Advice from a Reluctant Stage Grandma

You’d think that 20 years of having a talented son who makes his living as a performer gave me an insight into “the business”.  But he didn’t start his career until after his first year of college, and I was unprepared for  life as a stage grandma when it was thrust on me.

My son, stuntman and actor Geoff McAlister on various film sets and locations around the world. Geoff didn’t start his career until he was 20. (Thank goodness!)

I have 8 grandchildren, and all of them have talent.  But it’s the youngest who turned me into a stage grandma, waiting through hours of rehearsals and shoots.  At 11, he has his own website, and you can find his profile all over a number of casting sites and on his agent’s website.

So Your Child Wants to be a Star

Here are the 10 things I think someone should tell any parent who has a child who wants to be a star.  Some of them may sound silly — but I certainly wish I’d known them when I started.

It’s Expensive & Most Kids Never “Break Even”

The road to a career in Hollywood or the local community theatre stage is paved with money. Your money, being paid to other people.

Let’s start with the training they need in how to audition, how to convey emotions on demand, or in whatever special skill they have to go along with their looks and acting ability.  (All child actors need other skills, be it karate, juggling, circus, dance, music, singing, stage combat, improv, comedy or something more exotic.)

No matter how cute, precocious, or talented they are, your child’s chances of being plucked from obscurity and dropped into a starring role are roughly equal to your chance of winning the lottery.  In other words, don’t count on it. (And even if they are that talented, getting someone to let them audition with a blank resume is darn near impossible.)

How much does it cost to bankroll a child’s career? Here’s a sample of what we’ve spent this fall.

Item Cost
1 Semester Acting Class, Dallas Children’s Theatre $240
Photography (Headshots/full-length), 1 hour photo session $200
25 8X10 Glossies with Printed Name & Agent Information $35
1 Semester of advanced circus, Lone Star Circus School $250
2 tanks of gas (10 auditions) $70
Videoboard / demo reel $300
Wardrobe/hair/make-up $100
Photocopies (resumes) $20
Cost $1,215

Multiply this times three — spring, summer, and fall — to get an idea of annual spending for a child who wants to get into the acting game.  Lots of intangible items (my time, or the wear and tear on my car) and costs aren’t included.  For instance, my budget doesn’t include:

  1. Food/beverage costs
  2. Clothes & supplies for classes (dance shoes, leotard, juggling balls, karate gi, etc.)
  3. Private lessons or coaching sessions

It certainly doesn’t include out-of-town audition or filming costs, and it was figured after we paid for summer camp — which seems mandatory in this industry. Kameron attended two performing arts camps last summer — a top performing arts camp in upstate New York ($5K plus travel), and a week-long day camp here in town ($300).  Several parents warned us that his single 3-week session at camp just wasn’t enough — their kids stay for a full 10 or 12 weeks, at a cost of $10k or more per summer.  And I minimized the costs somewhat — Kameron takes three classes per week at the Lone Star Circus School (not just the one I listed), acting workshops at Nancy Chartier’s Film and Acting Studio, and karate lessons at the Texas Karate Institute.

I know families who spend far more than we do, but I know very few who spend less. Families with daughters in advanced dance classed spend about $30 per dance class, and 3 classes per week adds up to $4,500 a year all by itself.

Yes, kids (usually) get paid when they perform, and on an hourly basis, it’s a pretty good wage that most working adults can’t match. Yes, you can deduct (some) of the expenses against the child’s earnings when he or she files annual tax return(s), which are required when earnings reach $600, a pretty low threshold.

But child actors don’t make as much as you’d think. To start with, even the most popular don’t work every day — or even every week.  Paychecks are sporadic, but expenses go on week after week.

High paying jobs are out there, but only a major motion picture or ongoing role in a TV series can make a child actor rich. Most working actors aren’t rich, and never will be.

Don’t believe me? In 2011, the median income of a member of SAG/AFTRA, the actor’s union, was $50,000 per year. Nearly 25% of all union actors earn less than $35,000 per year.  On union contracts, child actors earn the same minimum rates as adults.  That’s $592.20 for TV, or $842 a day ($2,921 per week) for a major motion picture.

So if your child is dreaming of getting rich on his first role, inject a dose of reality if you can.

