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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Stage Parents: Unsung Heroes

Dan and Samantha Gray and their children take part in annual living history portrayals at the Cox House in Bluff City, Tenn.
Dan and Samantha Gray and their children take part in annual living history portrayals at the Cox House in Bluff City, Tenn.
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November 01, 2006

What most "stage parents" do

Most parents transport their children to and from rehearsals and performances, and they attend performances to show their support. Many help behind the scenes, from "kid wrangling" (making sure they get on stage at the right time) to make-up and costuming. Others get involved with their children's theatre, dance or choral ensembles by joining the board of directors.

As someone from the Mountain Empire Children's Choral Academy put it, "Anyone can drive the distance, but hands-on volunteering shouldn't be overlooked. [Every arts organization has] tireless parents who give of their time generously and effectively. Where would we be without these volunteers? They are 'the unsung heroes' of our programs!"

In a call for nominations for outstanding parents, A! Magazine for the Arts received numerous submissions from arts organizations in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Not everyone wanted to "toot their own horn" or even receive "a pat on the back." Following are the stories of those who did agree to talk with us.

"Our motivation is the joy of the arts themselves..."

Samantha Gray says, "My husband and I both love the arts and take our children to exhibits and shows whenever we can. With a new baby, it will probably get a little more complicated, but it will work out somehow!"

She continues, "We surround ourselves with the arts. In fact, our honeymoon featured many of the great art museums in Italy. Our children have at their disposal a library of books on great art and when we travel, we take advantage of opportunities to take in more of the arts. Our motivation to support and encourage arts for our children is probably the joy of the arts themselves. We recognize God as creator and the one who has gifted creativity to us. We appreciate the creative process and encourage our children in that way. As we study, we learn so much from art — the history, the stories, the lessons. We would like to have an even more classical approach to their education and incorporate more arts. The arts are for everyone and should be accessible, and we want our kids to feel that. Of course, the arts help our children to grow and step outside their comfort zones. For Camille, to audition is an extremely brave thing to do."

Samantha says, "We don't have a budget that allows us to do a lot, but we always take advantage of free events, and in Bristol, it seems opportunities abound. In fact, venues such as the library, the Paramount Center, Bristol Ballet, and the Rhythm & Roots Reunion make us feel we could live happily here after years of enjoying events at the Kennedy Center, the theatres, and the museums where we formerly lived in Washington, D.C. Being in ministry, it is a challenge to make the financial commitment necessary, but we often can get grandparents to 'sponsor' semesters of dance or dance camp. Bristol Ballet's six months free was a great way to start Luke out. We just keep making it work as we go along."

Other sacrifices are the time spent driving and waiting during practices and rehearsals. Samantha adds, "Both of us work, so we juggle sometimes who can take and who can pick up. Friends are frequently helpful with that, too. Besides the driving, waiting, and participation costs, we rearrange our home life and trips when rehearsals are more intense. It all seems to work out. Our families make long trips from Ohio and North Carolina to come to visit and see the performances."

One year, Samantha recalls, "We hosted a high school exchange student who was an artist, and our daughter learned more about the use of color, mixing paints, and perspective — and she really enjoyed watching him. Our 'new' art form is bluegrass music. These CDs sit alongside our CDs on classical music, opera, gospel, alternative rock, world music and even disco."

The Grays also support their children by letting them know what's available. Samantha explains, "To know what's going on, we read A! Magazine for the Arts and the Bristol Herald Courier. We learn about activities through the home school co-op and the library, too. Of course, we also support them by encouraging them, watching them create, practice and perform, and having them attend and appreciate others' creativity.

Their daughter Camille is eight years old and has been home schooled for the last two years. She has been taking tap and ballet since she was 2-1⁄2 and is now taking dance instruction at Bristol Ballet. She was cast as a mouse in "The Nutcracker" in 2005 and wants to be a dance instructor. Camille takes piano lessons from Mom and wants to learn to play the violin. She also does liturgical dance at her church and choreographs the pieces herself.

Her mother recalls, "Camille is an avid "Godspell" fan and when she was about three, she was constantly trying to organize her friends into putting on plays. So we thought finding people already interested would help her accomplish her mission. When she was five, she auditioned for Scrooge at Theatre Bristol and was cast as an urchin. She has gone on to be in "Oliver!" and "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" and is excited about auditioning for "The Sound of Music." She organized her birthday party this year as an American Girl play and cast all her friends. She has learned about make-up, set design, and much more in workshops at Theatre Bristol. We're grateful to Theatre Bristol for the opportunities she has had."

