Interview: Musical Theatre Parents

If I lose my mind just like my mother did

I’ll always be this half of a person to my kid

I’m really scared to feel and reveal that other side

That darkest heart, that brightest part if I just hide

She wouldn’t know

This chorus from my friend Barb Carboy’s new musical, April Mayhem…the POpera, struck a chord with me about one of the many challenges of being an artist and a parent. When I asked Barb about her inspiration for the lyric, she explained it to me this way: “When my daughter was younger, I was afraid that coming across as the ‘weird mom’ would reflect negatively on her. I nodded, smiled, and made believe that I was interested in the minutiae of child rearing. That seemed to work then. But now that she’s older and has established her own relationships, I realize that I’ve suppressed an important part of myself.”

Being an artist and a parent can be challenging in lots of ways: from the obvious – travel demands, odd hours, and a freelancer’s income – to the less obvious, like feeling you’re living a dual life. I interviewed 4 musical theatre artists who also happen to be parents, and asked them to share some of their experiences.

Tell us a little about you, your family, and what you’re working on now. What family decisions did you make to get to this point?

Rob Meffe & Sharon Wheatley
Robert Meffe & Sharon Wheatley. Parents of Charlotte Meffe (17) and Beatrix Meffe (7)

Robert Meffe: Sharon Wheatley and I went to CCM together and started dating one summer at Quisisana, a performing arts resort in Maine.  We have been married for twenty years and have two incredible children; Charlotte, who is a junior in high school and Beatrix, who is in first grade.  Sharon and I spent over twenty years living in New York City doing Broadway shows and other professional theater (Sharon is an actress and I am a music director) before I took a faculty position with the SDSU MFA Musical Theater Program in San Diego in the Fall of 2013.  We drove a moving truck across the country and we are still in the process of adjusting to our new life. Our kids are native New Yorkers, so the weather still surprises them. Sharon now has a dual career as an writer and an actress (she is currently rehearsing a world premiere of a new musical at the La Jolla Playhouse called Come From Away), and I am teaching and music directing at San Diego State as well as conducting professionally (this past Fall I conducted the national tour of Evita at the Kennedy Center).

What makes our family work is that all of us are game for whatever comes at us.  We’ve lived in many different apartments and houses, we’ve travelled on the road with tours, we’ve worked in regional theaters.  We have an attitude that can be summed up with “we’ll work it out.”  That is not to say that it is always easy.  Probably the hardest day of my life was telling Charlotte that I got the job in San Diego and it meant that we would be leaving New York (and she would be leaving her high school and her wonderful boyfriend). Fortunately, her boyfriend, Rhys, has the same attitude and they have “worked it out” and they are keeping their relationship very much alive over the thousands of miles of distance.

DonnaLynneChamplin
Donna Lynne Champlin is currently in rehearsals for a new play by Bruce Norris called THE QUALMS at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Pam McKinnon

Donna Lynne Champlin: Hi! My name is Donna Lynne Champlin and I’m a Broadway, TV and film actress with a 3 ½ year old son.

Because I met my husband (actor Andrew Arrow) well into my 30’s I didn’t really have a choice but to start a family after I’d established myself somewhat as an actress. And I know that’s a real Sophie’s choice situation for many actors (especially women), so in a way I’m relieved I never had to struggle with the kid/career timing question. Plus, I was never really sure if I wanted kids at all until I met my husband, as I was pretty much happily married to my work up until then. But when we decided to start a family we absolutely consulted our parent friends in the business for their advice, which was pretty consistently, “There is never the right time to have a child no matter what you do for a living. You just do it and then make it work.”

