Since my first role at the tender age of 8, when I played the pivotal character of Fourth Building Block in a production of The Velveteen Rabbit, I’ve been hooked on theater. It was my preoccupation all through my formative years: classes in winter, camps in summer, shows all year round. And although I majored in English, I joined student theater and a cappella groups in college because academic life would have been too bland without the spice of performing.
Most importantly, I made many of my best friends backstage. No matter how odd or awkward I felt, among theater types I was always on the spectrum. Ain’t no friends like the ones you make singing three-part harmony, doing each other’s eyeliner, running lines while lounging on the old couch in the green room, and getting loopy on one too many snitched Dr. Peppers (and, in college, one too many cups of cast party punch).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the supportive team that made this happy childhood in the theater possible, headed up by my dear mother. She sewed costumes, gave rides, ran lines, brought dinner, kept my schedule, applauded me enthusiastically, and, when necessary, dried my tears. She was remarkably stoic in the face of parenting the hyper-dramatic emotional whirlwind that was (is) her oldest child. And lucky for me, I have her good example to follow, because I’m currently playing Stage Mom to my own budding thespian.
I have only myself to blame. I aroused my daughter’s interest in theater by forcibly enrolling her in my Kids on Stage drama class at Live Arts so I wouldn’t have to pay a sitter. Seeing how much she actually enjoyed it, I signed her up for the musical theater summer day camp there too. And that went well, so I let her audition for A Christmas Carol when I was assistant directing it at Four County Players this past fall. Lo and behold, a confident audition yielded her a pair of interesting roles, The Ghost of Christmas Past and Miranda Cratchit. Standing backstage each night awaiting her first entrance, whispering a few last-minute words of encouragement, and then paging the curtain while she glided onstage are memories I will treasure.
However, with her successful audition for the musical Grey Gardens, we’re in new territory. I’m involved in the project solely as her parent and superfan. She’s the youngest person in the cast, and everyone but the director was a virtual stranger to her before she started rehearsals. Leaving her all alone at the first read-through, sitting with a pale, brave face at a big table of grown-ups, was like the first day of kindergarten all over again. When she walked in the front door afterwards, flushed and smiling, I pounced.
Me: “HOW DID IT GO?”
Daughter: “There were Oreos! I ate SIX!”
Me: “Wow! O.K.! But HOW WAS THE READ-THROUGH?”
Daughter: “Great! (Pause.) I do NOT understand that play.”
Ah well, I played Pooh Bah in The Mikado around the same age—10-year-old white girl as male Asian baritone—and to this day I don’t understand the perambulations of that plot. She’ll be fiiine.
When Grey Gardens’ director called to say she wanted to cast my daughter, she followed up with, “I hope that’s O.K.” In my excitement, I couldn’t really figure out what she meant. I hung up and told my daughter the news and watched her dance around the house, whooping and shouting. Yeah! I’d say it was O.K. with us!
But now that rehearsals are underway, I realize she meant, “I hope that’s O.K., because it’s going to be a lot of work for both of you.” And Mom, consider this my official thank you, because schedule-keeping and lines-running and rides-giving is a lot of work, not to mention the emotional support actors need, especially young ones. But it really moves me to watch my daughter get so much pleasure and life experience from a discipline that has been so important to me. I can’t wait to see her take the stage opening night, executing all the lines and songs and dance moves she’s been so diligently practicing. What goes around comes around, and Stage Mom is a role I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to play.—Miller Murray Susen
Grey Gardens opens at Live Arts March 7. Visit livearts.org to learn more and buy tickets.