Their four-year-old son Luke just started pre-ballet at Bristol Ballet. After watching his sister's rehearsals for "The Nutcracker" and, in particular, watching the male guest dancers, Luke decided he wanted to dance, too: "Mom, they're boys, like me." Before ballet, he took a year of acrobatics.

As for dealing with disappointment, Samantha recalls, "When Camille auditioned for 'Annie' and did not get a part, I was afraid that she would take it pretty hard. She took it really well and was excited to later see some of her friends in the production. Of course, we prepared her even before auditioning of what the possibilities were. When she is auditioning, we've always worked on focusing on the audition itself, meaning all that is gained from the experience and extending yourself. After that, we focus on what other activities she has going on. I certainly think it's important not to participate in everything and experience disappointment. For disappointment in general, I suppose we try to be a bit 'Pollyanna-ish' about it, looking for the positive aspects. Honestly, we've just enjoyed what opportunities have presented themselves and not taken it too seriously."

The Gray family moved to the Bristol area when Luke was nine days old. Dan Gray is an ordained minister and the Coordinator of Youth Ministries for the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church. Samantha Gray consults in the field of international development and works as the Coordinator of Children's and Youth Ministry at Bluff City United Methodist Church. Both play and sing in the band "Praisegrass" at their church, too. Not to be outdone in dance by their kids, Mom and Dad plan to take ballroom dancing.

Samantha concludes, "We love how, through the arts, our children get mentored by so many dedicated, driven people who love "The Best things in life."

"I don't feel that I really sacrifice anything..."

A fourth grader at St. Anne's School in Bristol, Alexandra Eleas has performed in several productions throughout the area. Currently she is portraying two children in Barter Theatre's musical version of "Anne of Green Gables" — Young Anne and Minnie Mae, a neighbor girl. She made her acting debut at Barter Stage II at the age of five in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2002). In Barter Main Stage productions of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever", Alexandra was the Littlest Baby Angel (2002) and Gladys Herdman, a youngster with an attitude three times her size, in 2005. At Theatre Bristol, Alexandra has appeared in "Beauty and the Beast," "The Wizard of Oz," "Scrooge" (she played Tiny Tim in 2003), "Annie" in 2004 (as Molly) and "Oliver!" in 2005.

Her parents, Louie and Suzanne Eleas, together choose which productions Alexandra will audition for, then Suzanne helps her find and prepare monologues and music for auditions. If Alexandra gets a part, her mom runs lines with her. When Alexandra will miss school for rehearsals and performances, her mother lets teachers know her daughter's schedule ahead of time so that they can get her missed work ready for her. She says, "We also make certain that she gets all of her missed work completed at home, so that she does not fall behind. We are fortunate that her school is very supportive." That helps tremendously. Before "Green Gables" opened on Barter's Main Stage, Alexandra was in technical rehearsals from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. for two days and didn't get in bed until 1 a.m. "This is more rigorous than anything else Alexandra's ever done. "Green Gables" is an Equity production with professional actors. Alexandra is the only child actor," explained her mother.

Suzanne says, "I don't feel that I really sacrifice anything except maybe some time for her efforts. I am also fortunate to work with a supervisor who is very supportive of me and lets me make up missed time whenever I can. Obviously there are some adjustments to be made within the family, especially with the play that she is currently doing. We can't plan things ahead as we only have about 24 hours notice of rehearsal schedule, but we are all rolling with it. Today I recruited my brother to pick her up when I couldn't leave my job, and her father was out of town. We keep it all in the family. It is so worth it seeing her up on that stage."

As for being called a "stage mom," Suzanne says "that term has come to have almost a negative connotation these days. I don't consider myself or other mothers like me to be 'stage moms.' We are just moms whose children enjoy performing and we are lucky enough to be able to support them in their endeavors. Both Alexandra and I have met so many wonderful, wonderful people through her theatre experiences, some of whom have become dear friends. Theatre has certainly enriched both of our lives! Alexandra has a 16-year-old brother, Austin. He was in Theatre Bristol's production of "Music Man" several years ago. He also was a lighting technician for Barter II's production of Barnum. He, however, decided that theatre wasn't his thing and has moved on to other interests."

"It's frustrating not to get a part and it's difficult to explain why..."

When Matthew Paessler of Johnson City was five years old, he asked his adoptive mother, Debbie Paessler, how he could get on television. When she explained that he would need an agent, he said he wanted one. He was so enthusiastic that she finally told him he should wait until he was older, that "he had his whole life to act, and only a short window to be a kid. No one wants to peak at age 11," she recalls with a laugh.

