Passing the Baton: Teaching Your Young Actor to Advocate for Their Own Worth

  • Mindy Poon

I have been navigating the entertainment industry with my three children for thirteen years now. Although I don’t consider myself an expert by any means in the industry, I do consider myself experienced. But, my experience lies more in PARENTING my children rather than in STAGE parenting them. What I mean by that is that my job, and my husband’s as well, has always been first and foremost to keep our kids healthy, happy, and grounded in their pursuits, just as any loving parent would for any child. This involves making sure they have proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper downtime, and even a little fun mixed in to keep them emotionally healthy.

There are certain things we never concern ourselves with for our children when they are working on a project, for example, things like makeup, costumes, blocking, stage time, memorizing material, taking notes from the director, etc. Basically, anything that has to do with the production performance or final product is of no concern to us because our children need to be on top of their own game and in direct communication with the creatives for whom they are working since they have chosen this particular pursuit. All three of them know how to manage these types of things, and we have never stepped in or tried to affect their actual work in any way. We trust that they have it covered, as they have proven over and over.

There are instances, though when we do have to step in. Unfortunately, there are times in this business where actors are exploited or mistreated for various reasons, not always intentionally, and sometimes as a means to an end. BUT- we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, it has been our job as parents to step in and make things right for our young actors and often the other actors on set as well. The times we have stepped in are when there is a concern for health or safety, be it emotional or physical. This could mean things like working too long or too late of hours, ignoring illness or physical stress, harsh punishment backstage, or ignoring signs of emotional distress.

There is so much talk around pushing oneself for “the craft” and really going as far as one needs to both physically and emotionally to make the performance what it needs to be. I understand that because any level of greatness has a level of sacrifice. If a person chooses to push himself or herself to some outer limits, that is a choice she makes. But, when someone else makes that choice for you, the game changes. My children need to learn when the line has been crossed, and they are no longer being treated in a humane fashion. They are HUMANS first and then actors or singers or dancers or musicians or whatever they are pursuing at the moment. And when a parent makes reasonable requests on a child’s behalf based on safety or health concerns, the child himself should know that mom or dad is advocating on his behalf, not to make the production have difficulties, but declaring the value and worth of the young actor to have his or her needs met.

So mom and dad are not going to be there forever on the sidelines. As my son fast approaches eighteen, it is time for us to pass the baton. He needs to know when his own line has been crossed, and the proper ways to advocate for himself. Rather than having a fit and breakdown on set, which we have witnessed before unfortunately, he needs to see the signs of distress in himself before it gets to that point.

Once an actor feels that her line has been crossed, there are steps she can take. I suggest that young actors are aware of their union rules for work hours, breaks, meal times, etc. This gives them leverage when talking to production, which is where they may begin. If production doesn’t take requests seriously, an actor, or her representation on his behalf, has every right to call his or her union representative from SAG/AFTRA, AEA or AGMA. The union of which professional actors pay dues will then step in on their behalf immediately. ( I know folks may say that this makes an actor look difficult. But, honestly, if the actor’s requests are reasonable and warranted, the union is the only means of protection and was created just for this purpose. It may be a risk one takes to be treated fairly.) If the actor has representation, she should always involve the agent or manager to act on her behalf as well. Actors should read their contracts carefully BEFORE signing, and know what they are signing on for.

It is not worth sacrificing humane treatment for a work of art or entertainment. It is absolutely imperative that young actors know their own worth and value and that it is their right to speak on their own behalf. The end goal is that young actors know their value and how to advocate for themselves so that they are treated in the way they deserve.