Mostly, I remember being nervous, sweaty and bewildered. There were those in the know and those who listened to the tales of those who knew. Years later I described it as listening to Homer tell the stories of Ulysses or Jason from Greek legends returning from their adventures abroad. As I listened to other boys talk, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. These stories couldn’t be true yet there was no way to prove or disprove them other than trying it out for yourself. The movie “Super Bad” comes to mind…I think I was Michael Cera. There are, of course, female and LGBTQ+ versions of my story and I’m sure there is incredible crossover in the experiences that were shared.
THE MIDDLE YEARS are when first kisses are stolen under a lamp post on a summer evening, or in a park away from the prying eyes of adults. Holding hands was the thrill of a lifetime. An awkward fumble and grope here and there on a couch or in the backseat of a parental car. The claustrophobia of the whole family in a car on your way to visit relatives. What were your friends doing? What was I missing? In today’s environment Air Pods and social media provides a temporary escape. Escape from what or where to remained elusive – “Somewhere over the Rainbow”.
In “TV World” all the worst of teen behaviour is exaggerated and/or over simplified. There are a disproportionate number of broken homes, one parent deceased while the other is struggling to stay above water. In these storylines the teen often blames them (including the dead parent) for something they did or didn’t do. Lessons can be learned, but sometimes the consequences and the judgements are severe. Group homes compete with cheerleading squads (for ratings) and then throw in a haunted house, or an abandoned summer camp where the wrongs of the past must be righted, or a zombie chase (for our heightened viewing pleasure) will unfold to complete our picture. Unlike the early years (see previous blog), Nerds don’t win in this world…nerds only win if it is a coming-of-age story. In this coming-of-age version, our reluctant nerd hero emerges from the digital phone booth sans glasses with cooler hair and wardrobe. The LBGTQ+ teens are troubled, and suicide is often something that’s considered. The age of the Asian, Black or Brown “best friend” as a “de rigour” accessory has gone out of style and we have shifted to a more realistic mix…. thank goodness.
However, out here in the “real world” the angst and troubles don’t scream out for attention or are as black and white as their TV counterparts. They whisper their dark troubles quietly and are hidden in private bedrooms where tears-soaked pillows and late-night texts is a teen ritual. The power and the consequence of peer pressure begin to get higher and the stakes become more serious. Bullying can be deadly.
Without us even noticing, our life role assignments are being handed out like passports giving us the ability to enter and gain access to certain worlds. In school these roles are assigned based on how we look, our body type, athletic prowess, how we dress, and our IQ’s. Some of us are issued passports to different groups. Are we nerds, jocks, hipsters, goths, preps, stoners, street crew etc. These designations start to define us. When you or your teens enter the business, producers, casting, agents, and sadly, acting coaches create and validate over simplistic representations.
We role play in our teen years. This is normal and to a certain extent healthy as we try to find ourselves. If we have enlightened people around us (and genuine mentors who will not attempt to brand us) they will encourage us to grow. This gets more complex and “Twilight Zonish” when young actors move back and forth from real life to their TV/Film life.
As if these years aren’t confusing enough, we have to stop and catch our breath and ask, “is art copying life or is life copying art”. I fear none of us know anymore and even fewer of us care as long as ratings, followers and likes are high, and a buck can be made. “Whose lie is this anyway.”
This is why I hate this absurd concept of branding as it pertains to art. To label a young person is to literally brand them like a cow or a slave and stunt their growth. “This is you buddy…for the rest of your life. Don’t evolve or change, just get better at playing THIS role the rest of your life.” Oh, and by the way, you owe me $$$$$. It’s a sad day when the bloom comes off the rose and you have outgrown the role you worked so hard and were encouraged to perfect. No one told you all things come to an end, or at least transform (but more of that in the 20’s, 30’s to 40’s meditation).
I know too many sad stories of young teen actors who never emotionally or psychologically evolved. Unfortunately, their bodies did. Age waits for no one and the career of an “influencer” is short.
These middle years are the dress rehearsal for the later teen years. The clay is still soft. It has not hardened. We still have some ability to curb, guide or accelerate the changes that are coming. It is from the heated furnace of these kind of exchanges (ex: “you don’t understand me!” “No one likes me” or “what happened to my little girl/boy” etc.,) that start to arise regularly. If you see the clay hardening around your teen remind them that they can be so much more than the roles they have been assigned. If you are a teen and feel the claying hardening…break free.
It is important that teens have role models. As teens go through the natural process of individuation a need to distinguish one’s self from the family is healthy. What can be unhealthy is the groups of individuals they get attracted to during this time to fill the space that was created by that need. Although life ultimately worked out for our family (our son is a senior teacher and a highly respected coach at the studio.) I couldn’t be filled with more pride. However, the path to this place was rocky.
It is important that teens see themselves in others, but also have the opportunity to see a more varied set of options. It’s important we help free them from the traps of “the look,” type or brand. Parents need to be careful not to push their teens into making life altering decisions prematurely. It’s unfortunate that our desire for their happiness could end up being the direct source of their unhappiness.
