Transitions: The Early Teen Years


I think I was a teenager once. It’s hard to remember….

A long time ago in a faraway land, I woke up in this chemical furnace called my body and wondered “WTF?” All of a sudden there were a lot of questions without any answers. Everyone else seemed to know the rules and I learned quickly that there were different rules for different societal roles (i.e. gender, race, economic status, etc.) It really depended on the game you were playing or born into and whose team drafted you. I remember feeling like “hey – there are big questions that need answering here,” but no one seemed to have a clue about what the hell was going on. It was like the scene in “Apocalypse Now!” Who is in charge?…. I thought you were!”

I tried very hard to fit into many different groups. I learned their rules, wore their costumes, and learned and rehearsed their scripts (sometimes, even in the mirror). I didn’t seem to fit anywhere. I wasn’t a nerd, or a jock, or a goth, etc., I was just me. I would have to be content with that. Don’t get me wrong, I did have a few friends and a couple of mentors along the way, but I ended up having to become the person I was looking for. As a teen, I read the Bible (new and old) cover to cover, I waded through some of the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita. I read the Greeks, Russian novels, and Transcendental writers like Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. I eventually found a home in Zen writings, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Alan Watts. These were serious dudes who didn’t pussyfoot around the truth. They were simple and direct. “I’ll know my song well before I start singin’” and “Let us not talk falsely now the hour is getting late,” became teenage mantras for me. The fuller story of how I arrived here and the journey I took, will be part of a book yet to be written. It is in the works, for now, I digress.

Acting from a Teacher’s Perspective
I have been in this teaching game for a long time. My first students are in their early 50’s now. I am teaching or have taught a few of the children of some of my first students. Multiple teens who started with me at 16 or 17 are now mothers and fathers themselves. Many are still in the business and thriving and some have moved on. I have watched kids become teens, teens become 20 somethings and 20 somethings become 30 somethings and so on. I can almost hear Elton John singing “The Circle of Life” in my head. Currently, all of my LB Acting Studio Coaches started training with me between the ages of 9 and 17. I am so fortunate to have been part of their growth and through the journey of their transition into adulthood.

The teen years can be roughly divided into 3 camps. The early teen years (13-15) the middle teen years (16-17) and the later years (18-19) Due to Union rules governing age due to work hours, tutoring, and content specifications in each category, it’s not unusual for 13 year old’s to be playing as young as 10-11, 16 year old’s playing 13-15 and 18-19 year old’s playing 15-16. My experience is that the blackhole years for teens are 15 and 17. They can get someone older to play younger…these are good years to get braces.

The Early Teen Years (13-15)
The early years have a sweetness to them. On television, nerdy kids get to be TV heroes. In this world they are not bullied or mocked. Life’s problems are resolved within a half hour. Home spun homilies are spouted, and we are reassured that our existence is protected by love and understanding. No one in this world is abused, fails or is down and out for very long. We all live in harmony and the biggest threats are conniving wise guys or mean girls who learn their lessons before the school day is done. LBGTQ teens are feted for their creativity and are comfortable in their own skins. They have nary a sleepless night. In these shows’ adults are dumb and kids are wise (even the pet dogs seem smarter than the adults). The third world does not exist, and the spectre of mental illness and death are safely corralled to after 7pm or by parental blocks.

These young actors live different lives to the ones they aspire to, or if they are lucky get to play on TV or in the movies. Mostly, they go up for roles that match their physical look or personality. There is, however, a real world hidden behind the TV fantasy. These two worlds don’t always match. Some are blessed with supportive parents and some are not. Many are going through parental divorce, an uprooting move, or the death of a family member. Many are worried about how they look: ashamed of their teeth, their skin, or are starting to have an inkling that they may not conform to traditional gender norms. A storm is brewing in the distance and they can feel it. I admire the strong and supportive parents who seem to know what to say and how to say it. These children adore their parents. Their lives almost look on the outside like their TV counterparts. I envy that. I try and advise the neurotic parents (who mostly mean well, but can’t seem to get it right). I empathize. There was a period in my life where I could have used the advice I give now.

I will tumble (like Alice) into this vortex when I meditate on the “30’s” when being an artist and a parent collide. In the meantime, how you handle your 13- to 15-year-old will determine whether you will be able to handle them over the next two periods.

For those of you with teens and those who are teens – try very hard to remember that you all love each other very much. Everyone is confused and everyone is often afraid. Teens – try to remember you did not come with a manual and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all YouTube training video. If everyone tried to emulate the perfect worlds created by YTV, Nickelodeon and Disney, things might go a lot smoother in the years ahead.

Thoughts Parents of Actors Should Keep in Mind
1.: Parents don’t measure your child’s success by whether they book or not. As long as they love what they are doing and are growing as people…let them continue. This is the single most important thing. Use audition prep as teachable moments for both of you. It is quality time to spend together. If it’s a silly script, then have fun being silly. If it deals with serious issues, then use this time to discuss and share. These are years you won’t get back. No one will remember that they kept forgetting a line. 

2. In the car on the way to the audition let them have their space. Let them take the lead. Do not pepper or burden them with extraneous questions or ask them to make decisions (even if it’s what they want for dinner). Your stress will become their stress. If you must, ask them how they are feeling, don’t tell them what to do. Now that so many auditions are on Zoom, before the audition, leave the room! You would not walk into the audition room with your teen actor so don’t hover! If you do, you are in the audition room with them, and this isn’t cool. With self-tapes, only give advice if they ask for it. Your job is to read the lines neutrally and run the camera. Your job is not to be a line tyrant or pretend you are Lee Strasburg. Let them have their space. If you make it about the lines rather than what they are talking about then you are turning the thing they love into homework. 

3. You don’t have to be a star to be successful. You don’t even need an agent for your child to enjoy an acting class. Make sure it is not your personal agenda to get them an agent. They might just love acting. Every young teen who loves hockey or loves playing guitar does not have plans to make it to the NHL or win a Grammy.
4. Remind your child and yourself that there are a myriad of factors that go into a casting decision. Often this has very little to do with whether they forgot a line or not. It is a “look” a “feel,” a distribution deal or tax credit situation. Don’t listen to the social media hype about “we know what casting wants.” They don’t! 

5. If you are new parents to the business don’t be shy. Reach out to other parents who may be a little further along this journey than you. There are many resources (Facebook Pages & Groups – including our LB Creative Collective) for you to reach out and connect. Everyone had to start somewhere, and most are willing to pay it forward. 

6. The odds of a child star making it to adulthood as an actor is rare. I recall one young actor who struggled to get work in his 20’s, he shared that “Casting never forgave me for growing up.” That thought still stabs me in the heart. Life is and can be cruel. Pursue this endeavour like you would if they were playing a sport or musical instrument. When we enrol our kids in soccer, we don’t expect them to be the next Pelé or David Beckham. If we enrol them in dance, we don’t pressure them to be Karen Kane. 

7 Teens, try and be patient with your parents. Most of us are benign idiots. Maybe take a page out of TV’s alternate universe and be the wise teen advising the dumb parent. 

8. There is no right or wrong way to play the scene, only a truthful way. 

Next week we will dive into the “middle teen years.” This series of Blogs is more intricate and involved than I initially intended. The irony is I thought it would be simpler. Like TV, I assumed all could be resolved within the ½ hour or at most a 2 “parter.” Like life, it is much more intricate and full of unintended or pleasant surprises. It requires much more thought and adjustment. Unlike life I get to take back a word, a phrase or a thought that might be unclear. I get to edit and if necessary, hit delete. Your comments and feedback are welcome.