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Our celebrity-obsessed culture is depriving children of the lessons learned through playing bit parts

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Jamie Donnelly, Olivia Newton-John, Didi Conn, Stockard Channing, and Dinah Manoff in Grease. (Paramount Pictures via IMDB)

When I was 11, I became the youngest theater impresario of Providence, R.I. My big production was Grease. I saw the movie six or seven times, then painstakingly hand-wrote the entire script in a shiny, hot pink loose-leaf binder. I cast all the neighborhood kids in my production, taking a risk on my Danny Zuko with an 8-year-old who was short for his age but totally had the best hair. I cast Laura Page as Sandy, the Olivia Newton-John part, because she was blonde. Everyone knows female leads should be blonde.

And I cast myself as Rizzo. I knew I couldn’t be the ingénue. I was two heads taller than the other girls in my class. I had no idea how to be cute and flirty. I didn’t have gorgeous, long-lashed blue eyes like Laura Page. I was bossy—hence my forcing the entire neighborhood to fulfill my artistic vision. I wasn’t leading lady material, and I knew it even then.

Part of me was sorry. But most of me embraced being Rizzo. The tough and sarcastic leader of the Pink Ladies, played by Stockard Channing in the film, Rizzo was blustery but vulnerable, someone who knew she wasn’t the prettiest girl in school but found power and agency anyway. Rizzo didn’t have nearly as many songs as Sandy, but she got to sing the excellent, snarky “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” I had no idea what “lousy with virginity” meant, but it was obviously something to roll one’s eyes about. And Rizzo had a wounded heart under all that cheap pink satin. Another of her songs, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” was about being perceived as a slut when she really wasn’t and refusing to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they’ve hurt her with name-calling. The sexual references went right over my head, but I completely understood the emotions fueling the song. Rizzo was a much more nuanced character than Sandy, the star.

I kept doing plays (and eventually became the lead drama counselor at two Jewish camps), but I played exactly two leading roles in my entire theatrical life: a chain-smoking, mentally ill, Russian would-be assassin in a pretentious Harvard black-box production, and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web in fifth grade.

But I learned so much playing small parts. I learned to create a character and be a team player, and I swear I became less bossy as I got older. I learned to see myself as part of an ensemble. My dad once sent a letter to the director of Camp Ramah in New England asking why I always seemed to play whores, but I liked playing whores. (My dad said he just wondered whether the camp was trying to tell him anything.) I learned that small parts can be memorable parts. Ado Annie gets more laughs in Oklahoma! than Laurey.

But I worry that our culture now tells kids they shouldn’t accept anything less than top billing. Nowadays, after all, almost every tween TV show is about kids becoming stars. We adulate celebrities even if they don’t do anything. The Real Housewives are famous for screaming at each other. Kim Kardashian became famous for making a sex tape, then morphed into being polymorphously famous for being famous. Now she has her own shoe collection, her own fitness DVD, and her own perfume. (“It probably smells like Taco Bell and Valtrex,” says a friend of a friend.)

I’m not going to join in the mocking of Rebecca Black, the 13-year-old girl who made a vanity video called “Friday” (her mom paid $4,000 to a production company that specializes in such things) that went viral on YouTube and has been derided as “the worst song ever.” Granted, the song—about a Friday in the life of a teenager—is moronic: “Gotta go downstairs/gotta have my bowl/gotta have cereal,” go the lyrics, and “Partyin’, partyin’/partyin’, partyin’/fun fun fun fun/lookin’ forward to the weekend.” But it’s not fair to make fun of a 13-year-old, talented or not, for wanting to be a star. We live in a world in which that’s the message that fuels every medium. And in fact, it’s sort of fascinating to watch a video of a song that glorifies what every kid does every day in every suburb across our fair land: Eat a bowl of cereal, wait for the bus, try to decide where to sit—these things become deserving of fame because the person doing them has been packaged by a company that packages pretend-fame to anyone with $4,000. The head, it spins.

Commenting is disabled on the video; people said nasty things, as people do on the Internet. But here’s the thing: Black has become an actual star; the TV show Glee recently covered “Friday.” She does have a relationship with fame; it doesn’t matter whether it’s a love-hate relationship. It doesn’t matter that she’s a placeholder around whom a cheesy production swirls. It’s what she wanted. Now she can star in bigger productions in which she’s an object.

As a moral lesson, this is cruddy. The educator Alfie Kohn wrote a book called Punished by Rewards in which he argued that kids should be intrinsically motivated to succeed. Some of Kohn’s ideas are too radical for me, but not this. Stardom is not in itself a worthy goal. Yet too many kids are told that every painting they make is a Picasso, that they should be in the starting lineup, even if it is only their first year on the team, that the only reason they didn’t get an A is that the teacher is lame.

The message here is that stardom is every child’s God-given right, and being less than No. 1 is unacceptable. But you learn from being on the JV team, playing the second banana, not getting an A. Kids should enjoy performing, playing sports, reading, or playing chess for their own sake, not as tools to get something else.

Last year, when my daughter Josie was cast as the third orphan from the left in Oliver!, she was disappointed. She’d wanted “a part with a name.” But there was a teachable moment there. And guess what: Josie loved being in the chorus. This year, she’s Grandma Tzeitl in Fiddler on the Roof—a larger role, but still a supporting one. Maybe next year she’ll have a bigger part, maybe not. Part of me hopes not. Because the female leads in most mass-market entertainments are mostly objects, more looked at and acted upon than creators of their own destiny. As my girls get older, I’d rather have them play character roles that don’t define them by their looks or desirability.