_55c1424_med
Craig Waletzko is currently playing George in the national tour of KINKY BOOTS

Craig Waletzko: I moved straight to New York after graduating Carnegie Mellon in ’86. Started dating my wife, Joey while she was still attending Tisch/NYU. I’ve been married 24 years and have 2 daughters – a 7th grader and a college freshman. Joey is a writer/director/actor. She also works as a sex ed teacher/consultant and as a producer of hospital website videos. We both knew early on that we wanted kids, and we made the conscious choice to raise them here in the city. We found our Washington Heights neighborhood when our oldest was one. Parks, trees, a terrific public school and a short walk to the A train. In 2001 my parents were getting ready to retire, and they asked how we would feel about them moving into our building. Having them just a few floors away has made a huge difference, especially when the kids were younger. I’m currently on tour with Kinky Boots — my seventh tour, all while either dating or being married to Joey. And that’s on top of numerous out-of-town regional gigs. Joey and our 7th grader stay in the city while I’m on tour. The family joined me for Xmas holidays in San Francisco and Spring break in Cleveland. During the Summer they’ll be with me for a few weeks in Chicago and Boston. College girl is coming by herself to Memphis – FUN! I fly/bus/drive home any time we have an extra day between cities, or if I’m close enough to NYC. (i.e., I go home every week from Philly, Boston, Hartford, DC, etc.) Sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance during visits home. On the one hand we want to just chill out together and appreciate each other, but it’s also important for me to do some of the shopping, cooking and all the other housework that Joey has been dealing with all on her own.

Kecia Lewis is currently playing the Fairy Godmother in the national tour of CINDERELLA

Kecia Lewis: I am a recently divorced single mom with an 11 year old son. I’ve been in show business for 31 years. I got my first Broadway show when I was 18. Someone once told me that once you have kids you should try to continue your life the way it was before they came and not try to work around them. So that’s what  I try to do. When I was offered the national tour of Cinderella I made the decision to take my son out of school and homeschool him.

Did you find your career choices changed after you became a parent?

Robert: One of the most challenging aspects about being a performing artist is the instability of a freelance career. Sharon and I made it work for about fifteen years in New York (and most of Charlotte’s childhood), but New York got a lot more expensive in that time period. I had always wanted to teach, and I was fortunate enough to land a faculty position in the BFA Musical Theatre Program at Pace University, while keeping my freelance career going. That salary and benefits afforded us the stability to keep things afloat.

Moving to San Diego was a career choice that was definitely influenced by wanting to provide a better life for our family. The relentless energy of New York is intoxicating then you are young, but after a while it can break you down. I wanted to leave before it did, and I appreciate the California lifestyle of working hard when you are working but taking your weekends and enjoying life with your family. There is a healthy respect for the work-life balance here and finding the right ratio that works for you and your family is a key to happiness wherever you live.

Donna Lynne: My career choices have changed drastically because I say “no” now a hell of a lot more than I did before. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for me anyway. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I actually said “yes” to merely because I had nothing else going on, until I started saying “no”. That was a real eye opener for me.

But I definitely went from being an “actress first” to being a “parent first” even before my kid was born. In fact, the first time it really hit home I was a mother was when I was 4 months pregnant and had to back out of a concert that was literally decades in the making, because I came down with laryngitis and couldn’t get a last minute cortisone shot. And trust me. That was a really sweet paying gig in an extremely lean year for me and one cortisone shot could have gotten me through, but…obviously, it was a no-brainer. And deep down I was kind of excited about making my first big “mom sacrifice” even as I was sobbing to my husband, “This kid is gonna have to mow a lotta lawns to cover the paycheck we just lost here. A LOTTA lawns.”

After my son was born, my main concerns went from “will this artistically fulfill me and further my career” to “will my salary cover child care costs” and “is going out of town even logistically possible.” Not to mention the emotional issues like “will I be ok missing his first steps, first words, first anything because I’m at rehearsal?” And a lot of the time, especially in these early years of my son’s life, the answer to those questions are “no.” Also I rarely work without an understudy anymore because while I personally would do (and have done) a show with walking pneumonia, if my son (heaven forbid) had to suddenly go to the ER or something, deciding whether to be by his side, or knowingly lose a theatre company many thousands of dollars in a canceled show, is not a position I ever want to be in.

Craig: I got more picky about what I would leave town for. Either the role has to be something special, or the pay needs to be more than just decent. (Hopefully both!)

