Parenting & Playwriting

Sharing Bad Reviews with My Children

After my article on playwriting and parenting got folks gabbing about the matter in the comments section, Polly Carl asked me to consider writing an advice column on the subject for HowlRound. While it's true that I am indeed both a parent and a playwright, it's also true that I'm fledging at both and in no position to be doling out advice to anyone. And yet although I've never met Polly Carl in person, I am Facebook friends with her and can tell from her pictures she is not someone you say no to. So with fear and trembling, I said yes.

Here's what my advice column will offer you: a place to ask questions and share grievances about juggling life as theatre artists and as parents.

Here's what my advice column will not offer you: much actual advice you can use. For those of you masochists longing for some truly crappy advice, email me at

The beauty of this technique is that it cast my anxiety and despair away from the issue at hand, while teaching Lizzie empathy at the same time (note the "I'm sorry" at the end of the exchange.) 

In the meantime, I'm going to take on the age-old question, which I've been mulling over for some time:

Should I let my children see me cry over bad reviews?

A couple of months ago I got the very worst review of my life in a major publication. I mean, it was a god-awful, out and out pan that questioned my very grasp of the fundamental principles of drama. A real doozey. And while I didn't actually shed tears, I did mope around the house for a couple of days feeling sorry for myself, which of course, my children noticed. The conversation with my four-and -a-half year old went something like this:

Lizzie: What's wrong Mommy?
Me: My play got a bad review in a newspaper.
Lizzie: What's a newspaper?*

Ah – wisdom from the mouths of babes.

What I didn't tell Lizzie was that while the review indeed upset me, what upset me more was the fact she hadn't pooped in three days. As the week progressed, and still no stirring from her sphincter, my mood grew increasingly dark. I don't know much about child psychology except what I read on the internet in the middle of the night, but even this shady education has taught me that when it comes to my child's bowel movements, I'm a little co-dependent. When she's stopped up, I'm over-concerned and anxious. On the rare occasion she releases her bowels properly in the commode, I am ecstatic. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure this co-dependence isn't helping matters. It is possible that Lizzie, sensing my fixation, purposefully withholds her poop in order to frustrate and torture me, because that is what young children do, apparently.

I've discovered it's best for me to pretend I don't care one iota about Lizzie's bowel movements, and this terrible, awful, no good review gave me just the excuse I needed. Every day for about a week, we held some variation of the following conversation:

Lizzie: Mommy, what's wrong?
Me: I'm upset about that bad review.
Lizzie: It must be really, really bad.
Me: It really is.
Lizzie: I'm sorry.

Sure enough, over the course of the week, our power struggle over poop came to an end, and I didn't have to say another word about it.

The beauty of this technique is that it cast my anxiety and despair away from the issue at hand, while teaching Lizzie empathy at the same time (note the "I'm sorry" at the end of the exchange.) Moreover, it occurs to me, you don't even have to receive an actual bad review to use it. You could just pretend you have, because lucky for us, four-year-olds can't read. It could cover a multitude of sins. Let's say you and your partner are fighting a lot, maybe you're even considering divorce but want to hide it from your kids. Just tell them "Mommy got a bad review." They will immediately nod gravely, curse the bad newspaperman, and give you a hug. Winners all around.

Through mere modeling, I've taught Lizzie that the life of the artist is filled with pain and disappointment and should be avoided at all cost.

This technique also brought about another unexpected yet delightful result. Through mere modeling, I've taught Lizzie that the life of the artist is filled with pain and disappointment and should be avoided at all cost. Now instead of spending hours a day drawing and gluing and cutting up little bits of paper that inevitably fall to the dining room floor for me to sweep up, she is building cityscapes with blocks, as befits a future engineer.

*Those of you who know me know my four year old is not named "Lizzie." However, one day "Lizzie" will learn how to google and when that day comes, I'd like for us to remain on speaking terms. In that spirit, I'm re-naming my girls Lizzie and Laura for this column. Thirty cents to the first person to name the poem I'm referencing with these names.

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Thoughts from the curator

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

Parenting & Playwriting


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I attended a show with a good friend, who is a playwright as well, along with her daughter a few weeks ago. At the end of the TYA production my friend and I both stood giving a standing ovation to what we saw as a fabulous piece, the five year old little girl tugged hard on both our pants saying "Why are you standing? That was not very good." It was a fabulous moment.

What ensued on the car ride home was a conversation about how we are all entitled to our own opinions and that not everyone likes the same type of theatre. And I have been thinking about how true this is ever since.

Thanks for this! I just wanted to add that there is always another danger – that of turning our children into critics. Hunter McConnell, at five, was taken by a friend to see a community theatre’s morning show for kids and, once seated, became unusually quiet. Before the show began his hostess leaned over and asked if he was ok. His response? “Well, I don’t like the set.”

I'm married to a playwright-parent (Mark Rigney), and I bet he'll have something to say for himself in response to this blog, but he's currently playing Killer Bunnies with our kids. He's in the midst of a school-enforced break from writing called: The Four Day Weekend. There's a blog entry in that topic.

Our son motivated Mark's strenuous breaks from writing after we read his "Young Voices" letter published in the local newspaper a few years ago:

"I can help my family in these ways. I can do more chores, because I only do them on Saturday. I can try to help my mom calculate grades and test scores. I could do a lot more cooking with my dad. I should also let my mom and dad get a bit more work done. (My dad is a playwright, so he's busy most of the time.)"

Yep. There it is.

I live in Pittsburgh where I've been writing for sometime and a lot of people here know me and my work, and its a small town, so when my daughters were small, they thought I was a famous playwright. When my last show had a poster on the back of the bus, my youngest then 9 was convinced."This play, Mom, is gonna be BIG." When said play got mixed reviews she was outraged. She wanted to write the critic a letter, telling him just how big and important her mom was. She is a letter writer, during the BP Oil spill, she wrote Obama to ask him, "What are you doing?? You gotta do something! If you need some ideas, I have some." She received a "personal" reply, so writing to my small town's critic was not out of the question for her. My daughter's outrage grew "How could this man who doesn't even know you say those mean things?" "He's entitled to his opinion," I would say, "even if he is a poopy head." (Which he is) Finally, she told me, it doesn't matter what one person says, all that matters is what the people who love you think.

OK, so, in the spirit of sharing, my 9-year old asked me to write a script for the show she puts on every Saturday night. I worked hard on this script, incorporated all of the elements she and her 6-year old sister requested, it's called "The Princess and the Star of the Show" and is about a page and a half long.
She hated it. She said it was all wrong. She then dictated (while I typed) her own version of the rejected commissioned script.
I was saddened by her rejection of my work, I really felt I'd captured what she was after, and I think she should have given it a second read. I've decided to perform my script (self-produce) on Sunday (today) with my 6-year old so she can see how awesome it really is. Somewhere in there I tried to do some parenting by making a speech about how it's more fun for everyone if you let others have some input, and that's what playing together is all about (devised work?).