The children slid onstage amid a dreamscape of looping trees and neon bushes.
For months, our 12-year-old son had practiced for his role as Cat in the Hat in ForeFront Art’s “Seussical Kids.” Relatives filled an entire pew at a local church to watch.
I held my breath. Here it comes.
The actors began singing, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!” as they moved in choreographed patterns. Then our son’s Cat confidently declared, “An invisible story, amazing but true, and guess who enters that story now? You!”
These are those awkward moments at the beginning of every play where the audience wants to be supportive – but hasn’t yet made up its mind. Those moments before the story takes hold and the feeling kicks in, if they ever do.
Come on kids. You’ve got this.
So how do I know so much about these performances?
I’m a theater dad.
And I’m not alone.
Across metro Atlanta, parents are taking their kids to theater practices as they prepare for spring performances. As I look out across the audience, I see a constellation of men spread across the seats. We’re there, mostly disconnected from each other, but there, supporting our sons and daughters.
I didn’t expect to be a theater dad.
I assumed I’d be a sports dad.
Growing up in Fayetteville, N.C., I believed the only way to demonstrate courage was to become an athlete or a soldier.
I didn’t like to fight, so I put my full energy into becoming an earnest – if untalented – athlete.
No one ever told me directly that I needed to prove my manhood on the field. Like a fish in water, I just assumed that’s the way things were.
To this day, I have vivid memories of contrary messages: My parents took us to “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Cape Fear Regional Theater, shining like a jewel on Hay Street. They supported me in signing up for a theater class with my brother, Dan.
I giggled the whole time and quit after one class, too frightened to take the stage. Instead, I played soccer, football and rugby.
I assumed our son would follow the same route. And maybe, just maybe, he’d have more athletic talent that I did.
A turning point for me came after another uninspired basketball game where I (sports dad, loud in my courtside chair) had been urging our son to hustle. “Dad,” he said calmly after the game, “I’ll play basketball because you make me. Don’t expect me to care. That’s too much.”
Wow. Got it.
So, what did he care about? Musical theater. As opposed to dragging him to basketball camp, we never had to ask him twice to go to theater camps.
He didn’t have to know anyone there. Any theater camp was OK. Did it have a director? A script? A performance at the end of the week? If so, he was all in.
From our home in East Atlanta, we had so many quality choices: Alliance Theater, Atlanta Children’s Theater, ForeFront Arts and Callanwolde camps.
Our son took part in all of them, as well as every school production he could squeeze in.
In watching our son and his fellow actors onstage, I experience a courage and delight that amazes me.
Want to talk about courage?
Try taking center stage and singing a solo.
Want to talk about strength?
These young actors demonstrate their power through teamwork, endurance and collaboration. I see their strength in learning to express emotions rather than hide them.
Along the way, I am learning, too.
Looking back at a video of the Cat in the Hat performance, I see myself leaning forward, a middle-aged man in the audience, clapping and cheering, appropriately, undramatically.
The optics belied the eruption in my bursting heart. I was unbelievably proud of our son and the other actors.
Their joy was contagious. The audience came alive. The story began to move. And we began to feel it.
They did it.
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