We have a rule in my house. No running with swords. And no, I don’t mean foam swords, or cardboard swords covered in tin foil like you find at a nerdy LARP or SCA event. I mean full tang, combat ready, “can still pierce your heart and kill you” weapons called swords. We have quite a few of them in my house, because I need them for my job.
I am a performer. A comedian, an actor combatant, a dancer, a singer, a musician, a director, a fire artist, a storyteller, a writer, an improviser, a producer... and a parent.
The idea that performers have different parenting situations that require different parameters than “other people” isn’t that special. I mean, I have to assume that people with other professions have unique rules for their households as well. Things like “no climbing the extension ladder to the roof without a base buddy” or “no milking the cows that kick” or even “no firing your siblings without documented steps towards resolution filed with HR.”
But this isn’t about parenting as a roofer, or a farmer, or as middle management in one of those cubical worlds where you only wear jeans on Fridays. This is about performance. A profession where you build worlds for others to escape in, or for them to ponder their own reality. Where the walls of truth are constantly changing, and facts can be fudged with permission. Where you explore the world, grow in understanding, and play pretend for the amusement of yourself and others.
All of which proves that we performers are just bigger and slightly older kids. Kids that technically know better, but still want to laugh and high five our children when they amuse us by squirting milk out of their tear ducts.
What? It’s really funny. And gross. But mostly funny.
I can’t say what kind of situations come up with other households or how their professions influence the types of lessons their children learn. But I can tell you about my household. There is myself. There is my husband Bill, a comedy writer and performer in various mediums. And there is my 11 year old son Jared, who has grown up in this performance environment, and been presented with a wide range of developmental opportunities. Here are just a few of them.
Bill has been a writer for local cable favorite Drinking With Ian. It happened a year or so ago that a sketch was written, and our entire family received roles. Jared was cast as Ian’s son with an alcohol problem. There was my boy, waving around an empty bottle clearly marked grog, swearing at Ian.
It’s times like these that can make a performer question their parenting skills.
I’ve never yelled at my son for swearing, and there are two reasons behind this. First, I am a firm believer in having conversations with your children. Anytime a swear word has come up around my son, we talk about the feeling and intent behind how it was delivered, and why it’s probably not a good idea to use the word in public. Second, my son doesn’t swear. He just doesn’t. He has been known to use substitute words like “shiz,” but he’s never push boundaries with swear words.
Which is why I was shocked when my son not only delivered the forbidden words without stumbling, but gave them the kind of feeling and delivery that would make a sailor blush. He absolutely nailed that performance, because he understood the desired intention behind those words.
My son has watched me try to memorize monologues for auditions, and watched me struggle over the meaning of a word, trying to understand the intent behind it. He’s watched Bill struggle with the phrasing of a stand up joke to get across the intention of the joke. So he’s seen that words are just that... words. It’s the intention you put into them that gives them value.
No Part Is Too Small
I am a poor producer. I don’t mean I’m bad at it (that’s a judgement call I’ll let you make). I mean that I have very little money with which I can produce a show. So when it comes to producing a short film, you might find me also directing, or filming, or even playing key grip. While directing and/or filming. Jared has come with me and watched as I held a boom mic at an awkward angle (how else do you hold a boom?) and give directions to a star about how to furrow his brow after adjusting a bounce.
Every job needs to be done. If it’s not, then you don’t get your finished project. And if there’s no one else to do it, then you do it, or it doesn’t get done. It’s as simple as that.
No Idea Is Too Dumb
I’m fairly confident that my son is a better comedic writer than I am. He has written insults for me for my insult comedy (Vilification Tennis monthly at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Ahem), he has suggested tags to Bill’s jokes, and he’s even written himself into short films.
It’s far too easy as an adult to dismiss a child’s ideas as childish. If you’re trying to come up with something that pushes the boundaries of societal norms, it can be frustrating to have a child give their unsolicited two cents. But a child is a person who hasn’t built up preconceived notions of how a show should go, or how the world behaves, or even what funny is.
This doesn’t mean that Jared always hits the nail on the head. A child lives so much in the moment that it can be hard for them to see the big picture. But that’s when you tell your child that the idea is a good one, just not what you’re looking for in this particular scene. But by God, you listen, because a child’s view is sometimes exactly that wacky, outside the box thinking that we adults struggle so hard to achieve.
It was about a year ago when I turned to my husband and said “how would you like to quit your job and be a full-time comedian, while staying home with Jared so he can do on-line schooling and work at his own pace as opposed to being held to a slower pace with the rest of the class?”
Well, okay. I didn’t say it that concisely. I have just boiled down 5 hours of conversation into one long run-on sentance for space. You’re welcome.
We looked at our finances, figured out our budget, calculated how much I made against how much Bill would make doing stand up, how much we could save by cutting out extras and changing our lifestyle, and decided that it was doable. And it is, but teaching Jared about how limited resources can be was hard at first.
“Mom, can I have a candy bar?”
“No honey. We gave up extras for comedy and school, remember?”
He has learned though. And now he saves his money from his grandparents and does extra chores around the house to afford any extras. The whole experience has really taught him the value of the dollar.
When my son was 5, he did his first show at the MN Renaissance Festival. We were both in the commedia dell’arte group I Arroganti. I played a Columbina opposite the Arlecchino, and Jared was a mini-Arlecchino. He even had a small slapstick. As kind of a pre-show warm-up, he would chase other characters around the stage and smack them with his little slapstick, and the other characters would chase back and shout empty threats. He would also collect tip at the end of the show, and would pull in 5 times as much as anyone else. I mean, I’m biased, but who could resist my adorable son?
One pre-show, my son was chasing (and being chased) in front of the curtain while I was behind it setting up for the show. As I’m placing props, I hear my preschooler shout back at one of the other players “you can’t kill me! You need me for the tips!”
He has seen me fight for roles, he has seen me turn down roles I wouldn’t be good at. It’s not easy to take an objective view of yourself and your abilities, to take stock in when you need to hold onto a point when debating with collaborators, and recognize when pride is holding you back. But I feel my son has learned this objective self-awareness far better than I ever did.
. . . . . . . . . .
So yes, there are some very specific lessons that Jared has learned as a direct result of growing up in a performance environment. And some very specific lessons I had to teach him for those environments. Could he have learned these things under different circumstances? Certainly. But he didn’t. He grew up surrounded by people who were frequently faced with these situations, creating the perfect environment for Jared to learn from them, or forcing me to create rules to keep him safe in the performance world.
Like no breathing fire until you’re 16, under the direct supervision and instruction of a professional.
What? Breathing fire is dangerous. You don’t have that rule for your child? What kind of parent are you, anyway?