DIARY OF A STAGE MOM

By Pam Bassuk

      Diary of a Stage Mom is our family’s rollercoaster ride through the world of Hollywood auditions and television.  For good and for bad, we hopped off of our living room couch and crossed into the illusory world of showbiz and make-believe.  Like most artists, we wanted our work to reach an audience and make a difference. 

       Our journey was funny, bizarre, exhilarating and exasperating – all at the same time.  Like newfound love, sometimes the best things in life make us do ridiculously crazy things and that’s how we know we’re alive.   As with most good quests, this journey led us here, there, and everywhere (mostly during rush hour) and then dumped us right back on our own front stoop with a deeper understanding of ourselves, and what it means to live as artists. 


The book will be available soon.


Excerpt
 

DIARY OF A STAGE MOM

A JOURNEY THROUGH TEMPORARY INSANITY


I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve been seduced like everyone else.  Bringing a child to auditions in Los Angeles is akin to playing the slots in Vegas – the odds are stacked against my daughter, yet I find it surprisingly hard to tear myself away from the machine.  I never planned on being a stage mom.  Like most people, I’ve never thought very highly of stage moms.  Something about pushing a kid into the crazy-making world of entertainment always sounded like such a sullied act.  But nothing about raising a child has ever been as I predicted.  So here we are.  My daughter loves auditioning and I love seeing her blossom.  What more could a parent want, right? … Right? 

I go through my days supporting my daughter in pursuing her passion, thinking “Someone’s got to win, why not her?”  I go to the online casting sites and submit my daughter for just one more cattle call, like a gambler slides another coin into the machine.  I get caught up in the thrill of the hunt.  Most days, I get a rush of adrenaline, similar to riding a roller coaster…   Other times, it just feels like fishing: lots of waiting, the prize usually isn’t big at all, sometimes it’s a little stinky, but I still want to nab it.  There’s this feeling that if we try just a little longer, cast that line once more, or show up at just one more audition, we’ll snag something big. 

Some days I feel like I’m back in college, playing the singles scene.  After going on an audition, we come home and wait for the phone to ring.  I check my cell phone neurotically.  I’m reminded of the days, pre-cell phones, when I used to enter my apartment, hoping that the little red light on my answering machine would be blinking.  My heart would lift in anticipation as I opened my front door, and crash if the light remained dark.  I’m like the unpopular girl at the keg party thinking, choose me, choose me, choose me! … Please…   The world of auditions has brought out the desperation in me.  So I keep my cell phone clipped to my belt buckle, hoping for that big audition…  Or any plain old audition.  Like a woman who hasn’t had a date in months, I’m just not that picky anymore. 

About a month into the process, I find myself clinging to my phone, with my computer turned on, in hopes that I’ll be quick enough to respond to an online casting notice before the other thousands of moms, and I’ll win a precious audition for my daughter.  I know that stage moms inundate casting directors with headshots for every miniscule, irrelevant, splinter of a part that they post.  I assume that after the casting directors wade through the first 300 submissions, they just stop looking.  I compulsively check email, voice mail, and texts.  Each buzz of my phone elicits a flutter in my heart and the hope that maybe this one’s going to be for that “big break audition.”

Usually, the email is not a casting call, but rather another one of the forty plus bits of junk mail I get each day from the likes of Groupon, Move On, Amnesty International, my daughter’s school, or my college’s alumni association advertising a reunion 3000 miles away.  Argh!  I quickly delete the junk emails, a little angry with myself for having let them interrupt my day.  I’ve come to cling to my cell phone like it’s my lifeline, letting it intrude into every segment of my life.  I pull off the road to check emails constantly.  I check texts during phone conversations.  I let the buzz of my smart phone interrupt dinner.  I just can’t help myself.   

