The family that plays together: How to deal with a bunch of drama queens? Take them to the theater

Miller's daughter portrayed both Miranda Cratchit and The Ghost of Christmas Past in Four County Players' production of A Christmas Carol last fall. Photo: John J Stoll Miller’s daughter portrayed both Miranda Cratchit and The Ghost of Christmas Past in Four County Players’ production of A Christmas Carol last fall. Photo: John J Stoll

It’s 8:45pm on a cold November night. The tech rehearsal has been going since 4pm, and I’ve been at the theater since 11am. My shoulders have inched gradually up to hover around my ears. The cast is running the finale with lights and sound, and in my capacity as assistant director, I’m sitting next to the director taking dictation of her notes. In pairs and small groups, the cast converges from various points to hit their final stage picture. All is going well until… My 6-year-old son doesn’t enter on cue, leaving a gap. We stop, and the director calls his name. The stage left Stage Manager calls back that she can’t find him. I’m half annoyed, half alarmed. After a pause, the stage right Stage Manager sticks her head out to say she’s found him sleeping on a bench backstage. She rouses him, we start the song again, and he finishes strong. The rehearsal is finally over. We give notes to the cast, and I wearily collect my things for the half-hour drive home. “My things” in this case include my son and my 9-year-old daughter, my husband, and four scripts, water bottles, pencils, coats, and bags of dinner remnants. We struggle to the car, load our gear, buckle up, and head out. I turn to my son, who hasn’t been to bed on time in six weeks.

Me: “Were you nodding off backstage, buddy?”

6-year-old: “I was just resting my eyes. I was still listening, though.”

9-year-old: “Pffft, yeah right. You missed your cue!”

6-year-old: “I DID NOT MISS MY CUE!”

9-year-old: “Did TOO.”

6-year-old: “Did NOT, I was AWAKE!”

And they’re off. The family that plays together, stays together—and bickers in the car all the way home from the theater. Crabby Husband and I snap for quiet, and I switch on the continuous Christmas music station, a guaranteed crowd pleaser this November. The play we’re working on is A Christmas Carol, and it helps us get in the mood. Among all the firsts on this work experience—my first full-length stage adaptation, my first directing experience, my first time working alongside the kids—the fact that it’s the first time we’ve all belted out “Faaaaallllll on your kneeeees!” along with Martina McBride is the one that surprises me most.

My husband and I are longtime theater enthusiasts raising two hammy children, so perhaps doing a family play was inevitable, but our experience last fall came together by accident. I had committed to adapting and assistant directing A Christmas Carol, and early on the director and I made the decision that I would also perform as the Ghost of Christmas Future, so we didn’t stick another actor with a non-speaking role. Then my daughter asked to audition, and did well. My husband read on a whim when he came to pick her up, and he was great, too. The director mercy-cast my son so he wouldn’t have to stay home with a sitter while the rest of his family did a show together during the holidays. Et voilà, family play!

I went into rehearsals with a lot of anxiety about involving the kids. The anticipation of months of rushed meals and late nights triggered my Fun Police alert system. I worried they were too young to take on the challenge, and I hoped all the hard work would feel worth it.

And as my opening anecdote suggests, we had some stressful times. Parenting is hard, parenting while working is hard, parenting people who are working hard is hard, and doing it all at once was… Well, hard. It was cool to have our kids get to know us as parents and people in a very different context, and also a little weird.

I found myself having conversations I never would have imagined, like this one, with my son backstage on opening night:

Me: “I need to do your makeup. Go get the eyeliner.”

Son: “I’ll have to steal it from Dad. He’s hogging it.”

My daughter also loved the makeup. As we got ready for dress rehearsal, my husband watched her shellack on layers of lipstick. After layer five, he suggested she might have on enough, and she snapped back, “Dad, I am actually allowed to wear makeup, and I am GOING TO ENJOY IT.”

As the show got going, we had fun opportunities for backstage bonding. I paged the curtain for 9-year-old’s first entrance as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and we became so familiar with the text of the preceding scene between Scrooge and Marley that we could do a fully silent lipsynced performance of it, complete with overwrought gestures and dramatic facial expressions.

Another ritual I loved was waiting for the curtain call with my 6-year-old. I wore a big, billowing cloak as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and my tired little guy would escape the chill backstage by creeping under it and resting his head against my stomach. To the outside observer, we would have looked like one head, one black pyramid of body, and four feet.

Our show closed on a matinee performance, and we spent several hours striking the set before going out to dinner with a family of friends from the cast. Bedtime was a tearful, over-tired affair, but finally we were tucking in covers and snapping off lights. I heard my daughter choke out a question to my husband clouded by the last of her tears: “Daddy? Is it always this hard?” And his gentle answer: “Only when you’re lucky.”

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