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Parenting and Playwriting

No Talent, No Show

This post is part of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, contact me at [email protected].

Lizzie is a shy and reticent child. She refuses to play team sports, cringes whenever we enter the school from a non-designated entrance, and avoids putting herself on display at all costs. So I was pleasantly surprised when, out of the blue, she announced her intention to audition for the school talent show.

Head to grindstone, she practiced her selected piece on the violin daily, until she could recall it as easily as her ABCs. The particular Suzuki Allegro she chose is a workman’s number, neither flashy nor hummable, a workout of finger and bow, meant to teach staccato. Every evening, she hit the bow to string a little too hard, causing us to cringe, until finally, the staccatos came lightly, like skipping stones, as they should.


I take a deep breath and tell her the truth: talent is never judged upon clear aesthetic principals…Best to put on your own talent show, honey, use the garage, canvas the neighborhood, and charge admission, while you’re still young enough and cute enough to get away with it.


The day of the audition, she carried her violin to school and grinned broadly, as if to say, “This one’s in the bag.” She dressed herself carefully, in a hand-me-down white blouse, buttoned to the top, dark jeans, and maryjanes. She looked a little alien, like a Mennonite at the mall. I kissed the top of her head and wished her well, although the words seemed perfunctory. We don’t live in Palo Alto. Lizzie’s the only child in her third grade class who plays the violin.

You must know how this ends, dear reader.

I knew something was wrong when, through the passenger window of my car, I spied her sobbing after school. No sense of shame or self-control, just wild howling in the pick-up line. Alarmed and wary of such operatic abandon, the other children gave her wide berth. Her sweet teacher escorted her to the car, and I knew before the words left her lips, “She wasn’t chosen for the talent show.”

It was as though she had lost a beloved pet. I went into pure baked-goods-can-solve-all-problems mode and tried to salve her grief with offers of chocolate crinkle cookies, black forest cupcakes, royal icing straight from the bowl, but nothing worked. The Professor immediately transmorphed into the High Inquisitor. Who was the judge of this so-called talent show? What qualifications did this person have? Upon what aesthetic standards was the judging based? Has this person even read The Birth of Tragedy

It came out in drips and drabs. The principal was the judge, he who coaches softball and wears polyester gym shorts from the 1980s; he who sent home letters threatening to contact “the local authorities” twice in the first month, and most alarmingly, writes emails with convoluted diction and excessive use of the passive voice! Who did this paragon of education choose for the talent show, if not Lizzie?

His own two children, of course. And a fourth grade duo performing Britney Spear’s choreography from “Oops, I did it again.”

vintage photo of a child
Small Child Playing Violin, from the Library of Congress.

Our letter of complaint was swift. We poured over the arguments: nepotism, clear aesthetic criteria, and all the data in the world that supports musical education! The Professor provided the arguments, I selected the words. We wrote eloquently, sternly, with great authority. We signed the letter with many acronyms: JD, PhD, MFA. We expected the MFA to really put the fear of God in him.

In short, we really showed him.

After the frenzy of letter writing, I looked up to find that Lizzie had disappeared. I found her sitting idly on the swing set in the backyard, no longer crying, our outrage having sapped her own. “Are you really going to send that letter?” she asks. “Do you want us to?” I respond. She pauses, kicks the dirt at her feet. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Then I take a deep breath and tell her the truth: talent is never judged upon clear aesthetic principals. In the worst cases, those who judge art are lazy and ill-informed; in the best, they are idiosyncratic, subject to their own bias. Show business is a rough game full of nepotism, stars without talent and producers who use the passive voice excessively. Best to put on your own talent show, honey, use the garage, canvas the neighborhood, and charge admission, while you’re still young enough and cute enough to get away with it.

We swing a little, swatting away the flies, then go inside and watch an episode of the The Great British Baking Show while eating cookies straight from the box. We never send the letter, of course, but I do write an essay mocking the principal and publish it on-line for money.

I told you: an MFA is a dangerous thing.

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

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Wow, I'd love to have the name of the school and start a letter-writing campaign. Sounds like you are in California and this was a public school. What a sad comment on some educators given the trust to teach our kids.

I always love hearing how you care for your daughter. You seem to have struck that just right balance of protecting without sheltering.