential cast member.  Or perhaps their vocal type wasn't right for the part (they are an alto and the role requires a soprano).  Often times our younger performers don't understand that just because they can act the part, doesn't mean they are the right type for the part.  Certain roles require certain voices or dance techniques.  And it's also not true that the most talented performer gets the lead and the next talented performer gets the next biggest part and so on and so forth...that's just not the case.
[SIDEBAR:  What does that even mean "the most talented performer"??  There's no such thing.  We are all individuals.  We all have our own personal strengths and weaknesses.  To imagine that we would all be considered for the same roles is just not possible.  And this is why it's essential to understand our "type", which is of course a conversation for another blog post!]
So, that's one way the conversation can go, however, you need to prepare yourself and your child for a response from the director that is something along the lines of, "You gave a wonderful audition but the person we cast had a better audition and that is why we cast them in the part."  And that is a completely valid and acceptable response.  Because the world is full of talented individuals.  And even when we try our very best, sometimes it's not good enough to get the role.  And that's okay.  In fact, that's the norm.  And quite frankly, learning to deal with disappointment early on will help our actors develop that thick skin that is necessary to have in this industry.
2. Be the parent, not the coach.  
Your child is going to be disappointed from time to time if they choose to pursue acting.  And if you're like me, you are going to want to help them in any way you can.  You might even have a background in acting or dancing so you're able to help them with their lines or prepare for their audition.  That's great!  What's not great is when you hear that your daughter wasn't called back for the lead role and you ask "Well, how did you do?  Did you sing your song well?  Did you smile while you sang it?  And did you point to the moon on that one line like we practiced?"  This is not helpful.  Your child will rely on you for comfort following a disappointing audition.  He will be given enough criticism or guidance from his directors, choreographers, and vocal directors.  What he needs from his parents is love and support.
PARENT: I know you're disappointed, sweetie, but I'm so proud of you!  You practiced so hard and I can't wait to see how much you'll learn in this production!
ACTOR: Thanks, mom.  I know I did my best so I'm happy with my audition.  

Admittedly, it will most likely take a box of Kleenex and several hours of listening to the Hamilton soundtrack to really cheer your child up but they will bounce back much quicker if you help them accept their role and model a positive outlook.  You can cry into your glass of Chardonnay after they go to sleep.  
 3. If you really feel that you need to contact the director with concerns, wait.  
I can't tell you how many emails I have received the night the cast list has been posted from furious parents who are reacting with their protective Momma Bear instincts and I bet many of them would not have pushed send on that email the following morning after their initial anger had dissolved.  By all means, write that scathing email in which you call into question my credentials, in which you insinuate that I am playing favorites (towards children I have never met before) or in which you all but directly (or actually directly in some cases) call me a hack.  But I encourage you to refrain from pushing send until the following morning.  And if you do actually still feel the need to send me an email, please be respectful.  Be polite.  Voice your concerns.  NEVER remark on the other performers in the production!  Ask questions about the audition process, about the part that your child will be playing, or if there is anything that they can be working on or improve for their next audition.  This kind of contact with the parents is totally acceptable.  But I truly recommend that you only reach out to a director if you actually feel that some injustice has occurred.  Even the best directors can make mistakes in auditions, myself included, and when that happens a polite enquiry from a parent can have important consequences.
But I need every parent to consider one thing before they reach out to a member of the creative team with concerns.  Please remember that this is our job.  So if you come to us with complaints about casting decisions it's the same as someone coming into your work and complaining about the way you designed that website or criticizing the lesson plans you spent all summer creating.  Please remember that for us this isn't some hobby or after school activity designed to look good on college applications.  This is our career.  And we take it very seriously.  So before you reach out to us with your questions, picture what it would feel like to have someone question the way you do your job.  I don't mean to suggest that we shouldn't be open to constructive criticism in our lives or our work - I encourage the parents I work with to approach me with any and all concerns - but I do stress the importance of being respectful with all parent/director communication.  Remember, the kids are always watching.  So if they see Mommy make a huge scene because they didn't get the part then they are learning that to get what they want they should bully and intimidate.  However, if they are encouraged to stand up for themselves, voice their own concerns, and approach the director with questions on how to improve as an actor, then they learn that the road to success is paved with hard work, respect, and dedication.
I feel that I need to let you all know that though it must seem like my world is filled with Scary Stage Moms, in reality I have been blessed with some of the most incredibly caring, supportive, funny, and wonderful parents a director could ask for.  I share the scary mom stories as cautionary tales but most of what I've learned about how to be a great stage mom was from the behavior I've witnessed from the stage moms in my life.  They have showed me how you can be an advocate for your child while respecting the creative process and their unconditional love and support for their kids have helped shape who I am as a mother with my daughter.  I assure you that in addition to the Scary Stage Mom posts to come, I will also be sharing stories of the Savvy Stage Moms I've had the pleasure of knowing over the years.  I'm eternally grateful for the trust they have placed in me to train their talented young performers - it is a privilege I do not take for granted.