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Parenting and Playwriting


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If I tell you that my favorite album of 1987 was REM's Document, don't believe me. While Document may have become my favorite album of 1987 in 1988, during the actual year of 1987 in Athens, Georgia, I was rocking out to the Broadway recording of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats. Love Tractor may have been rehearsing down the street, but I didn't hear them. I was too busy choreographing routines to "Jellico Cat" on my roller skates in the driveway.

I may tell you otherwise, but there's evidence against me: an electric blue trapper keeper with a Cats playbill tucked into its plastic cover. I saw Cats, my first Broadway show, on a brief family vacation to New York City, in which my gay second cousin and his "roommate" ushered us around town. I glimpsed Kathleen Turner dining al fresco in the Village, and desperately wished to trade places with that gorgeous Puerto Rican girl sitting on her stoop with big gold hoop earrings and a t-shirt falling off her shoulder. Did I mention it was 1987?

That playbill was a symbol of everything I wanted to be, so I cut off the cover and stuck it on my trapper keeper, but it was also the first and only playbill I ever destroyed. The rest remain in a large plastic crate in my basement. And not just playbills from Broadway shows but programs from Off-Broadway, the West End, and many a sundry college production. I give away books as soon as I read them, but play programs, apparently, are forever.

Recently, the Professor and I cleaned out the basement, and he urged me to get rid of my collection, or at least cull it down a bit. I never look at them, they're mostly advertisements, after all, but I refused, and when he asked me why, I simply said: the children may want them when they're older.

Which is a bald-faced lie.

My children don't want my playbills, and I'm afraid never will. I cherished that Cats playbill, because it represented my fantasy of living in New York, wearing big gold hoop earrings and working in the theater, a dream that in 1987 seemed as unreachable as Mars, as unlikely as singing cats. But to my children, New York City is that place they visit every year, that place where Mommy works. And the theater? Well, that's as ordinary as the mailman.

Lizzie saw her first Broadway show, Newsies, at age six, and when I asked her what she thought, she shrugged and said it "had too many boys." And when my friend, who was in Newsies, brought us onstage afterwards, I got a little thrill out of it, I admit, but Lizzie just whispered, "can we ride the carousel now?"

It's sobering to realize my dreams are not my children's, even when they're exceptionally cool dreams, like walking across a Broadway stage. I expected them to at least appreciate the wonder of it. I really thought one of my girls would unearth that crate of playbills one day and declare it a treasure trove, as I would have, but I'm afraid it's doomed to have as much special meaning to them as my Father's old Insurance and Risk Management Journals did to me.

My feelings are more complicated than merely wishing my children would share my love of theater, however, because what I really want is for my children to love the theater, to appreciate all their access, but have absolutely no desire to pursue it as a career. Like generations before, the Professor and I urge them, "Be an engineer, be a doctor, but whatever you do, do not become a philosopher! Do not become a playwright! Those paths are lined with heartache, despair and no benefits!" To Lizzie, who loves drawing as much as life itself, we say, "it's fine to be an artist but get a teaching degree as well!" We produce a river of sensible rhetoric in our home, thinking somehow this will shape them.

But of course this rhetoric is probably as useless as my crate of playbills in the basement. My children see that their father is a philosopher. Their mother is a playwright. These things are neither extraordinary nor magical; neither difficult nor unlikely. They are just ordinary, our everyday worksongs.

What do your children think about your life in the theater? What do you want them to think?


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A series on balancing responsibilities as a working playwright and as a parent.

Parenting & Playwriting


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My father has been with the same company since he graduated college, it's been over 25 years now.

For some reason, despite their old world frugality and sensibilities they didn't mind my drama club interests as a student and state-school theatre degree. Now I have a full-time profession within the regional theatre world, and I'm pursuing my master's in nonprofit leadership so I can lead at a theatre company, but there were many years I didn't have such luck. Finally, now that I am stable, I asked them why they never one time asked me to do something sensible.

They said, "we were sensible so you didn't have to be."

My parents placed in me the fear of financial insecurity. My father was often laid off as a Journeyman carpenter and mother never worked. My love for theater was consequently always accompanied by this fear. Shame was there too. I abandoned my theater career due to my fear of financial insecurity and earned an MBA, then worked in a field that became more and more morally offensive. I started writing plays again four years ago and the practice helped me remember my ethical bottom line. A script I wrote will be produced in Chicago this Fall, but more importantly, my investment in my love for theater taught me again what my ethical bottom-line is, what I can't abandon if I want to be happy. I want to encourage my children to love the work they do, whatever it is, so they can understand it as a basic truth, and use that love to help shape their morals. Pragmatic skills regarding money and being self-supporting are important, but my experience teaches me that if I don't believe in the work I do then whatever money I make with that work will feel like a moral compromise.

I asked my children what they think, and they said they don't think about it much. "It's just an everyday life thing." I'm fine with that. Even if it means they will probably choose other paths, I suspect they would have no objection if their own kids decide to pursue theatre. And to me, that feels like progress.