Kecia: When my son was younger (before he was school age) I could take him with me when I travelled. When he started school, I made the choice to only work out of town in the summers. Now that he’s a little older and more independent, I decided to homeschool him so he could go on tour. This is the first time I’ve taken him out of school and so far it’s been going very well. Homeschooling has it’s challenges. And my son is definitely not on a normal 11 year old’s sleep schedule – he goes to bed late and wakes up late. But I have help. I teach him 2-3 days a week and I have a friend who is a teacher who Skypes with him the other days.

Have you ever felt discriminated against / passed over for a job because you have kids? Or was it ever an asset?

Robert: Unfortunately, I believe there is an unbelievable double standard in this regard. The entertainment industry, which is supposed to be so progressive, is actually regressive in terms of women in the industry, especially women who decide to have children.  There is no doubt that Sharon has been passed over for job offers because producers/directors assume that “she wouldn’t take that; she has kids.” On the other hand, I can’t ever think of a time that the fact that I was a parent ever played into me getting or not getting a job.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful producers and directors that look beyond seeing actresses as parents first, and it is with those theaters that many of our strongest professional relationships reside.

Having a parent in a cast or creative team expands the diversity of human experience of a group, and as performing artists it is our job to tell the story of the human condition. Producers that choose non-parents over parents consistently are losing that voice in the room.

Donna Lynne: No, I have never felt discriminated against because I had a kid. However, my kid is only 3 ½ and who knows, maybe I have been passed over for jobs and don’t even know it. But for the most part, I’ve found employers and co-workers to be uncommonly supportive to my being a parent when it comes to scheduling, stipends, etc.

Professionally speaking, being a mother has absolutely been an asset because I feel so satisfied personally as a parent that don’t need my work to validate me as a person anymore. Being a mother has removed a lot of “desperation” from my work… especially at auditions. Before my son, I’d go into an audition, it would be EVERYTHING to me and I’m sure that stunk up the room a bit. But now, I go to an audition and half of my brain is thinking, “Ok, get in, do your thing, and get out ASAP so you can save the extra $15 in babysitting fees.” It’s not that I don’t care anymore, I do. It’s that I care in a more proportional amount to what’s healthy and productive.

Artistically, having a kid was like a dam of (for lack of a better word) “depth” breaking inside of me that I never even knew existed. I feel more, I love more, I hate more and I forgive more than I did before. Everything inside me is “more” now, and it has given me an entirely enhanced emotional pallete to work with as an actress. And to be clear, I am NOT saying that actors with kids are deeper than those that don’t have kids, absolutely not. It’s just that for me, becoming a mother (like a death, marriage, divorce, any archetypal event in anyone’s life) was a major “life changing” experience. And it’s definitely affected my work, I think… I hope… in a good way.

Craig: Never felt it worked against me. But I’m a man. Sadly, I feel there’s still a double standard at play when it comes to people’s expectations and assumptions

Kecia: I would have to say both – I’ve felt discriminated against and I think it’s an asset. As for the discrimination, I could never prove it, but I have definitely gone in for jobs where I felt like I nailed it and because the person in power decided “she shouldn’t travel,” I didn’t get the job. As for being an asset, it has definitely broadened me as a person and I can bring that part of who I am to my work. For example, right now I am playing the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and my level of understanding of this character who wants to to help someone who feels put upon has definitely been broadened because I’m a parent.

Have you ever asked for anything special in your contracts to accommodate your family?

Robert: Yes, absolutely.  We don’t always get it, but it never hurts to ask.  We have a great relationship with the Weston Playhouse in Vermont. It is company policy not to have children in their actor housing, but the producers were very accommodating and we ended up staying in the guest house of a board member for some of the summers that we worked there. I always appreciate a producer who is game, and thinks of ways to “work it out.”

