Each month, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster interviews local artists to talk about how they manage the tightrope walk that is parenting with a performing arts career that involves no set hours, no guarantee of future income, and no parental leave. Somehow there are lots of moms and dads who manage to be impressive artists and wonderful parents all at once. How do they do it?
(You can read Courtney’s past interviews with actress Michelle Monteith, dancer Julia Aplin, singer Neema Bickersteth, and actor Richard Lee.)
I just finished a month-long tour of a play across western Canada. Every theatre that hosted us was warm and welcoming, our show was a lot of fun to perform, and my castmates and colleagues were funny, generous, and a joy to spend time with. Even so, I feel like I’ve been through the wringer. I’m heading home soon, and once I’m there I may crawl into bed and stay for a few days.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like this, either. The first part of the tour was packed with enjoyment, each new place a delight, as we all ate dinner together and took in the sights. I relished the challenge of cooking in hotel-suite kitchens with knives blunter than my agent. I didn’t want to buy a bottle of olive oil in addition to buying butter for my toast, so I just bought the butter and cooked everything in it. Newsflash: Butter is delicious. I ate a pound of it in a week.
But soon enough travelling started to wear thin: the unpacking and packing, the squinting at Google Maps to find an actual grocery store and not just a convenience store in disguise, the weird hotel-bed insomnia and strange meal concoctions. Being away from home can be hard even under the best of conditions. I’m grateful for this tour, for the work, and for the experience of visiting places I might never visit otherwise, but I’ve learned that I really like stability. I suspect we all do. But creating stability can be a challenge in a theatre career, for ourselves and for our families.
With this thought in mind, I wondered what growing up with theatrical parents is like, especially for children who themselves chose to go into the performing arts. After asking around in the community for suggestions of who to speak with, I sought out Tanya Rintoul and Tyrone Savage. Tanya recently returned to Toronto after finishing the directing program at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and is getting ready to direct Deceitful Above All Things at Storefront. Tyrone’s acting career has taken him from TV gigs to Stratford, and he’s also a successful director. He just closed Chasse-Galerie at Soulpepper, which he starred in and directed (with his mother as assistant director). Tanya and Tyrone both grew up with parents who are theatre artists and teachers.
Tell me about your parents and what they do.
My mom is Janet-Laine Green and my dad is Booth Savage. They’re both actors. She’s a director, and he’s a writer and director who was an original member of Theatre Passe-Muraille. We moved around a lot as I was growing up, because my parents were acting. We went to LA and Vancouver, and then they bought a house in the country, in Tottenham, and we’ve been there ever since. They mostly do film and television now, and some theatre, and they both teach acting.
My mom is Marie Baron. She’s an actor-singer who spent much of her career in musical theatre playing ingénues until her 40s, when she had me. After I was born, she had one big audition, and then came home to me and realized, “I don’t even care if I get this.” That was a new thing to her. So she started teaching privately at home and fell in love with teaching. She’s retired now but was head of voice at Sheridan.
My dad is Brian Rintoul, a director, producer, and teacher. He too, when I was born, felt like he needed some stability. He has a story of going to Charlottetown to direct a show, and when he came back, he said I was skeptical of him, like I was telling him that he didn’t know me. He got offered the AD position at Theatre Calgary, so we moved there from Toronto for stability and consistency.
It sounds like you grew up in the theatre.
Yeah, the backstage of Factory is kind of where I grew up. I remember hiding behind the risers, watching shows. And I was in a few shows when I was a little boy. I played my parents’ kid in a movie called Michael and Kitty when I was four months old. And my mom was doing a show called Seeing Things and was breastfeeding me on set in between takes, running back and forth. In fact, I think my first ever appearance was on that show—she was pregnant with me while shooting, so they had her behind desks and things. And then growing up there were all those parties, all those actor friends.
I’ve always felt that the theatre was the place I could be most myself. When we were in Calgary, most of my memories were of going to see shows. I hung out with my dad in tech a lot because they had a director’s booth there and I could sit, watch the show, and colour. And I remember the parties, I remember my bravery. I would leave my parents and go and talk to people and have my own night. I wish I could go back in time and listen to the conversations I was having, but I was definitely engaging with drunk actors on what I thought at the time was their level. Maybe if they were drunk, it was like, this five-year-old gets me!
Do you think your parents had strategies around when and how to have a family?
My parents were both people who put their careers first, and then found each other, and decided together that they would have all their career dreams come true before they had children. That was the marriage they made together. So my mom played on Broadway, and my dad directed at Stratford, and they later decided to have children. I didn’t really know that until one of my dad’s former students told me the story of my parents being in New York, listing their dreams together. My mom waited a long time to have a baby. And then when I was born, she stepped out of the industry and re-emerged later.
