8 Parenting Lessons from my Life in the Theatre

Monday we started camp at the studio I’ve been working with for half a decade. I love teaching this camp each year but this year I know it is going to be a little trickier because I am bringing my son with me. I was a little worried at how he would do with all the commotion and wondering if we had maybe made a mistake trying to bring him with us, but so far it has been great. It has also been a lot more work, so last night and early this morning I started brainstorming for a post I mentioned I wanted to write a while back- I want to talk about just a few of the ways theatre has helped prepare me to be a parent, or even made me a better parent than I would have been:
1. Odds are good that at least once a week you will need to use creative problem solving aka the “make it work” aspect of almost any art that has a deadline or a live performance aspect. Theatre almost always has a hard deadline. You have an opening night date set and that is that. People are going to show up whether your costumes are finished or not, and since shows are very rarely cancelled, the show must go on and you need to make it work if things don’t all line up. This attitude has helped me immeasurably as a parent. Did you forget a diaper bag? I bet you can find or borrow enough to make it through the next 8 hours. Did you forget your carrier? I bet you can rebozo that long scarf (not safety tested or officially recommended, but you know what? It does work in a pinch!) Is your kid crying because you made the mistake of driving through the night to California and he thinks 2am is 6am and it is time to get up? Better get out the stroller and push it back and forth a la a makeshift swing motion to counteract that insanity. It’s AMAZING what you can end up doing just to make it work and get through the day. And just as onstage, sometimes people won’t even be able to tell the difference between what is happening and what should have happened. And when they can? Oftentimes it’s more likely they will applaud your courage and resolve to move forward with what you have instead of scoffing at the mistake. Sometimes it may even become their favorite memory of that scene or moment.
2. There are many right choices. I think the more widely used phrase in acting classes is “there are no wrong choices” with which I strongly disagree. There are definitely some wrong choices both in life and on the stage. But there are still infinitely more right choices. I have to remind myself of this all the time in parenting and in the rehearsal room. The way you thought about a choice may be different than someone else and odds are good that they are both valuable, right choices and we can probably learn from each choice. One choice might suit one person better than another. You can waste a lot of time trying to find the perfect choice because it doesn’t exist. But there are so very many right choices that do. Enjoy the freedom of those choices and keep playing with that variety. So how do you keep from becoming overwhelmed by the infinite variety?
3. Use text based choices and then go with your gut. There’s a lot of academic argument in both religion and Shakespeare about textual culture and which versions of which texts should hold authority. It’s fascinating for a nerd like me and strangely philosophically comforting that we will never know 100% which versions are truly “canon” but I have found ease artistically with this problem by making text based choices based on the text we have to work with in the rehearsal room. I make choices based on the cut I have with the actors I have. And if that changes, the choices probably change too. In parenting, it’s worked similarly. I decided what texts I was going with (the Bible, many Catholic traditions, a pediatrician I felt good about and trust) and then I made choices based on those and based on the “actors” I have- in this case that primarily meant my husband, myself, and our son. Had I birthed a different baby, some of the ways we do things would inevitably be different and I expect if we have another baby that some of the things that worked with my first won’t with my second and vice versa. Maybe this seems intuitive, but I think I would have had a hard time with the abundance of conflicting parenting books out there in the world if it weren’t for my past experience with textual culture and the murky variety of clues and choices we must encounter when dealing with them.
4. Teamwork and collaboration are key to success.
I joked last blog post that I must sound like a broken record on this point, but I can’t emphasize this enough. I have felt the presence of community so much more since becoming a parent and I’m not sure how we’d survive without that present. Likewise, since moving into directing I have learned how to rely on and work with even more people and positions that I would have as an actor. I’ve learned that if you aren’t clear with your vision, you can get railroaded and start feeling like the people who should be your team are your competitors, but if you go to the other extreme and micromanage your vision you will lose out on opportunities to learn and see something new and exciting. THat’s how I try to look at parenting advice and help.
5. Go to bed tired was the crux of the “welcome to grad school” speech we all got from a program alumnus. I used to think this meant be exhausted all the time. Then I realize it just meant make sure you fill your days because you sleep better when you didn’t veg out watching netflix – when you can feel accomplished and peaceful from the physical and mental exertion of the day. Now I wish the meaning was when you’re tired you’re allowed to go to bed because I MISS SLEEP but it’s nice to go to bed tired each and every day and realize that even if the house ends up messier than I started, I am going to bed tired because I did things with my day. I taught my child and kept him safe and made meals and shared memories and sometimes I worked two jobs on top of that. When I first had my son and everyone was asking about the sleep deprivation I came up with this description which i still stand by- it’s like being in tech week constantly only you have the adrenaline and joy of a great opening night to balance it… only it is also a tech week/opening night combo that never ends so you get a little loopy eventually.
6. Work is never wasted. Sometimes the script may change, an actor that is key to the scene is unexpectedly absent, you find out you only had half the budget you were originally told, or who knows what else and you have to completely change the plans you set in motion. It’s easy to think that you “wasted your time” but I believe more and more in this mantra of “work is never wasted” which was shared by my thesis advisor. Some days I wonder why I bother folding the laundry that is thrown out of drawers by an eager excited little boy 30 seconds later, or why I ever set aside time to make a bed or do my hair when it’s going to get pulled out and frazzled before anyone even sees me again… but work is never wasted.You will discover new things about scenes, use new creativity with tighter budgets, or if all else fails have a hell of a story to tell over a few post show drinks. You will know that you mattered enough to take time for yourself, even if no one sees the results and you will know that one day your son will help fold the laundry instead of destroying it. you just won’t see those fruits for a while, but work is never wasted.

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7. You life is enriched by exposure to stories and people different than yourself. Right now the camp we are doing consists mostly of children from families that are in transitional housing situations. Check out UMOM’s website for more information on the type of families this program helps. I always get a good dose of perspective when teaching these kids and even more so now that I’m a mom. Nothing will remind you of which of your parenting problems are first world like hearing some of the stories that the campers share each summer. And what’s really great about bringing the baby with us this year- is it reminds us that even though our lives may seem pretty different, everyone just wants to make baby boy smile and laugh and dance. The important things in life, the really beautiful things in life remain the same.

8. Improvisation: OK, I’m kind of cheating on this one because I started writing up this point and realized it was going to be longer than the entire rest of the post combined… so.. look for a future posts that includes the basic rules of improv (“yes… and”, “no… but”, “take care of your partner”, “it’s Tuesday!” and more. if none of those phrases make sense to you, they will! Just won’t have time to write this post until camp is over 🙂 )

The first week is going really well so far, and the baby is thrilled to be around so many bright and energetic kids. The campers love having him around too! Plus… we have had some awesome guest artists that have helped teach things like music, dance, and puppetry. We now have a new component to our bedtime routine…

Coolest invention of the week... Instant hand puppet.

Coolest invention of the week… Instant hand puppet.

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