Some days I wonder if I there’s an AA group for this – some sort of gamblers anonymous, but for stage moms.  Yet, I’m not sure I want to join.  Yes, there are days when I want to throw in the towel, but mostly, I enjoy this addiction.  At forty-seven, not many things in life give me a rush of adrenaline the way this does. 

I wonder how did my life become like this?  I’m normally such an over-protective, conscientious, helicopter mom (hover, hover).  I read books on parenting, take parenting classes, and do everything I can to help my daughter grow into a strong, healthy kid, with a good sense of self.  How did I wind up in this world of auditioning, waiting by the phone, and schlepping to kingdom come, all in the name of a part? 

It started so quickly, it felt like a clichéd Hollywood dream.  Within a month of giving my daughter permission to go on auditions, she was walking on the CBS Studio Center lot in Studio City for an audition for Modern Family, one of the biggest network sitcoms.  There were only four lines of dialogue, but they were spread across three scenes.  THREE SCENES!  It sounded so impressive.  Those four lines were opposite two of the show’s leading kids, one of whom had a leading role in a TV movie my daughter had been dying to see.  We had never actually seen the show Modern Family, nor had any of our close friends.  But everyone we talked to said they had a close friend who loved the show and wouldn’t stop raving about it.  Apparently, this was “the” show, the new Two and a Half Men.  So, despite the fact that no one we knew had ever watched the show, we were giddy with delight. 

After my husband and I had spent years lingering on the edges of the film industry, trying to figure out how to get in the door, my daughter seemed to be walking right in, bringing us in tow behind her. After swearing I would never, ever, EVER let a child of mine go into the big bad world of film and television -- after rolling my eyes and making backstabbing remarks about all the parents who push their kids into the heartbreaking, drug-inducing life of acting -- my heart was racing with delight at the idea that maybe my daughter could “make it.” 

I’ve been a writer lurking on the outskirts of the business, living in the heart of the entertainment capital, for so many years that I’m too embarrassed to write down the number.  The business of getting paid to make art has always been a mystery to me.  Yes, my father is actually a New York art dealer; so ironically, the business of art is not a complete mystery. Yet still, the worlds of making and selling art seem diametrically opposed.  Making art is about expressing some inner thought, emotion, feeling, je ne sais quoi.  Selling art is like selling the next fad diet.  There’s a commodity that needs to be marketed, advertised, and hyped to a demographic who believes that the investment will be worth the cost in spades.  I haven’t figured out how to be true to the commercial world without extinguishing the fire that feeds my artistic soul. 

My husband’s passion has been filmmaking for as long as he can remember. After high school, he was the cinematographer and special effects artist on the low budget super 8 feature and cult classic A Polish Vampire in Burbank which was written and directed his friend Mark Pirro.  He later shot Mark’s 35mm feature Deathrow Gameshow, starring their good friend John McCafferty and then another 35mm feature by his friend Paul Bunnell.  But earning a living has a way of intruding on artistic endeavors.  Like me, Craig is an artist who doesn’t get paid to make art. 

For the last twenty-five years, Craig has been working at Fotokem, a motion picture lab that processes and prints film.  Although working at a film lab may sound like a job affiliated with the arts, to an artist it feels more like working on an assembly line in a windowless cinderblock factory.  (Indeed, much of the processing is done in complete darkness.)  Craig spends his shifts making sure that the negative that comes into the lab gets processed correctly and then printed, transferred to digital, or delivered to a transfer house - all in a timely manner, according to the customer’s needs, without any damage, even when he is understaffed due to an outbreak of the flu.  Essentially, Craig spends his days staring at the negative that other artists have shot.  His job is a constant reminder that there are a lot of creative people making movies and he is no longer one of them. 

In Los Angeles, there seems to be an invisible electric fence that separates people who want to work in the creative side of the industry from the people who do.  Yes, sometimes we have the chance to briefly speak to someone across the fence.  We can even go to panel discussions and here them speak almost any night of the year.  But speaking over the fence isn’t the same as crossing into the world.  To cross through the fence, it seems that all the power in the city must go down.  Then, if you’re lucky, someone will whisper to you that it’s down (because how would you know?) and pull you through before the power goes back up and you get electrocuted.  But now, all of a sudden, it feels like someone is putting Jessica in a protective bubble that allows her to cross to the other side.