Tyrone, you became an actor very young, acting in the TV series Wind at my Back. How did your parents balance their own careers while also managing yours?
Usually a parent will be on set with their kid. But my parents said no way, we’ve got to work, and we’ve got our own lives. They love being actors, being performers. So they said, “You’ve got to get a guardian for Ty,” and the show did. My parents were not stage parents in the classic mould of people wanting to live vicariously through their son or daughter. It was, “Okay, you want to be an actor? You can do it if you want, it’s a tough life.”
As a child, how did you perceive the inevitable financial instability and the variable schedule your parents experienced in this industry?
They did a really good job— I wouldn’t say sheltering me, but the economic problems you see as an actor became more apparent to me when I grew up, when I had to pay my own bills. As a kid, I never sensed that there were hard times. They were smart with their money, they bought a house early on.
Growing up, it seemed to me my mom would have a contract for six weeks, so I’d be with my dad, or vice versa. They’d have regional theatre gigs, or go shoot something out of town. It wasn’t in any sense disruptive to me; I had a wonderful childhood. We moved around a lot, but I loved that. Living in Lion’s Head in BC when my mom was doing Beachcombers, we were part of that community for three summers… I just remember going to preschool, riding my tricycle, and playing in the forest. It was wonderful.
So in many ways their careers created a lot of opportunity for you.
Yeah, we got to travel a lot. When I was twelve, I shot a movie in Ireland, and my dad was my guardian and we saved our per diems. My mom was shooting in Israel so we went to join her for a week. We went down the Nile on a boat and it was the coolest thing ever. I worry that I peaked at twelve, that was a great year. [laughter] Maybe this year will be better!
Tanya, it sounds like things were pretty stable for your parents for long periods.
Yeah, but because they’d had that experience of instability, they still worried. I remember being aware of finances at a young age. It never felt like I had to sacrifice, but we always had the conversations about what we need versus what we want. My mom was also raised by Ukrainian immigrants, so she grew up with that too, but I had the awareness that money wasn’t something you take for granted. What it meant is that my dad worked so hard all the time. But his job, to me, was magical. They did a production of Little Shop of Horrors one year and I got to go inside the plant and I remember that so vividly: that giant talking plant puppet, the smell of cigarettes and woodchips.
At what point did you get bitten by the theatre bug yourself?
When I was a kid people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, and I said an actor and a mommy. Now I’m a director and I babysit when I’m not working, so I guess it’s happening.
When I was about ten, I said, “I’d like to try this.” I started auditioning and I got a Goosebumps episode, which was exciting. I think I spent a couple years not getting anything before Wind at My Back.
How did your parents feel about your choice to get into the arts?
They’ve always been completely supportive. Especially my dad, who didn’t have the support of his family—he felt that no matter what, I could do anything I want.
One time we went to see some theatre and I hated what I had seen, I was so angry at art. I don’t know how old I was—just out of high school. I said “I’m not doing this anymore, I’m going into psychology.” I was yelling in the car on the way home. And the next day my dad called me and said, “So, you’re serious about this psychology thing.” And I said “Oh… I don’t… I don’t think I’m serious about it, I think I was just having a little breakdown.” He said “Okay! Just checking! I was going to help you research stuff.” He’s always been very supportive.
I remember my parents telling me to be very careful. They support me in whatever I want to do in my life, but they know how hard it is to be an actor, to have this career, so they wanted to caution me. I did that TV show, and when I finished, I didn’t really want to be an actor anymore, I wanted to be a fighter pilot and then an astronaut. It took me a couple of years to find out that I wanted to do it again.
How do you discuss work now that you’re an adult? Do you share artistic interests?
I feel very rebellious about their tastes versus my tastes. It started when I quit singing as a teenager. I was so sick of people asking me if I sang like my mom. It gave me so much pleasure when I was fourteen to answer: “Nope!” I didn’t sing, and I hated musicals. My mom and I are so different—she was an ingénue, and I was never that. So I realized that if I wanted to be an actor, I would have be a different kind of actor than her.
My dad and I talk about work often, and about how every generation of artists rebel against the previous generation of artists, no matter what. I don’t think he gets offended by my criticism of his work, or the work that he likes. In a way, he helped me get commercial theatre out of my system, which I think can take a long time for some theatre creators. When I started making my own work I trained as an actor at Humber and got really into physical theatre rather than text-based work, and I think for me that was a discovery of something that could be entirely mine. That was part of why I fell in love with it and still do it.
Actually, going to NTS, I got to a place of really wanting to direct a musical. So I’ve come around to the forms my parents work in, but it took me going away and making a space that was just mine.