I have met young blondes (male/female/they) who are as shy and gentle as lambs who are going up for the mean, bitchy cheerleader/school bully or the over sexualized teen. This is so not them, but ironically, this is the role they are often cast in at school, amongst their peers, and in the industry. Both worlds hem them in. This applies to so many mid-teens cast in roles they were not meant to play. It’s ironic that life casts them in roles they don’t want to play, but won’t cast them in roles they yearn to play.
It was so striking a few weeks ago when we had the courageous Keeya King and irrepressible Ellen Wong as our guest youth audition hosts’. A young black girl came into the virtual audition and when she saw Keeya her eyes opened wide and was set at ease by seeing a face that told her that she had a future in this business. She saw herself in Keeya. I knew Keeya and Ellen as teenagers and I know they would have loved to have seen themselves being represented on the screen as teens. A chance occurrence like this can change a teens life. That moment found a place in my heart forever, and I knew the path I had chosen as a coach and teacher was indeed a righteous one.
I remember a class where 7 of the 10 actors in the class were series regulars on a hit teen series. At the break I observed 5 of them talking. It was like watching an episode of the show. There was the blonde, a brunette, the good-lookin’ bad boy, the dumb jock, and the shy bookworm. The blonde and the brunette vying for the bad boy’s attention. The jock looking on like he was endeavouring to solve a math equation in his head, and the shy bookworm girl aiming to hold her own in conversation.
Some of us (parents and teens alike) get lucky. Destiny calls from the distance and we are there to hear it and see it waving at us. A chance meeting, a lucky break, an ally or mentor comes on the scene to shepherd hormonal drunk teens in the right direction. However, these lucky souls will pay for this early success in their early 20’’s and again when the black hole of 27 hits. It is at this age we get sober and realize all the external success in the world does not fill the void left by not attending to true friendship and spiritual growth. One is confronted with oneself and although transitions are difficult, and often painful and terrifying, they are our birth rite and our rite of passage to the next game. The piper will be paid if not sooner than later.
SOME PARENTAL ADVICE
1/ Let them be kids! Let them make mistakes. I certainly wish I had stayed on the sidelines more, and cheering on my son VS trying to get on the field to prevent him from getting knocked down or helping him score the goal.
2/ Don’t burden them with YOUR dreams for them. Help them shape their own future. Don’t funnel them into your idea of what their future should be.
3/ Honesty matters. They are smart. They can spot lies, hypocrisy and other adult nonsense a mile away. It is in these years where your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable with them will serve you both. It will make the later teen years smoother sailing; it will make them better actors, and more importantly, better human beings.
4/ The irony is that young actors from 16 to 19 are often going up for roles where the character engages in activity that parents have been working very hard to prevent. These auditions are teachable moments. It is a way to bridge the two worlds so they can work together.
5/ At a certain point your teen child will not want to run lines with you or do their self-tapes with you. Please don’t give them a hard time or be offended by this. Would you want to do these kinds of scenes with your mom or dad? Discuss the issues that these scenes present. This is also a time for those open heart-to-heart talks to happen. It is not the time to harass them about being word perfect.
6/ Start watching more adult content together. Start to picture your child doing some of those scenes. Discuss this with them and potentially with their agent. A discussion surrounding boundaries must be had. These scripts and storylines have to be mutually agreed upon.
THE ONSET EXPERIENCE
1/ Early success on television thwarts and alters their natural growth by giving young teens a false sense that this is how it will always be. Adults on set mean well. They want to demonstrate how cool they can be. Maybe they want to relive a high school past and thereby behave poorly. There should be a sign “Do Not Feed the Egos of These Teens.” It is not healthy for their growth. They will choke.
2/ The best thing you can do for these teens is take them seriously and see them for who they are. Look into their eyes. Be a mentor not a buddy. They may be young, but they are colleagues.
3/ If you have become a cynic or bitter about the state of the business or your own career. Keep your negativity to yourself. Shut the F…. up. Your negativity is your problem. Don’t rationalize your issues and pretend its good advice - it isn’t!
4/ Teens, if an adult actor on set is behaving like a buffoon around you and trying to make you laugh when you are trying to prepare for the shot. Be polite, but walk away.
5/ You are a young actor. You are not a cute monkey for directors to have prance around. If you are a director stop treating these teens like performing monkeys!
6/ Your job is to perform the script to the best of your ability. Expect to be treated with respect. If you feel you are not being treated as such tell your parent/ guardian or call your agent. Just because you are a minor, does not give anyone permission to treat you disrespectfully.
7/ Sorry teens, your parents are right… stay away from the craft table and excessive sugar. You will burn out quickly.
8/ If you have questions, ask them. A good question is a sign of intelligence and professionalism not stupidity or unprofessionalism.
9/ Parents never lose your parental “spidey” sense. They are still your children even when on a set. However…
10/ Parents know when to sit in the background and out of their line of vision. Tell them where you will be, and they will find you if they need you. Otherwise, they are working. You do not like them interrupting your work so don’t interrupt theirs.
Next week, I’ll be moving onto Part 3: The Later Teen Years (18-19), and then onto the 20’s and beyond. I invite commentary. Please email me at the studio (firstname.lastname@example.org) or PM me on Facebook. You can also share your experiences with me publicly. This is a big topic, and I am encouraged by the responses I have received thus far. It is through transitions and upheavals that we grow. It is through sharing our collective experiences that these transitions and upheavals are cushioned.
We are not alone.