We’re intrigued. Is it possible that our daughter will be able to do what my husband and I have not known how to do – be a paid artist?  Is it possible she will be able to develop a career based on her talents and passions?  Are we truly going to try to stop her from pursuing her passion?  Is not supporting your child’s creativity and putting the growth and development of your child’s natural talents ahead of everything else not an inborn Jewish trait?

I didn’t expect myself to get drawn into this world.  I didn’t expect our family to spend any more than ten minutes on auditions before moving on to other things.  I didn’t expect auditioning to become a path that would consume so much of our time, energy, and emotions.  Yet here we are helping our daughter pursue this dream, and here I am, writing about it. 

I have a thousand rationalizations as to why I let my daughter audition, why I encourage and support her in pursuing this crazy-making pipe dream.  There’s a little truth to all of them.  But in the end, I think perhaps most of them are just that, rationalizations.  I encourage her because the world of film and television is enticing.  There’s a thrill to walking through forbidden doors.  There’s a thrill to imagining oneself or one’s child as “famous.”  There’s a thrill to having someone point a camera at your child and say, “how precious, how adorable, how talented, how incredible.”  Making up stories and fabricating illusions is the foundation of Hollywood.  We swallowed the bait: hook, line and sinker.  However much we knew it’s not healthy to be a star, its allure was too much to resist. 

So how did a seemingly normal, conscientious, over-protective, helicopter mother like me let my daughter go on her first audition?  Like any good parent, the first thing I did before permitting my daughter to enter the big bad world of film and television was to come up with a solid set of rationalizations and defenses as to why letting my daughter go on auditions was actually a GOOD and HEALTHY endeavor. I knew that people would roll their eyes at me and offer backstabbing comments, so I needed a powerful defense.  Knowing that the best defense is a good offense, I prepared my case.  Like any type-A tutor who teaches SAT students how to write persuasive essays (my current day job), I collected my evidence and put together a solid argument.  Then I flung it in everyone’s face.  

Rationalization #1

One of Jessica’s relatives is agoraphobic and has lived like a recluse for the last five years.  Jessica, like this relative, doesn't exactly enjoy going to new places.  Jessica would much prefer to stay home alone and play.  In fact, some weekends, she has so much fun getting lost in her world of make-believe that I can't get her to leave the house for anything.  This, of course, triggers my anxiety that if I don't do something quickly, my daughter might grow up to be just like this relative, locked away in her home, afraid to journey out to do more than buy groceries.  

So when my homebody of a daughter expressed an interest in auditioning, in doing something that would force her to leave the house, I thought at least this will give her practice in going to unfamiliar places.  She’ll stretch her comfort zone.  This is a life-skill she can’t live without. (Yes, I know this SOUNDS like a recipe for disaster, but really, really, REALLY, I thought, it would be good for her.)  And anyway, I was starting to feel trapped in our home, myself.  I would have jumped at any excuse to leave the house. 

Rationalization #2

Jessica is shy about meeting new people.  Going on auditions would give her invaluable practice at walking into a room full of strangers.  Perhaps she could learn to do it with confidence?  Everyone needs to learn how to go on interviews, persist in the face of terrible odds, and do it with a smile.  

Rationalization #3

Acting is the only extracurricular activity my ten year old daughter has ever been excited about.  Jessica resisted joining a sport team, attending after-school clubs, and participating in every other activity that I believe is an integral part of a healthy childhood. Jessica hated every camp I sent her to, that is, until she tried theater camp.  I have always been of the opinion that when you’re done with a long day at school, you’ve got to get out, blow off steam, play, and participate in life beyond the walls of your home or classroom.  Some kids play on sports teams; some kids do arts and crafts; my kid wants to act.  It’s much less intense than soccer, isn’t it?  Soccer parents are much, worse, aren’t they? 