Matthew didn't give up. He got his first "break" when he and his mom were shopping in downtown Bristol. "Actors sometimes are shy people," says Debbie, "and Matthew is, too, until you hand him a microphone and the spotlight hits him." His winning personality led a store clerk to suggest that he audition for a Theatre Bristol production, and the rest is history. At age 9, Matthew got the part of the faun Tumnus who befriends little Lucy in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and shortly thereafter he starred in "Pinocchio." Today Matthew is 16 years old and has appeared in more than 25 productions presented by Theatre Bristol, Johnson City Community Theatre (JCCT) and East Tennessee State University.

"It's frustrating for any child not to get a part," Debbie adds, "and it's difficult to explain why. You might be too tall, too short, too young, too old. I always tell Matthew, you can try out, but someone might be a better height or have the right hair color. It's a very personal business, but you can't take it personally. Life is full of rejection."

Undeterred, Matthew continues to search for his niche. He recently played several characters in Theatre Bristol's "The Ugly Duckling" — a UPS delivery man convinced to join a community theatre production, a little old lady, and The Swan King. In Theatre Bristol's "Annie," which mostly had roles for girls, Matthew was a ventriloquist's dummy for a radio talent show. Matthew also works behind the scenes as one of the youth leaders for Theatre Bristol's Showbiz Saturdays. He works with younger children, demonstrating stage combat, how to fall down, use make-up techniques, and he teaches games that polish skills. In addition, he is on the board of directors and a stage manager for JCCT.

Debbie has volunteered to usher for shows since most theatres "discourage backstage parents who want to direct. I didn't want to be a stereotypical 'stage mom' anyway. This way I can keep my mouth shut."

She and her husband "Sparky" are now home schooling Matthew so he can have a more flexible schedule and be more involved in the arts. It's not your traditional home schooling, but an on-line private school set up for athletes, professional motorcycle racers, even famous young actors such as Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood — all of whom have "wild schedules" or travel to compete. While investigating on-line schools, Debbie called a lot of universities to see if certain schools met state guidelines. She says, "The bottom line is universities only care about how you test. They don't care which high school you attend as long as your ACT numbers are up."

When we talked to Debbie, they had only been home schooling Matthew for one month. "So far it's working out well," she notes. "I'm not grading his work, and we're not choosing the curriculum, but we do choose the courses he takes. When Matthew turns in an English paper, for example, a teacher e-mails him back. Matthew can call or email teachers, and he can participate in on-line chat rooms with teachers and students. If he is weak in a particular subject, he can get a local tutor."

She concluded, "We're still negotiating what time Matthew gets up and what time he's doing his schoolwork on a regular basis. When he attended public school, he might miss six days of school to perform for students. And during tech week (rehearsals) I would let him sleep late and miss morning classes. That's a lot of time to miss in high school and a lot of work to catch up on."

All in the Family

Fred and Kelly Dunagan met at Theatre Bristol. He was hired to build sets and run lights but performed free. His future mother-in-law was the costume designer. His soon-to-be bride was selected to perform a tumbling and juggling act for a WWII production.

Today Fred is still performing at Theatre Bristol, more so now than ever. Kelly does, too, at least once a year. Her work schedule doesn't allow her to commit to weeks of rehearsal, but she recently appeared in "Annie" and in the female version of The Odd Couple, along with Fred, who enjoyed it because "we hadn't performed together in forever."

Most recently, Fred had one of the lead roles in "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Wizard of Oz," and he starred in "The Music Man" and "Scrooge." Over the years Fred has performed in "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and in two productions of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Their three teenagers — Josh, Phil and daughter Lyric — also caught the acting bug. Lyric appeared on stage with her father in several productions, she starred as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," and was also in "Sleepy Hollow." Fred and his two sons performed in Alice in Wonderland, and the boys appeared in "Beauty and the Beast."

Fred's got it bad, all right. This year he conducted Theatre Bristol's summer arts camp and recently accepted a job as education intern at the theatre to be even more involved with his children — and others. His responsibilities include designing and writing the study guides that go out to teachers who come to the children's shows, designing and teaching at Theatre Bristol's Showbiz Saturday events, and directing Theatre Bristol's new Youth Troupe. In October, he directed "Dracula: The Musical."

About auditions and disappointments, Fred says, "No one likes not getting a part, but I think my children deal with it well from hearing me tell stories about my experiences over the years. They have learned that often it's not necessarily whether you did the best job or not. For example, when casting 'The Sound of Music,' the director considers actors' heights and their coloring, and selects cast members who vaguely resemble each other for the Von Trapp family. Sometimes the best singers or best readers are cast in a secondary role. Juliet can't be a head taller than Romeo. You have to look at the bigger picture."

