Stage Dad: ‘The Art of Sacrifice That Olympic Athletes and Actors Know Well’ by Glenn Cook

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Ben Cook.

Being the parent of a child actor comes with a learning curve that has the potential to throw your life into chaos at any point. If you’re not willing to endure the ebbs and flows that come with your new role, don’t take it. There is no sense in making yourself, your child, or other family members miserable.

That said, you will never know if you can do it unless you try.

Three years ago this month, we were in New York, searching for an apartment and watching our son start rehearsals for the Broadway revival of Ragtime. My wife and I decided on a combination “what the heck/wait and see” approach to the entire endeavor, knowing that our lives would never be the same.

And they haven’t – not for a moment since.

The first year – as my wife and I readily tell anyone who will listen – was very tough, even as we wiped a number of things off of our parental bucket list in a very short time. We spent the time switching off between our girls in Northern Virginia and taking care of Ben in New York, in essence operating as single parents.

That worked for a time, and then we had to look for other options. When Ben moved into Billy Elliot, we hired someone to take care of him for a short time. Then we split time in New York with another family. Then someone lived in the apartment rent free in exchange for making sure Ben made it back and forth to school, rehearsal, and the show.

When the tour started, we called on Ben’s cousin, who was looking for a job. Then Ginno, another friend who took care of our son in New York, came on board. Nicholas, my oldest, also has chipped in during his break this summer. Jill and I fly out every few weeks when we can.

Ben Cook as Billy.

The performer’s life, especially when that performer is a child on a national tour, is something of a strange existence for the caregivers. You stay in hotels, board buses and planes, and find a new set of grocery stores, laundromats, and eating establishments every one to three weeks. And all the while, you schlep the child back and forth to rehearsals and the show.

Constantly you find yourself weighing the benefits, the risks, and the costs. On one hand, you have an opportunity to do something for your child that few parents get, to give them the experience of a lifetime at a relatively young age. On the other hand, you and your child miss having the day to day to day connection that you get by being under the same roof. It takes a lot of trust, a lot of hope, and a lot of juggling.

But really, life is a juggling act. It just depends on how many balls you want to have in the air.

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Over the past several weeks, while Ben has been in Boston, much of our family time was spent sitting around the television watching the Olympics. It was easy to get caught up in the drama of the games, and that night’s events became a point of conversation each evening.

In part, that’s intentional. Dick Ebersol, NBC’s Olympics guru for the past two decades, says the games are “one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together.” That’s one reason ratings were through the roof, even though most of the events were tape delayed.

Gabby Douglas. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

What I found particularly interesting were the behind-the-scenes stories that focused on the athletes’ personal lives. Bookending each event, it seemed, was a story about parents making tremendous sacrifices for the athletes to pursue their passion. Gaby Douglas’ story, of moving from her home in Virginia Beach to train in Iowa, had particular resonance for us.

For some time, I’ve said that parents of top athletes and working actors have much in common. If anything, we have learned the art of sacrifice.

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Last year, a friend of mine asked, “Is it wrong to want my child to have the fairytale?”

The reference was to the loss of her son’s team in the semifinals of the local Little League championship. The team had gone undefeated through the season and into the playoffs, only to lose to another squad that had less talent on paper but was peaking at the right time.

Glenn Cook.

Sports and theatre, besides being inherently dramatic, have the fairytale factor in common.

Watching your child deal with a tough loss – either in a game or in an audition – is heartbreaking because we want them to have that moment in the spotlight. More often than not, we rediscover over and over again that fairytales are just fiction, that “real life” rarely ends the way we would like.

Still, we try. That’s why we buy lottery tickets and compete in contests with little scraps of scratch off cardboard, hoping we’ll be the 1 in 8,373,722 that gets picked. It’s why parents twist and contort schedules and make them look like the intersections of the interstate highway system, just so our children can have opportunities we did not.

We’re very fortunate. Our son is living the fairytale in Billy Elliot, but it’s not due to a magic wand. Not by any means.

And we would never have known if we hadn’t tried.

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One Response to Stage Dad: ‘The Art of Sacrifice That Olympic Athletes and Actors Know Well’ by Glenn Cook

  1. Grand Mom August 14, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    Looks like the writing freeze is thawing nicely. Several really nice things you’ve written in the last week or so. I LOVE Moo-Moo! Great piece from Sean about Ben too. Take care, dear one…