Rationalization #4 

She’s good at it.  She got leads at theater camp.  She’s got a knack for playing villains.  Everyone should develop her natural talents.  Yada, yada, yada. 

Rationalization #5 

“But Mommy, everyone else is doing it.”  In Los Angeles, this is true.  Jessica knew theater camp friends, classmates at school, and fellow gymnasts who were all talking about their auditions.  Jessica wanted “in.”  To her, going on auditions seemed like an activity anyone could sign up for, like chess or cooking club.  She assumed that all you needed was a parent’s permission, and knock, knock, knock, you were auditioning.  

                  Rationalization #6 

Jessica will learn that commercials are not real and not to be trusted.  (Please Lord help Jessica understand that the kids on toy commercials are being paid to make those predominantly junky toys look like the keys to happiness.  Please let Jessica see the truth and let her finally stop begging for EVERY SINGLE TOY she sees on TV during the pre-Christmas gluttony of 24-7 advertising which now begins in September.)


                  Rationalization #7

I hardly expected the interest to last.  I figured she’d go on one or two auditions, realize that they required her to do everything she couldn’t stand doing, and she’d be done with it forever.  So what would be the big deal?  Let her get it out of her system....

Rationalization #8

I’m out of rationalizations.  Jessica had been pestering me, on and off for about a year, to let her audition.  In a moment of weakness, I thought, what the heck? and said “Yes.”  After that, I couldn’t take it back. 


At the time, I was tutoring a home-school student who happened to be a Tai Kwon Do Junior World Champion, top-notch horseback rider, and part-time actress.  (It is Los Angeles, after all.)  I told the mother that Jessica wanted to go on auditions and asked if the mom knew of a good acting class for my daughter.  The mom gave me the name of an acting teacher who taught a children’s acting class on Saturdays.  Then she hesitated a moment and said that the woman was also an agent and often worked with the kids in her class.  This was her daughter’s former agent, so if Jessica went to the class and the agent liked her, the agent might represent Jessica.  

On the first day of acting class, I search Jessica’s cabinet for the cutest, frilliest, sparkliest outfit to wear to impress this acting teacher / agent with my daughter’s natural beauty and talent.  All the kids on Disney and Nick seem to be wearing outfits like this.  I put the outfit in a bag and take Jessica to her gymnastics class, which ends an hour and a half before acting class starts.  Our plan is for Jessica to finish gymnastics, change out of her unitard, and then grab lunch before acting class. 

After gymnastics, Jessica and I bicker over the top I’ve brought for Jessica to change into.  She’s mad that it’s long-sleeve because she’s hot from working out.  We grab lunch, then search for the acting studio. 

We race to get to the acting class early, because I know it’s important to show that we’re dependable. There’s an adult class going on inside.  We hang out on the sidewalk, waiting for the class to end.  I pull out her ponytail and brush her hair.  I know image is everything. 

Athena, the acting teacher, arrives ten minutes late.   I call the acting teacher “Athena,” because her real name sounds like the name of a Greek Goddess and to me, she seems to embody God-like characteristics.  Actress, stage mom, former model, agent, and headshot photographer Athena has one of those rare magnetic smiles and personalities.  She has big eyes, a bright smile, and the long skinny legs that are the envy of every woman I know, especially the ones like me, who are short and stocky.  She’s walks up to the studio wearing jeans and three inch heels, carrying a file box filled with scripts.  She’s gorgeous, bubbly, and warm. 

She looks at my little girl, and says “Oh, she’s cute!  How old is she?” 

“Ten,” I reply. 

Athena’s eyes light up.  “She’s little!  That’s good.  She can play an eight year old.  Does she have any TV experience?” 

“Theater.  Not TV.” 

