A few summers ago, I enrolled my boys in a Creative Days camp put on by one of the local arts groups. The boys would have much preferred something more like “Whack Your Brother With a Light Saber Camp” or “Eat at McDonald’s for Every Meal Camp,” but I really wanted them to attend a creative camp because I was worried they weren’t experiencing enough art and drama at home. (Well, art, anyway.)
During each week of camp, the kids would explore a prevailing theme. Fun stuff like “Dinosaurs,” “South of the Border” and “The Great Masters,” which was by far their favorite because it taught them that in the art world, throwing tantrums and spilling paint on the floor doesn’t make you a bad boy. It makes you Jackson Pollock.
After a month of getting messy and torturing cardboard, the kids switched to acting and began rehearsals for the big show they’d be performing at the end of camp. This development made me very excited because, up until that point, the only thing I’d ever seen my boys perform was amateur surgery on dead worms. But now, now they were going to be actors! No, stars! Celebrities! Yes, as far as I was concerned, they were just one measly talent scout away from having their own shows on Nick Jr. and hanging out with Lilo at Promises Malibu. I just knew they were going to be amazing.
Or maybe not. My brief flare of stage mothering quickly dimmed as I remembered my own painful theatrical career. Like the time I was a purple flower with no lines. Or the time I was a green plant with no lines. And, of course, who could forget the time I was a crab apple with no lines. No wonder I never won an Oscar; I was typecast as mute vegetation by the age of 10.
But even worse than those roles was the incident that has forever kept me from stepping foot into the spotlight ever again. I mean, I was fine with playing the part of Abraham Lincoln, since I knew I was the tallest kid in the third grade; but did they have to make me recite the “Emancipation Proclamation” with a black furry beard covering half my face? I still wake up in a cold sweat yelling, “Four score and seven BLECH! GET THIS THING OUTTA MY MOUF OR I’M GONNA PUKE! I WANT MY MOMMY!”
And so it was with not a little apprehension that I watched the boys begin to practice for their show. I knew Sam, the oldest, would be fine since he’s outgoing and likes attention, but I was a little worried about Jack. Like me, Jack was pretty much born without the performing gene and would be much happier painting scenery or washing the lead actress’ hair, if it kept him hidden from the audience. However, he immediately surprised me by coming home singing It’s A Hard Knock Life and proudly showing off his new dance moves. After he took a very triumphant bow in the kitchen, he told me he couldn’t wait to be on stage. “Wow,” I thought, “Maybe we’re a theatrical family after all. Maybe we’re like the Texas Barrymores! Or, even better, the Texas Sheens!”
Finally it was the day of the show. My husband and I took our seats in the small theater with the rest of the smiling parents, and as we waited for the action to start, I grabbed his arm and hissed, “Get the video camera ready, my man. This is going to be fantastic! I think we’ve got the next Mickey Rooneys on our hands!”
“I think you mean the next Mickey Rourkes,” he muttered back. “They refused to take a bath again last night.”
Then the lights dimmed, the music swelled and suddenly, Sam and 15 other five-year-olds tromped into the room dressed in avant-garde Pterodactyl costumes made out of paper plates. (Apparently their costume budget was a little lower than that of Cats.) The kids stood in an almost-straight line, and then began to awkwardly dance while making high-pitched screeches before segueing into 20 minutes of self-written knock-knock jokes. It was all very Off-Off-Off-Good-God-Are-We-Off Broadway. Andy Warhol would have loved it; not so much anyone in the room with hearing ability.
Next, it was Jack’s turn to perform. He happily took the stage with the rest of the three-year-olds, then spotted me in the audience and gave me a big smile. I was so relieved he wasn’t nervous, and happily sat back to watch my little musical theater genius. And then, as my husband got the camera ready and I started mentally composing Jack’s future Tony award acceptance speech, the music began and Jack … stared at his shoes and looked like he was being punished for stealing cookies. (Unlike the little Nathan Lane next to him who was overacting enough to earn the nickname “Camp Ham.”)
“Oh, well,” I thought, as the show ended and we went to congratulate a happy Sam and a pale, shaky Jack. So at least one of my boys is probably never going to be an actor. He’ll probably never grace the Great White Way or the silver screen or even be involved in a humiliating tabloid scandal with Miley Cyrus. But you know what? That’s okay because not everyone’s cut-out for performing. Not everyone needs to sing and dance and emote while standing in front of an audience. In fact, isn’t that why they become … directors?
I wonder if there’s a camp for that?
A version of my essay that was originally published in the October 2010 Austin Woman Magazine.