Is it worth it? It depends. In hard dollars earned, maybe not.  But we decided to invest in a child’s dream, knowing that the lessons he learns in public speaking, self-confidence, thinking on his feet, and professional behavior (not to mention competing for what he wants in life and the value of hard work) will help him in life, whether he becomes a star or not.

It’s Highly Competitive 

Girls outnumber boys 10/1 (or more) at every audition, and in every category of performer.  But there are dozens (if not hundreds) of child actors available for every part, in nearly any city.

Got a son who can cry on demand and memorize lines easily?  Especially a boy who’s small for his age and can “play younger” than his years? Can he sing, dance, and play sports? Disregard the rest of this post and start making calls to agents.

If your son is good-looking (and we all have good-looking kids, don’t we?), then you’ll get an agent quickly, and if there is a lot of film and commercial work in your area, he’ll work as much as you want him to work.

Got a pre-teen or teenage daughter who sings, dances, and is so beautiful that everyone who sees her says “she should be in the movies”?  Remember: that’s what they said to the other 200 girls with the same skill set who will show up for every role your daughter is up for, too.

A teenage girl needs a thick skin, great skills, fabulous or exotic looks, and more than a little luck to get noticed in the highly competitive world of child actors. And you’ll need the ability to keep your cool and maintain her self-esteem while everyone around her pressures her to lose weight, grow up way too fast (or hide her age and look younger), or even have cosmetic surgery.

Being a Good Actor Isn’t Enough

Casting directors nearly always have jobs for kids who can do something besides act well – for instance, a child who can play basketball, roller skate, or ride horseback while delivering lines flawlessly. So your child needs an amazing number of skills on their resume alongside the acting credits. (Kameron has 18 on his.)

The best skill to have is the ability to deliver a drop dead perfect “cold read” on demand.  (A cold read is when you walk into a room full of strangers, they hand you a few script pages, and you’re given a few minutes to learn your lines, and then you stand up and perform the role perfectly, alone or with other actors.)

But it’s far from the only skill that counts.  Casting directors need people who can do just about anything you can think of, and there’s no skill so unusual that a casting director somewhere isn’t looking for it today.

I’ve seen roles for tap dancing twins, children who can ride unicycles, boys who can sew, and kids who can speak with thick Brooklyn accents. In the last month, I’ve seen roles for boys who are good at falling down (Kameron got that part), learned to do tricks on their shoe-skates, and a call for “unlikely looking male contortionists –not too thin” (he got that one, too).

Two high-value skills that are often overlooked are plain old-fashioned good manners and good behavior.  You can’t put too high a value on the skill of remembering to say please and thank-you, yes ma’am and no sir, and following direction without unnecessary discussion.

Actors are expected to do as they’re told, when they’re told, and only top stars have the luxury of asking “why” or making suggestions except in very specific instances.  (Stunt performers like my son Geoff, for instance, take responsibility for their own safety and that of other people and animals on the set, and can make suggestions on a variety of things that regular actors can’t even think of controlling.)

The drama on a film set happens in front of the cameras.  There’s no place for rudeness or overblown egos from you or your child.

Don’t forget to be nice to the “little people” on a set, including the families of other child actors.  Cast and crew members are often asked for referrals — and who do you think they’ll suggest? The pleasant, easy to work with actor — or the talented, high-maintenance diva?

Age and looks matter, sometimes more than experience or skill.  Kids under 9 and over 18 get most of the roles.  Nothing thrills a casting agent more than an 18 year old who looks 14. 10-17 year olds seem to have the hardest time, no matter how talented they are.

Don’t Fall for the Scams

There are lots of scam artists out there who make money off children’s dreams. Expect to pay for lessons, photography, video editing, and training. But do NOT pay to have your child “submitted” for a part, “registered” for a matching service that will introduce him/her to an agent, or “promoted” to casting agents via a website or magazine.

Steer clear of “talent” jobs on Craigslist or any other non-industry publication.

In general, if you pay to participate, it isn’t a real opportunity at all. Legitimate agents make money when their talent works…they don’t charge talent to “submit” them.

The exception:  many agents want their talent represented on specific casting sites that they use, and there may be a small fee.  But by “small” I mean something equivalent to the cost of a nice lunch — not the pricey services that you see advertised everywhere.