Donna Lynne: Yes. Absolutely. I used to be so afraid to ask for anything in negotiations and now I have no problem asking for what I need because what I need is not for me anymore. It’s for my son. And that perspective makes me better at negotiating because I’m not bluffing about walking away from a gig if I can’t afford child-care on the salary. I could give a crap about the font size of my name in the playbill but if you can’t help me with housing out of town for a live-in baby sitter…then, I’m out. I’ve become much better at the business side of show business because my standards for myself alone, were pretty damn low. But my standards for my son, his quality of life and for what he needs? WAY higher. Every gig is different of course, as are the needs my son has at every age but the main thing being a parent has taught me about negotiations is that, while not everything is a deal breaker…the worst thing they can say is “no” and that’s totally fine. But the difference now for me, is that I have no problem saying “no” either. Which is ironically, a very powerful place to be in.

Craig: A couple times there’s been a big family milestone (Coming-Of-Age ceremony at church, taking daughter to college) right in the middle of tech rehearsals. I’ve asked to be let out, but tech is always too crucial a time. Some companies will work to accommodate families with their housing (i.e., if they have a 2-bedroom option, they’ll let you have it so your family can come visit.) And I’ve been able to negotiate for plane tickets for them to come visit on tour. Lesson – it never hurts to ASK!

Kecia: Yes. Always. And the business is definitely getting better about being kid friendly though it is still not readily thought of. I ask for double beds in my hotel room. And if they’re not available, I find people are very considerate in trying to “make it right.” For this tour I am driving myself, my son, and our miniature schnauzer, but that was my choice.

What do you think are the benefits of being an artist parent?

Robert: Parenting is a very personal decision and it really isn’t for everyone. It constantly demands that you think outside of your own self and your own needs.  The benefits, to me, are beyond description. They take me out of the career=life equation and teach me every day how to be a better person. I don’t know if I am a better music director because I am a parent (in fact, I could probably make deadlines a little quicker if there wasn’t something called strep throat), but I definitely have a point of view on life that is an integral part of the human experience. And that point of view is helpful to have aboard a creative team or a faculty in the performing arts.

Donna Lynne: My husband and I constantly ask each other, “How do people who don’t have a degree in musical theatre raise children?” I swear, we sang, improv’d, danced, and made overall fools of ourselves more in the first two years of my son’s life than in our entire careers onstage as actors. Our actor training has been supremely helpful in coming up with endless tactics to the numerous obstacles our kid throws our way (although I did beg for mercy a few times during the terrible twos). Not that we have some magical unicorn rainbow connection to our son but, our jobs are to literally figure out why people do what they do and I think that’s served us all well as a family, especially where our son is concerned.

And as every parent knows, the minute you think you’ve got a handle on something, a new ‘phase’ begins and you’re back to square one… which is not unlike an actor’s career. We’re used to starting over, again and again. It’s not a big deal. Ya just get back on the horse and keep riding. And you wanna sing a song 239,847,234 times in a row? Well, that’s just another day at rehearsal for us. If he wants to believe he’s a fireman and wear his red fire chief hat to bed? Fine. If he is Peter Pan and needs a Captain Hook to sword fight with? We’re down with that. And we laugh a lot too.  There isn’t much we won’t laugh at around here. Theatre degrees are pretty much four years of parenting prep, we’ve happily discovered.

We are in actuality very strict parents when it comes to manners, routine and respect in our house. But otherwise we’re not big sticklers on demanding that he think like or act or feel like we do. We are excited to see who he is, as his own person. Theatre actors are natural problem solvers too, I think. If something breaks, we don’t flip out – we try to fix it. If he falls down, we don’t flip out – we let him dust himself off and get back up. We also know that you can give us direction a million times to do something that we’ll forget, but if you let us figure it out for ourselves just once, we’ll always remember.

Craig: Unemployment is terrifying. But it can mean you have a lot more time to give your kids all your attention. Field trips, school plays, soccer games. You can kiss them goodbye when they leave for school and kiss them hello when they return. Until you have to leave town again!

Kecia: Having kids gives you a broader perspective. You get to see the world through someone else’s eyes and relive your own childhood. It makes me remember to be silly and playful and I think that brings a richness to my work. I like to say, “Until I had a child, a part of my heart I didn’t know I had, was closed.”

***

Thanks to all of our participants for their honesty about the challenges and joys about being a musical theatre parent. As Stephen Sondheim said, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” Sounds just like parenting to me.

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