I say “girls” because Maxie, at 6, loves theater too. She recently wrote at school that she wants to be “an actris.” I asked her, “Maxie, didn’t you say that you wanted to be a writer?” She quickly answered, “I want to be both. I’ll be a playwright and write parts for myself.” I hope those parts will be more fully dimensional than most parts for women now. And if they’re small parts, that’s just fine.

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Amanda C. says:

Love this, Marjorie!

Exactly right! I remember when I got the part of the Second Dead Woman in a community theater production of “Our Town”. My father said, “that’s great, but couldn’t you be the FIRST Dead Woman”??? Turns out, the Second Dead Woman is a speaking part while the First Dead Woman isn’t! As well, in that production, I was in the chorus and made chicken noises (cluck cluck) – a real lesson in team work!

The closest I got to a lead was Aunt Eller in a high school production of “Oklahoma!” and Lucy in a community theater production of “Your a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. The first was a great supporting role, which I truly loved, and the second, a great challenge in a terrific ensemble production. Again, both are lessons in team work!

I wholeheartedly agree! You inspired me to write a blog post about my own theatrical daughter:

rebscott says:

After eight years of playing smaller, supporting roles in both the local community theater and high school drama department shows, my daughter capped her career by playing Goldie in Fiddler during her senior year. It was wonderful to see how great she felt (and how well she did) getting to play a major role. However, the real lesson came in all the times we repeated to each other, “There are no small parts, only small actors!” and how deeply engrained that wisdom became. I believe that she has never forgotten that lesson and it has helped to shape her into an adult who truly defines success on her own terms.

Well done, Marjorie!

I love this post (which isn’t surprising, since I love all your posts). Reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend last winter. The Christmas pageant at her daughter’s all-female preschool was coming up, and her 4-year-old daughter had been cast as Joseph.

“Big part!” I gushed. “Good for her!” But my friend didn’t see it that way.

“Last year she was a donkey,” she grumbled.

“A promotion!” I pointed out.

“She’s very upset,” my friend said. “It’s really not fair that she never gets to play a girl.” Then she went on to tell me that her husband would be speaking to the teacher.

I saw so many things wrong with that picture, I didn’t know where to begin. I ended up changing the subject.

Ruth, oy.

rebscott, well done to YOU! Your daughter sounds wonderful.

I should probably add that I’m AGAINST kids getting big parts — I just value the lessons they learn (the way your daughter did) in working their way up to them. And neither kids nor their parents should think they’re ENTITLED to them.

J Carpenter says:

and a good director directs the “small parts” just as ardently as the leads—they can’t just stand there while the lead delivers all the soliloquoys, they need to be “in character.” Saw a recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the main parts were pleasantly overshadowed by the fairies and the craftsmen whose speaking parts were minimal but whose characterizations were astoundingly funny.
The team-player concept is important as well; as a football coach, I made sure my linemen knew that every touchdown was on their backs, their effort (anyone can carry the ball—not everyone can make the hellacious blocks that spring the TD drive).

corey says:

I’ve been a professional actor for 40+ years, and I thoroughly appreciate your story. I’d go even further, though. Most of our popular, commercial forms of performance, live or recorded, have been corrupted and stripped of value and meaning. 34 years ago I realized that the career I was building in Hollywood was not doing my soul much good at all. As one of the most brilliant actor/director/teachers of the modern theatre (Joseph Chaikin, z’l) maintained, a free-lance actor can never ever stop auditioning. Every “job” is a de facto audition for the next one. For agents, managers and casting directors, each play or film is a “showcase” for the actor-as-commodity. 80 years ago, a group of actors came together in New York with a different vision. They committed themselves to a search for meaning and artistic excellence, willingly giving up other, more lucrative work so they could develop in ways that are only possible with sustained work within a community of peers. They called themselves The Group Theatre. In less than ten years of working together they changed American theatre and American actors’ training forever. Some say they were the first American ensemble theatre. After they dissolved (between 1939 and 1941) members Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, John Garfield and others acted, directed, taught and inspired several generations of theatre-workers who followed. The Group did much to avoid any kind of “Star System” but the society in which they existed had and still has a hard time resisting the temptations of idolatry and celebrity worship. The Group was not immune.

33 years ago (1978) I stopped working in “The Industry” and co-founded a three-member theatre committed to working with materials mined from the Jewish imagination. I never imagined it would last this long. But TJT is going to produce its last season in 2011-2012. The kick-off is going to be a new play based on the story of The Group Theatre.

corey, cool! Thanks for sharing that. The play about The Group sounds fascinating.

I made a typo on my own comment — I meant, of course, I’m NOT against kids getting juicy roles if they earn them (and, I hope, have worked their way up to them).

Steve says:

Schools tell teachers not to hurt a child’s self-esteem, which is almost always unearned, as opposed to their earning and learning self-respect, a far more valid and valuable trait.

rebscott says:

Corey – Wonderful to see your smiling face again! Mazal tov to A Traveling Jewish Theater on its longevity and noble purpose. You have set a remarkable example of both artistry and high ideals. I have fond memories of the early years of TJT and a delightful conversation with your mother who expressed her unbounded pride in your work and life’s path.

Marjorie – thanks for the kind words. My daughter (age 30) is wonderful and I can’t wait to see her later this summer when she and her significant other visit from their home in Spain.

Another great post.

In our annual Purim Shpiel, which is a pretty big deal by us, I decided to buck the tradition I inherited and play Vashti rather than Esther. After all, I get top billing every Shabbos ;) My kids complain that I’m not on stage as much as Esther. I point out that I’m on the bimah every week. PLUS, Vashti is way more fun to portray.

Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!


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