Casting and talent agents don’t need to advertise. They need a moat to keep people away, and only open the drawbridge to newcomers referred by someone they trust. This is just one reason a local agent is so important. (Kameron is represented by the amazing Linda McAlister Talent.  I can’t say enough good things about Linda McAlister and her team — and no, we aren’t related.)

“Extra” Work Has its Own Rules

Being an extra is good training, and nearly every actor does more work as an extra than as a featured performer in the beginning.  Just remember that the rules that protect child actors may not apply to “extra” work, depending on where filming takes place.

The law limits working hours for children on film and TV sets by age. A child actor Kameron’s age (11) is limited to a 6 hour work day.

But extras aren’t actors under this rule. So there is NO limit to the number of hours an extra (of any age) can be required to wait around on set. A child extra who has to report for a 7 a.m. make-up call may still be there at 7 p.m. or later. All for a flat fee as low as $75 — or as “high” as $300. And if your child is on set for 12 or more hours, so are you — and YOU aren’t being paid for it.

Not All Jobs are Paying Jobs

A lot of the work your child does in the beginning won’t pay anything at all. Actors need “audition reels” or “video boards” or online examples of their work. And that means you’ll be doing student films, PSA’s, and “indie” film or stage work that doesn’t pay anything at all — but gets you the all-important video clip you need.

Even actors who routinely get good-paying jobs do freebies when paying work is slow.  When your agent sends you a note that says, “Please do this favor for so-and-so,” you probably will.

A Child’s Career Will Disrupt Your Life

Whether your child’s quest for stardom is successful or not, it will disrupt the lives of everyone in the family.

You’re volunteering for long, boring hours waiting around while your child rehearses, shoots, waits, and auditions. If you’re not the sort of person who can sit absolutely silently for hours in an uncomfortable chair or even the ground, while keeping your mouth shut about what people are saying or doing to your child, then being a stage parent/grandparent is not for you.

The director, make-up artist, assistant director, lighting director and all the other people on a film or stage set do not want your suggestions on how your child should look. And they certainly don’t want your opinion on how he/she should approach the role, where they should stand so they look best, how many lines he/she should have, or anything else relating to the production.

Nor do they care if you need a bathroom break, your back hurts, or you’re starving.  You don’t interrupt filming/rehearsal/auditions for any reason.

Sometimes you can sit at the rear of the set and watch. Sometimes you won’t be able to see what your child is doing, because they’re working on a closed set or in a confined space, and you’re told to wait somewhere else.

If you have a job, who’s going to take your child to auditions and classes? If your child earns a lot of money that goes into a trust fund you can’t access (a  Coogan Trust), how are you going to finance the costs of auditions and your own living expenses while they’re working?

Who’s going to care for other children while one child works?  If you have more than one child with the acting bug, how you handle it when they compete for roles? What do you do when your child actor’s schedule conflicts with his sibling’s soccer schedule?

What do you do if your child is cast, and taking the part means a move to LA or Toronto or somewhere else for weeks or months? Who cares for the dog, pays the bills, mows the lawn, and keeps your house in order while you’re gone for weeks at a time?

Are you going to home school a child who works a lot?  How supportive is your child’s school about periodic absences for work?

What does it mean to your marriage or relationship, your job, or your friendships when you’re constantly trailing around after a budding young star?

Those are just a few of the things you have to think about — all related to positive outcomes and a busy work schedule.

If the quest for stardom isn’t a success, or work slows down, there are different issues.  How do you handle it when your child doesn’t get a coveted part? What do you do when he or she gets a large pimple the day of an audition?  And let’s not forget the other inevitable crises of growing up: school, relationships, self-image issues and so on.  What do you do when they spent the night fretting or crying over one of those — but they still have to show up and “be professional” the next morning?

You’re a parent/grandparent first — a manager or promoter second.  (Or you should be.) If they are meeting with rejection after rejection, and taking one class after another with no success in the audition process, how long will you keep trying? (And footing the bills?)

The Stage Mom as Supply Sergeant

The truth is the role of a stage mom is equivalent to being a supply sergeant (or pack mule).  It’s in the job description right up there with banker, driver, maid, laundress, and chief cheerleader.