“Does she have an agent?”

“No.” 

Athena face lights up. “Casting directors want ten year olds who look eight, because ten year olds are legally allowed to be on set for longer hours, and they have all their teeth.  Eight year olds are tricky to cast because their teeth are always half way in and all crooked.” 

Athena looks at Jessica’s smile the way one might look a horse in the mouth.  “She’s got her adult teeth.  That’s good.  I had one kid whose two front teeth fell out the night before a shoot.  It was horrible.  It was a big commercial -- a lot of money.  The mom asked what they should do.  I said, ‘Pretend you didn’t tell me.  Just go and cross your fingers…’  He went.  They didn’t say anything.  He got to be in the commercial.  National.  Made a lot of money.” 

We walk into the studio as an adult class is finishing up.  The walls are painted a fluorescent green, for green-screen shots.  About twenty adults stare intently at the television monitor in the front of the room.  An acting coach stops and starts the video of them performing their monologues.  He critiques each performance, as the adults listen intently.  I feel a little excitement about being in an acting studio.  I feel a trembling delight over being in an acting studio. I love being around creative people; I’m a writer, after all.  The studio is like a black box theater (but green).  There’s essentially nothing in there but chairs, a camera, and screen -- a blank slate -- an empty canvas upon which you can throw all sorts of creative energies.  We try to be unobtrusive and keep the kids quiet, but anytime you walk into a working studio with a group of young kids, you’re interrupting.

“Come back at 3:00,” Athena chirps. 

“Can I stay and watch, just so I know what you do?” 

“No, no, no.  The kids are never the same when their parents are watching.  But you can come back ten minutes before class ends and watch the scenes we tape.  That will give you a good idea.” 

I look at my little Jessica, leaning nervously against the wall.  She still struggles with feeling uncomfortable transitioning to new places with new people, but I certainly don’t want the agent to know this.  It wouldn’t bode well for auditions. “Do you need me to fill out any forms?” I ask. 

“Nope.”

“No liability releases, or anything?”

“Nope.  Come back a little before three.” 

And so, I walk out of the studio, leaving my little girl, who hesitates to go to new places, in the hands of a complete stranger, albeit one who comes highly recommended. 

Then I realize Athena doesn’t even have my name or phone number, should an emergency come up.  The paranoid helicopter mom in me thinks that if Jessica is knocked unconscious, unable to speak, how will Athena contact me?  My overactive imagination wonders how, since I’m unreachable, Athena will fit the entire class in her car as she rushes Jessica to the hospital.  Of course Athena wouldn’t just call an ambulance, because, in my absence, she’ll need to go to the hospital with Jessica to sign the release forms.  Then I realize that even if my overprotected ten year old isn’t knocked unconscious, but just twists an ankle or is bleeding profusely, Athena still won’t be able to call me.  The fact is, my daughter doesn’t even know my cell phone number.  I’m pretty sure she’s forgotten our home phone number.  Yes, I admit it.  I have failed miserably in the area of teaching my daughter our phone numbers. 

I’m sure you’re wondering how a helicopter mom like me could possibly forget to teach my ten year old her own phone number.  The plain old truth is, she’s never been left with an adult who doesn’t know my phone number, so the issue just doesn’t come up – unless we’re going to Disneyland. Once a year, we go to Disneyland and I quiz her on our phone numbers, in case she gets lost.  Then she doesn’t get lost, and for a full year, she doesn’t use any of our phone numbers.  I can’t remember the passwords I’ve set on my computer the day after I set them.  Why should she remember two 10-digit numbers I teach her once a year? 

I’m embarrassed to say, in our whole life, my sheltered daughter has never had the need to dial me.  She’s has literally never, ever, not even once called me from a friend’s house.  Sure, the mother has called me, but Jessica is always too busy playing to care to speak with me.  I never leave her with a mother who doesn’t know my phone number.  Why would I?  Either I’m there, or I’m already programmed in to some mom’s cell phone. 