"I'm not complaining a bit..."

Derek Lantz, age 13, has performed in several plays in the region, appearing on stage at the Paramount Center, the Kingsport Renaissance Center, Barter Theatre, and at Northeast State Community College.

From the parent's perspective, his mother Luanna Lantz says, "These plays involve a great amount of time (and gasoline) just doing auditions, rehearsals, attending all the shows, and ushering. The timing during rehearsals is very sporadic and often runs into dinner hours and homework time. School shows mean that you have to pick up and deliver your children during their school day to take them to performances and work closely with teachers to keep up with missed class assignments and tests. Backstage help includes providing costume pieces, helping everyone in the (ladies) dressing room before and during each show changing clothes, doing makeup for the children, and being available to help with any costume problems. Parents are often responsible for ensuring that costumes and props are in the right place, babysitting during shows with the younger actors, and always watching for cues so you can get everyone on stage at just the right time."

Luanna adds, "Derek has been doing plays since 2003, and I'm not complaining a bit. Working with the various theaters, directors and actors has always been a true joy, as well as providing some solid friendships for both me and my son."

"We watched for opportunities to let them step out and express themselves..."

Allison Adams and her family moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, from Athens, Tennessee, eight years ago. Allison says, "Athens has a thriving arts council, and I was fortunate enough to have the time to volunteer in their arts in education program while I lived there. I was consistently amazed that the arts could be used so creatively to enhance the curriculum of any core subject — math, science, language arts, social studies — and it always seemed that the students immediately made the connection: the arts bring life to seemingly stagnant subjects. Anyway, my husband and I were sold on the importance of arts in education, and we had young kids then, so when we moved to Greeneville I looked for someplace to 'plug in' and support the arts. I met Marilyn duBrisk at a Greeneville Youth Builder's meeting and expressed my interest in volunteering in her Arts Outreach program at Tusculum College. Since then, she's managed to keep me busy as an arts supporter!"

All three Adams children — Nate, Caroline and Camille — are active in the arts. Allison says, "That my children became interested and involved in the arts happened very naturally. My husband and I have tried to expose them to a lot of different things — music, theatre, visual arts — and they gravitated toward music and theatre. So we watched for opportunities to let them step out and express themselves. They were involved in school and church choirs early on. Trying their luck at live theatre was next. In addition to Tusculum College Arts Outreach, Greeneville is very fortunate to have Little Theatre, a community theatre guild dedicated to presenting a variety of stage productions. My two daughters have tried to take advantage of almost every Theatre-At-Tusculum and A.C.T. (Actors Coming Together) opportunity offered. As my son aged, he too has been involved in Theatre-At-Tusculum. Last year, my son, my two daughters and I were all on stage together for "Oliver!". It was an experience I'll cherish forever!"

According to their mom, one of the most valuable experiences the Adams children have had is GLAWPIGT (Great Literature Alive & Well & Performed In Greeneville Theater). This is a long-standing drama/speech troupe formed by duBrisk. In GLAWPIGT, students are not only exposed to great literature, they are creatively taught and encouraged to practice things like voice placement, posture, gesturing, facial expressions, proper enunciation. "All of these things are life skills," says Allison. "Whether they go on to pursue a career in theatre or not — these kids will be able to present and conduct themselves in public with confidence and poise. They will dazzle any audience with those skills."

She continues, "While I made sure my children knew that I was available to help them prepare for auditions and rehearsals, they rarely ask me. I think that they are so determined to test their abilities that they don't want outside help — at least from me or my husband! They have turned to 'fellow actors' (their friends) and collaborated on audition skills, etc. But mostly I think they just enjoy the challenge of putting themselves 'out there' with the skills they've learned in previous experiences. Truthfully, while I am supportive, I rarely ever attend their auditions — at least initially. I just get too nervous. Plus, I enjoy hearing their recaps afterward."

Speaking of "life experiences," Allison says, "Auditioning is such a great exercise! Every time we apply for a job, we're actually auditioning. The more we do that, it stands to reason that we're better prepared for the next time. So experiencing the joy of winning and the disappointment of not is all 'real life' stuff. That said, it takes more than actors to produce a show. While nailing a part as an actor seems to be their first priority, both of my girls have enjoyed being involved with a production behind the scenes. Sure, they want to be front and center whenever they can, but they also know that it takes a team of people to make a successful show and the bottom line is that they want to be a part of the team! I remind them of that option every time they audition. I don't want to discourage their desire to audition for a particular part, but I do remind them that the 'company' is important and the work that goes on behind the curtain can make or break a show." Allison adds, "There are times when a rehearsal schedule may conflict with an extracurricular activity, an athletic event, a band or chorus rehearsal, but there is give-and-take on the part of the director and the teacher on all of those things. They try to work together."

