A thousand lifetimes ago, I was an actor. It was kind of a family tradition. My grandmother was an actor, my aunt was an actor, my grandfather did some vaudeville, my mom and dad met doing a student musical in grad school. Theatre is a huge part of my upbringing and it was a natural pursuit for me. I did plays in youth group and in high school, then I majored in theatre in college. After that, I spent a few years doing children’s theatre, working crappy day jobs, and auditioning for a lot of roles that always went to this incredibly talented actress in DC named Mikala. I have nothing but fond memories of my theatre days. It was fulfilling as a job and as a hobby. Someday, when I have more time and more energy, I’d like to start doing amateur theatre again, just for fun. I have every intention of teaching my kids about the magic of live theatre, both as audience members and, if they want, as performers or technicians. You learn wonderful things in a play: teamwork, respect for others, discipline, problem solving, memory skills, how to step out of your comfort zone, and how important it is to show up on time. I would love it if my kids loved theatre as much as I do.
But it will be a cold day in hell before I let them collect a paycheck for acting before they’re 18 years old. Kids don’t need jobs. They especially don’t need jobs that could lead to undermining their mental health like what’s happening to Amanda Bynes.
I just read this incredible article by former actress (or “reformed drama nerd”, as she calls herself) Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle of 34th Street) called 7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy: An Insider’s Perspective. The reasons she cites are things we all intuitively know about how damaging a public career is for young kids: their parents don’t help them stay grounded, their parents lose control of them to the industry a la Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus, they are sexually exploited, become addicted to the attention, they can’t have a normal teenage rebellion, they want out but don’t know what else to do, and they can’t escape their former fame. The result is that there are kids who don’t know who they are, who can’t trust the people around them, and who don’t see a path out of a dangerous cycle. Add to that very little discipline and access to too much money and you can see how a young person could get into big, big, trouble.
Wilson, like many other young actors, says that acting in movies was her choice, that her parents resisted but allowed to her try to do it. What no child star ever explains is why their parents didn’t say to them, “OK, you can try acting. We’ll sign you up for a class at the local children’s theatre. Or you can audition for a school play. Maybe when you’re older, you can go to drama camp.” There are a lot of places kids with the acting bug can go to try to learn the craft; places that are safe, age-appropriate and fun. I remember being in a college production of The King And I when I was 21 or so and taking the 8-year-old playing my son under my wing and making sure everyone else in the cast behaved around him – though, that was the production where we all mooned a fellow actor from backstage during a scene where he was looking into the wings so maybe I failed at my backstage guardian duties. Hmmmm. But the point is, amateur theatre is available for kids all over the place. There’s no reason to make a starstruck child’s first stop an agent’s office or a casting call for a movie.
Someday one of my kids might want to follow in the family footsteps and try their hand at making a living as an actor. Before they ever do that, I’ll make sure they finish high school at the very least and are old enough to legally sign their own contracts. Until then, it’s going to be all drama camp and community theatre for my family.
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