Plan on being self-contained in terms of wardrobe, food, and supplies, for yourself and your child. A union film set for a major movie or TV show is like a small city. They have everything, and the food can be quite good and always plentiful. You can eat at the craft services table with the rest of the crew and the cast, and if you’re a coffee drinker, you’re in luck.  Film crews seem to run on coffee, 24 hours a day.

On a non-union set or a small production, the situation can be far different. Even on a major film set, if your child is a picky eater, has food allergies, or you simply don’t want them chowing down on adult-sized portions of pizza, pasta, desserts and sugary drinks, bring your own. And if it’s theatre, dance, circus, or some other live show, chances are you’re on your own for food, water, and supplies.

An amazing number of sets where children work are “peanut free zones”, and restrict the kinds of foods and beverages you can bring on set, especially anything that can stain costumes if spilled. Water, clear Gatorade, Sprite or 7-up, apples, crackers and cheese, and sealed containers of fruits, veggies, or cereal usually work.

A lot stage moms convert the backs of their mini-vans or SUV’s into rolling “set kits” stocked with multiple changes of clothes, hair accessories, toys, books, make-up, snacks and drinks, and an amazing assortment of props.

I haven’t gone that far, but I invested in a huge Tory Burch tote bag that holds enough stuff for a long weekend, and I use that for set visits and auditions.

For an audition, you’ll DEFINITELY need to bring along anything you want your child to have, wear, eat, or drink.  Bring a change of clothes…if not two or three. (Kids spill things, some audition rooms are hot, some are cold — think layers.) If your daughter has long hair, a variety of hair ties, ornaments, headbands, and accessories seems mandatory.

For auditions and most local projects, you’ll provide the wardrobe. Your child will need a wide range of stylish, nice-quality clothing that fits perfectly and shows little or no signs of wear.  No logos or images of any kind are allowed on shirts, and you need to avoid busy prints, or colors that don’t “read well” on camera (neons, greens, yellows, oranges, bright whites).

When you get a “breakdown” notice from your agent that describes an audition, it will usually specify what your child is supposed to wear.  Usually it will say “nice casual” or  “school clothes” or “clothing appropriate for role.”  (That last one means that if your child is supposed to play an ice skater, he should arrive in clothing that will let him demonstrate his ice-skating skills, including his own skates.)

Most audition notices arrive only a day or two before the audition — and sometimes they arrive the day of the audition. So you have to make sure that the child’s audition wardrobe is ready to go on a moment’s notice — that his feet haven’t grown, he didn’t forget to mention a tear or stain from the last time he wore something, and that it’s clean, pressed, and ready to wear.

Have you ever tried to buy kid’s tennis shoes or trainers without a visible logo?  Find a specific article of clothing in a specific color at the last minute?  Kameron needed a solid-color swimsuit for an industrial film — in December — and the colorful prints he took to summer camp last summer weren’t acceptable, so we had to buy one on 24 hours notice.  It was NOT pretty.   (This is where making friends with other child actors and their parents is especially useful; you can sometimes borrow wardrobe pieces or props when you need them.)

For us, because of Kameron’s circus and stunt work, the hardest thing to find is solid black stretch pants with no visible logos, stripes, or patterns.  Pockets would be helpful — but if such a thing exists, we haven’t found a supplier yet.  Dance stores stock them at irregular times, and we usually buy the entire stock at our local dancewear store the day they arrive.

Besides the wardrobe options, I carry Kameron’s head shots, resumes, state work permit, business cards, the break-down notes and instructions from the agent, Kleenex, bandaids and antibiotics, sunscreen (don’t put it on without the director’s permission – it can look shiny or greasy under the camera), bug spray, hairspray and mousse and gel, diaper wipes (to wash up when there isn’t water handy), water, vitamins, and whatever forms of headache, allergy, and stomach ache medication Kameron might need.

Kids and young teens shouldn’t wear make-up to auditions or film sets.  (Arrive fresh-scrubbed unless told otherwise.) But I bring green-toned and a blended concealer that matches his skin (for hiding bruises or pimples – the green cuts the red, and when you put the skin-colored concealer on top, you can’t see them).