It’s interesting now, being able to have a conversation at the dinner table. You can talk about your life and what your dreams and goals and frustrations are, and they go through the exact same thing. What I’ve realized is that nothing changes, at twenty-five, at thirty, at sixty—the business is the business, especially for Canadian actors. That’s the way it is. The other day I was at an audition and unbeknownst to me, my dad walked in—“What are you doing here?” “I’m going for an audition”—and for the first time ever we helped each other with our sides in the hallway, both waiting to go into auditions for separate things in the same casting office, which was really funny to me.
I thought you were going to tell me you were going for the same part!
That would’ve been too much! But yeah, we were just like a couple of friends, preparing. “No, you’re good, you’ve got this.” My mom helps me with auditions, and so does my dad. We’ve shared strategies over the years. Our new mantra is to sit in the audition room saying, “I love to act, I love to audition, I love to act, I love to audition”—and you have to say it enough times so you actually believe it. It’s cheesy, but it works! A couple years ago our thing was to be incognito as a superhero: you’re in disguise and only you know that you’re Clark Kent.
What I’ve learned from my parents is that you have to go in there with the confidence that you’re good, and that’s what you have to carry through when you’re working or not working. If they take you or leave you, that’s them—it’s based on hair or eye colour, you’re not the right… whatever. That’s the coolest thing, talking to my parents—I’m not in the dark, I have a sounding board in them.
Do you ever feel constrained by sharing a profession with your parents, or a pressure to live up to their careers?
I think I want to live up to their integrity as artists, their passion and creativity. I do get frustrated sometimes. For example when I work with my mother and she gives me notes and I’m like, “Oh Mom, I knooooow.” But she’s always right! She’s better than me. She’s been doing it for longer, so she knows what she’s doing.
In the first few months at NTS, I was so sick of being asked about how I got into theatre and having to tell my story over and over again. I wanted a different story, like… Oh, I saw a leaf fall from a tree and knew I wanted to be in theatre. I resented how I took theatre for granted in some ways. I’ve spent so much time at stage doors standing beside my parents. Now my parents and I go to shows and I know the people at the stage door, and I introduce them, and that’s really cool.
Tyrone, you’ve directed your parents. What was that like?
What was funny about directing them in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was that at a certain point in the rehearsal process, like two days before we opened, as a director I’m going… “You guys just have to act better and learn your lines please,” and my dad becomes less my dad and my mom is less my mom and they’re two actors and we all know that we have a show to put on. The curtain’s going to rise. The working principle of our family is that if you say you’re going to do something, it’s going to happen, by hook or by crook it’s going to go. They’re still Mom and Dad, but they’re also Booth and Janet, actors.
To get to see your parents like that, and to get to be impressed by your parents, to see them as actors and artists and performers and think, holy shit they’re good… That was just the best.
Do you want kids?
Yeah, I do.
Yeah! I want to be a dad so bad! I was born to annoy children. I want to tell bad dad jokes.
Do you think about your career and how to make that work with a kid?
To be honest, I don’t. Maybe it’s because I babysit for so many people who are doing it, and I see all the different ways they’re making it work. I think the big challenge is the long hours. When the parents get into tech, I’m with the child for twelve hours suddenly, and that’s a lot. But there are all kinds of different ways kids stay engaged. I babysat for one family where the mom makes videos for their kids and texts them to me. She would give backstage tours and sing songs, and we would make videos for her and sing songs. Other people will have me meet them to spend an hour together in the middle of the day. But I don’t know how they’re doing it financially—I don’t know how to answer that.
My best friend is an actor and has two kids, and I don’t know how he does it. If I’m hustling the way I’m hustling now, to also have a kid… but I guess you just do it. Everyone you talk to who has a kid says you get these “dad eyes” and you’re just gonna book. Because… I’ve got to feed somebody. So in a weird way it’s a positive motivator.
I wish we took a more Newfoundland approach to the theatre… People come, there’s twenty-five kids running around, it’s a madhouse, but things get done. I would have no problem with people bringing kids to the rehearsal hall. When I was growing up, that’s what happened. Why not! It’s fun to have kids around, they’re great barometers about whether you’re doing good work or not.
I also feel that as a woman and as a leader, it’s important to me to create space for women to work more effectively. Mothers should be able to go out and breastfeed on their breaks and ask for adjustments to the schedule, maybe work earlier to have some time at the end of the day… I think those things are important. I do have this image of myself working on a show with an infant strapped to my body. I don’t know if that will ever happen but I can see myself in a rehearsal hall with a baby. For the longest time there were mostly male directors. But it’s becoming more of a conversation, and I feel that it’s possible.
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