Oddly enough, the need to memorize and dial a phone just doesn’t come up for this new generation.  Jessica knows how to program a phone number into her ipod touch.  She knows how to access that phone number and dial a friend for free using our home’s Wi-Fi.  But she’s never actually made a phone call from our land line.   

So I’m standing outside the acting studio wondering what I should do, since my daughter doesn’t know my phone number and the adult in the room doesn’t even know my full name.  Finally, after walking up to the door, turning away, walking back to the door, turning away again, and walking back to the door one last time, I walk into the acting studio and quietly hand Athena my business card, while I try not to disturb the class.  “In case of an emergency….”  I say.  She looks at me like, whatever, and I walk back out of the studio. 

I’m sure she must think I’m a loon…  And I’m sure there are plenty of people think much worse of me.  Plus, I’m pretty sure that if we stick with this acting teacher long enough, she’ll move past thinking I’m a loon, to knowing it.  However, for the time being, I feel that I didn’t have much of a choice.  I had to give her my card. 

 

I close the door behind me and look out to the empty street.  I had been planning on staying to watch the class, but now I’ve been pushed out the door.  I feel a little naked standing out in the street without a scheduled activity for myself.  At the same time, I’m delighted to have an unanticipated free hour and a half.  Additionally, I’m excited that the agent likes my daughter.  After all, my daughter is little and has all her teeth!  What amazing breeding!  I'm not going to look this gift horse in the mouth!  

I think about Jessica’s small size, which had never struck me either as an asset or a challenge, except when I was pregnant.  Due to complications which surfaced during my last trimester, the perinatal doctors closely monitored almost every facet my pregnancy.  Soon the weekly ultrasound measurements showed that Jessica’s head was unexpectedly small.  The doctors worried that perhaps Jessica’s head had stopped growing.  Since the skull contained the brain, it was essential that the skull continue to grow.  After six eternally long, worrisome weeks, Jessica was born and everything seemed fine. 

Then the pediatricians started measuring Jessica’s height, weight, and of course, head-size.  They would always remark about her small head size.  She was in the bottom 7% of head size.  (After all, 7% of the entire human population was in the bottom 7%).  But there wasn’t much they could do, so they let it go. 

Finally, our third pediatrician Alan, who happened to be a friend, looked at me, and, after taking all the requisite measurements, said, “She has a small head.  Hmmm."

"Is that a problem?" I asked. Like there was anything I could do about it?

"Do you have a small head?” He continued.  

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.     

“Do you have to buy small hats?” he asked.    

 “Yes,” I answered.  “I wear an extra-small hat."  

“OK.  That’s probably why she has a small head.  Big-headed moms have kids with big heads.  Small-headed moms have kids with small heads.” 

Hmph. I breathed a sigh of relief.  I laughed over the ridiculousness of the perinatal doctors missing this key piece of information.   

As parents, we can't help but worry about our children's well-being.  It's in our DNA.  And today I smile because, after all that worrying, having a small head is finally a good thing.  Jessica has a small head!  She’s small!  She’s in the bottom 7% of her age-group in terms of size.  Finally, being in the bottom percent of something is a good thing! 

Again, I pat myself on the back for my great breeding! My daughter can pass for an eight year old!  Being small may actually help her to get cast.  I picture my husband and his big head.  My husband is so lucky to have married me, with my small head!  Clearly, Jessica got all her good genes from me.  I had hoped there would be more to getting an agent than that, but I am willing to accept any advantage we can get. 

I walk away with a little hop in my step, with that feeling of relief a parent gets from believing that finally her daughter has found her "thing," her passion, her niche, her one true advantage in life.  Perhaps this will be the key to my daughter's healthy development, I hope.  Perhaps this will be the beginning of a journey which brings hope, healing, and excitement to our lives. 


The memoir Diary of a Stage Mom will be available soon.