When my daughter was 3, I took her to a youth theater performance of “Annie.” As we waited in the long ticket line, performers’ family members and friends bustled around the lobby with arms full of flowers. They wrote “star grams,” little notes of encouragement for the actors, and thumbed through the program, reading the bios.
Finally, we reached the front of the line at the “box office,” a folding table staffed by a volunteer mom.
“Sorry, but there are no more tickets left,” she said.
That’s when I realized the people in line were just picking up their tickets. The show had been sold out for a while.
My daughter, Stella, began to cry.
Another mom stopped us as we headed toward the door.
“Do you mind sitting on the steps of the aisle?”
From our seats, I quickly realized why this youth theater was so well supported by its community. The stage had been transformed into a respectable 1930s-era orphanage, with enough beds for a stage full of orphans to jump on during “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” These kids — who ranged in age from 6 to 13 — had learned to act. The leads could sing, and all the performers looked like they were having a great time. Stella stood more than she sat, giving every musical number a standing ovation.
I took home the theater’s brochure, but Stella was too young for classes. We tried other activities, including T-ball, ballet and gymnastics. Too soon in dance and gymnastics, though, a pecking order emerged. Some kids were more physically gifted, more coordinated and more emotionally mature. The praise flowed unequally, as it always has, and as I suppose it should, in sports and the arts. It did not matter to Stella that she wasn’t in the top group; it mattered to me because I watched it become clear.
I felt myself becoming one of those insufferable, hypercompetitive parents who attract other insufferable, hypercompetitive parents. (We are the ones competing for space at the window at ballet class and downloading the June recital songs on our phones in January.) Psychotherapist and author Joseph Burgo says hypercompetitive parents are trying to accomplish things through their kids, displaying “extreme narcissism.” Scary stuff — and the culture of dance moms and gym moms of young children seems to enable it. In many gyms and studios, parents can watch every cartwheel and pirouette either in the same room or through a window or on a screen.
But things were different at the theater, which was strictly a drop-your-kid-off activity. At the first rehearsal for Stella’s first show, “Aladdin,” the teenager playing Princess Jasmine introduced herself. “Want to hang with me today?” she asked my second-grader.
Even though theater is notoriously competitive, this one is a community, kids helping kids. The parents build the sets and plan the cast parties, but they are always upstaged by the actors — and those who run the lights and the sound and even help direct — all of whom are kids.
When I worked backstage during a show, the director stayed in the audience. She told me my job was to remind the younger kids to be quiet. So I stood there shushing them, while the actors and their slightly older assistant directors did all the set and costume changes.
The theater has become Stella’s second home, despite its small size and challenges. Like many theaters, it is run by well-meaning theater buffs who put more heart than money into it. My daughter has had her mic cut out and her costumes break on stage. The roof leaks when it rains, and nearly every show featuring younger children still sells out, which means parents who don’t order their tickets weeks in advance might not get to see their own child perform as often as they’d like.
My daughter now mentors younger kids the way Princess Jasmine mentored her. Once I popped into a class where she — on the fly — was giving a tour of the theater to the kids younger than 9 years old. Just 11 then, Stella showed them around the stage, front and back, and explained how the whole place worked. She couldn’t have given a better tour of our house.
Stella is heading to high school next year, and I expect she’ll spend less time at the theater. This saddens me for reasons that have nothing to do with acting. Theater was the first activity where I felt safe letting her go, and both of us were better off because of it.
Lately, I’ve been talking to other parents who have similar feelings about their kids leaving their own “second homes,” the gyms and dojos, fields and dance studios where they’ve become actors, athletes and artists. Even though parents have approved (and paid for) these activities, we’ve only played supporting roles. The kids have won their own trophies, games and medals. They’ve earned their spots on the stage or the field. Our children haven’t just grown up in these places; they have grown into themselves there.
I’m sure they’ll find other places where they feel they belong in high school and beyond, but for a young kid — to twist a quote from one of Stella’s favorite musicals — there’s no place like (a second) home. One we parents just get to visit.
Jacqueline Marino is a journalism professor at Kent State University, who also writes about parenting, medicine and culture.