Make sure that anything you bring or wear on set is fragrance free and hypoallergenic. Need I say that if you’re shooting a commercial, you should make sure that you aren’t bringing a competitor’s products onto the set? Or that the rules on fragrances, logos, or competitor’s products apply to you, not just your child?

The bag also contains an iPad with headphones (loaded with his favorite movies, music and games), juggling balls so he can practice when he gets bored, a deck of cards, and one or more distractions he can share with other bored child actors, like a travel set of Tanagrams, a riddle/joke book, or a few small magic tricks.

The leather tote bag I use is heavy, bulky, and absolutely essential.

Upper left, Kameron as “Oscar”, a character in an upcoming film called “Finding Serenity”, Kameron on the set of a PSA for a local children’s charity, Kameron performing at a street fair (that’s me looking exhausted in the heat, sitting on the ground behind him), performing on the silks in Cirque Mon Amour, and in a promo shot for Cirque Banquiste.

Actors  Don’t Get Holidays

The film industry shoots according to its own schedule or the demands of the film. Lighting, weather, location and crew availability, and the contracts negotiated by the stars determine when it’s shot. If your scene happens to be scheduled Sunday at 3 a.m., Tuesday at 10 p.m., or Wednesday at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. (with a long break in between), so be it.

Show up (on time and ready to work), or don’t take the job.

A lot of auditions and shoots after school or in the evening, after we’ve both had a regular work or school day, and the last time we had a weekend “off” we had to turn down multiple jobs and leave town.

Getting enough sleep, regular meals and bathroom breaks, and time to just goof off and be a kid can be hard. He wants to do more and more — and I have to be the bad guy who says no. Be prepared for this part of the job.

Holiday breaks? Kameron has performances or rehearsals every day during his Christmas holiday except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, he only has three days off.  If you think that’s my choice, think again.

Whose Career Is It? 

On a film set the other day, I actually heard a young actress say, “Well, if I don’t make it in LA next year when I move there, I’ll get married, have kids, and live vicariously through their film careers.”

I’ve met a few stage mothers who are trying to do just that.  Seems to me that their children fail far more often than they succeed.

This stuff is hard work.  It is not fun, glamorous, or exciting most of the time. If your child doesn’t love it, then why are they doing it? Fortunately, most kids who act don’t have to work.  They have (or should have) choices.

If it’s your dream instead of their dream, chances are they’ll self-sabotage without realizing they’re doing it. It’s very easy not to get a part. Just blow the audition. If you think a kid won’t do that when they’re upset about something, then you haven’t spent much time around kids.

I never wanted to be a stage parent/grandparent. But Kameron wants a stage or film career, so we made a deal. I’ll drive him all over kingdom come and pay the bills, so long as he shows me that he really, really wants to do this. If his grades drop, or I have to start nagging him about rehearsals, practices, or behaving on set, then it stops.

And, by the way, if you’re living vicariously through your kids, it’s probably not too late to make your own dream come true. Adult character actors are always in demand.

And Another Thing…

This business ages everyone involved in it. The physical demands can be extreme, and so can the emotional ones.

Kameron’s schedule doesn’t make allowances for my aging joints, and I often come home exhausted from rehearsals or shoots.

Even the youngest child actor will quickly mature beyond their years.  Part of it is the simple fact of having a job — and part of it is that child actors are surrounded by adults. Some of them remember there are kids around and self-censor their language and topics of conversation, and some don’t.

Right now, I’m letting Kameron work and audition for most of the opportunities that come his way. Today, he seems to be in demand. Tomorrow may tell a different story as he becomes a teenager.

At 11, he doesn’t run into that much competition for parts. There don’t seem to be many male circus performers his age in Dallas, Texas with good comedy and improv skills, and the ability to do falls and stunts. It helps that he hasn’t hit a growth spurt and still has a little boy’s impish grin, a dusting of freckles, and twinkling eyes.

I’ve told him that he might suddenly stop getting parts or even auditions as he gets older. He says he understands.  But I’m not sure he does, and it worries me.

So the last piece of advice for anyone thinking of letting their child work as an actor is probably the most important: make sure they know that they’re loved whether they get a part or not, that there are alternatives, and that there is life after being a child actor.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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