The oldest Adams daughter, who just started her first year of college, is a great example of an "arts child." She was "raised" in the chorus (school and church) and active in theatre productions. She has been responsible for cueing special effects, dressing actors, leading a chorus section, singing solos, and starring in a musical. Allison says, "The confidence and poise she's gained from those experiences has prompted her to step out and get involved in student council and team sports, to lead a group of peers in a meaningful quest, and to maturely voice her opinion about things she feels passionately about. Even if she never set foot on stage again, I know she would say she is better prepared to enter the 'real world' as a contributing member of society with the skills she's learned preparing for numerous auditions, memorizing lines, honing stage skills, respecting and following direction, and realizing that it takes a team to be successful. I believe those skills are as important and applicable in life as they are on stage. What parent wouldn't want their child to have what it takes to leave the nest with such strength beneath their wings?"

"It is amazing how much one can learn from children as well as with them..."

Visual artist Kathy Gibian, her husband Richard, and their three "art-ful" kids live in Bristol. Kathy, who works at William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, says, "I cannot say that I have sacrificed any more than most parents do. I am delighted by the interests of my children particularly since so much of what they love is also what I enjoy. All three of my children are involved in the arts. The oldest, Olivia, just graduated from college with an Art History degree and also has a special interest in ceramics. The middle one, Emily, has always enjoyed performing — theater as well as dance — and is also finding her way in the visual arts. Both girls have strong writing skills. The youngest, James, has a passion for music, with an emphasis on percussion. When they were small, we all read together, went to the library, to puppet shows, and to various performances. Each one has accompanied me to the ballet, to the theater, music concerts, and to numerous art show openings."

She continues, "Now I get introduced to art films, music, and books that they know much more about than I do. It is amazing how much one can learn from children as well as with them. That new knowledge certainly includes learning about patience, learning about time management and setting priorities, as well as the knowledge about a particular subject. These are all things that I still struggle with, even for myself."

Mom is "a natural at stage managing..."

Sarah Weber of Jonesborough, Tennessee, has involved all three of her children in productions with Kingsport Theatre Guild and Theatre Bristol. Her oldest child Bobby started out in a non-speaking role several years ago in "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." He took a couple of Kingsport's theater workshops, got one of the two children's leads in "Oliver!" at Theatre Bristol, then went back to Kingsport and got the lead in Treasure Island and had one of the two children's parts in Kingsport's "Canterville Ghost" last fall. Challenges? The Webers live in Jonesborough, and their children perform in Kingsport and Bristol, miles away.

The children (at least the older ones) are home schooled. They have taken workshops and classes through Kingsport Theatre Guild (KTG) and performed in several productions. KTG president Katherine Scoggins says, "Sarah is a natural at stage managing. She is very organized and detail-oriented."

Placing a High Priority on Hands-on Opportunities

Greg and Cheryl Kerr have placed a high priority on their children having hands-on opportunities in art and history. They and their four kids are very involved in the traditional arts at the Historic Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell, Virginia. The kids are home schooled and the whole family volunteers as historic interpreters in 1800s costume. Mom is a basketweaver and one of the master artisans at the Appalachian Arts Center. The children have learned a wide variety of artistic skills, including singing, pottery, felting, basketweaving, embroidery, knitting, drama, dancing, blacksmithing, and more. The parents have invested much time and money providing pioneer period costumes for the children, leading classes in fencing and crafts, and volunteering as camp leaders. The museum relies heavily on their involvement.

Four-year-old Luke Gray is taking classes at Bristol Ballet.

In an earlier photo on the right, Luke Gray and sister Camille enjoy art activities at William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon.

Matthew Paessler, left, gets a hug from Winnie the Pooh.

In the Theatre Bristol production of Alice in Wonderland, Fred Dunagan was the White Rabbit while his sons Josh and Phil were the Knave and the March Hare, respectively.

Derek Lantz, right, in Oliver!

Camille, Nate and Caroline Adams in costume for Seussical, the Musical.

James Gibian at "The Gates" exhibit in New York City's Central Park.

Caroline Adams starred in Tusculum's Kiss Me, Kate.

Nate Adams as Dodger in Oliver!

Camille Gray as a mouse in Bristol Ballet's Nutcracker.

Camille Gray and Alexandra Eleas in Theatre Bristol's Scrooge.

Luanna and Derek Lantz

Matthew Paessler in Theatre Bristol's South Pacific.