It saddens me that apparently even theater-people are discouraging their children from going into the arts. Some important points to remember during this time of hi-tech (and legal) idol worship:

1) Most of the extremely serious problems of the day, from the threat of nuclear annihilation to the genetic manipulation of the food we eat, including how the government now tracks our every movement and thought (and private companies use that information to sell us things), is all due NOT to artists but to engineers.

2) Lawyers "earn" so much money via laws that severely restrict the competition. That is, if somebody pays me twenty bucks do provide them legal advice rather than pay some lawyer a couple hundred dollars, I can be thrown in jail EVEN IF MY ADVICE IS EXACTLY AS GOOD (even identical) to the lawyer's. It's called "unauthorized practice of law". (And don't think this is just theoretical -- it actually happens.)

3) Seldom (if ever) has an engineer or lawyer contributed to the understanding of the human condition, or appreciation for live itself.

NOTE: Science can be a valid pursuit, as it's purpose is not (as is the case of engineering) to figure out ways to make money off of people, but to discover how the universe works. (And, as COSMOS demonstrated, to share that knowledge.)

But even here it should be noted that the reason science seems like a much more stable profession that the arts is not because it intrinsically is, but because of laws that take so much money from taxpayers and give it to scientists (often for the purpose of making discoveries that will build better weapons, or lead to things that engineers can make money off of).

The bottom line is we need to remove all of the artificial aspects of our society that the politicians and lawyers and warmongers have been allowed (by people not paying sufficient attention) over the last hundred years to be implemented... and then the arts will no longer pay so much less than other careers.

A couple years ago, when my daughter was six or seven, she told me out of the blue, "no offense mom, but I'm not going to work in the theater." When I asked her why, she said, "because you don't work outside or with animals!" I was heartened only because at least she wasn't saying what she didn't like about theater or my job but more what my job didn't include. At the time, I think she wanted to be a veterinarian and now she wants to be a dragonaologist because she is sure dragons are real and she's going to find them!! I think you are right Catherine that because we are raising our children working around artists within theaters, that they see it as the every day and it might not seem quite as magical as it did to many of us growing up. I think raising children within theater is an amazing way to experience childhood - traveling to many new places, being around artists and having the opportunity to see theater whenever possible. Your column for HowlRound is one of my favorite regular entries - thanks for your many contributions!!

You should save your Playbills. Your children may never love theatre, but if they're anything like me, that's not what they'll be looking for out of a collection like that. When they grow up, maybe when they're 30 or 40, and they're finally interested in finding out who their parents were as human beings, your old Playbills could become very special. You see them as a connection to theatre. Your grown children will see them as a connection to you.

Sometimes I think the inherent instability (both temporal and financial) in our household of two theater artists and a six-year-old is what will lead him to a career outside the arts. And sometimes, I think the joy of the travel, the passion, the amazing artists sleeping in our guest room for days or weeks, the endless concersations taking apart narrative, and all the shows he sees will inevitably lead our son into a career in the arts. Right now, like CC's daughter in her comment, he wants to be an astro-physicist because of Cosmos.

I am glad he's retained a sense of wonder in the theater, but I really don't know if I wish this blessing/curse of a life on him...

Not too long ago, I went through all the boxes in my basement, many of which were full of magazines that contained articles I'd written. I got rid of most of them. Why? Because I realized my kids were never going to want to save old articles about destinations or the high cost of hotel phone charges (though that might be relevant in some historical context). I saved one big envelope full of interviews of celebrities (though they probably won't know who they are), but have little hope they'll want those either. Any insight they might want to gain into who I was can be gleaned from reading my plays. But as for theater? My actor daughter thinks it's great, as does one son. I think the other two find it a damned nuisance. Kids like what they like and a parent is a parent, no matter what her job is. I remember an actor telling me once when he had the show he starred in on television and his son wailed, "No! No Daddy show." At that age, there is nothing attached to what they like other than their own feelings.

Watching Cosmos with my 8-year-old last night, I was thrilled when she demanded we pause the DVD so she could run and get a notebook. She then took 4 pages of notes. She wants to be a scientist, not an easy road for women. But I could write that phrase after ANY pursuit, ambition, or aim, including stay-at-home mom, and it would be true. My daughter's first Broadway outing at 4 years old was to see Mary Poppins, which she adored from our very cramped balcony seats. Then at 5 she came to see a festival of children's plays Off-Off Broadway that included two of mine. Walking into the 99-seat black box theater she paused in surprise and exclaimed, "This is a SMALL theater!" She then turned to me and patted my arm kindly: "But that's OK." She liked my plays a lot. But she especially loved the play where the lady farts (not mine, but kudos to the brilliant playwright who knew her audience so well). If my daughter becomes a scientist or a teacher or a pediatrician or a hair stylist (all occasional ambitions of hers), I will be happy if she's happy. And if she keeps going to the theater.