Industry expert Karen Workman is the mom of three young actors and the author of Baby Steps to Hollywood. The term “stage mom” sometimes has a negative connotation but Karen single-handedly makes that label synonymous with teacher, student, life coach, cheerleader, adventurer, and fun-loving risk-taker. She wholeheartedly supports her children’s dreams and talents but her main objective is to nurture their health, well-being, and confidence as human beings independent of Hollywood. Karen regularly speaks at industry events and her book Baby Steps is an invaluable resource for parents of aspiring child actors. We were lucky to steal a few minutes from her busy schedule to find out what it takes for child and teen actors to find professional success as well as personal fulfillment in Hollywood.
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Helen: Shall we start with your genesis story?
Karen: My husband Pete and I met as students at Victoria University in New Zealand, where I received degrees in business and piano performance. After Pete and I got married, we ended up in Ohio where I went to school for my masters and doctorate degrees and Pete worked as a recording engineer for artists like Wolverine and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. If you can believe it, our daughters Tia, Amy, and Rachel were born during this time as well. Those were years of blood, sweat, and tears! By the time I graduated, we had three kids and a house. We were entered into the green card lottery and won so we figured we weren’t supposed to go back to New Zealand.
H: What a story! It’s interesting that both you and your husband have backgrounds in the performing arts.
K: Yeah. Peter was in a Christian band back in New Zealand, back in the day when mullets were around. (Interviewer’s note: I asked Karen for a photo of Peter’s mullet ‘do and there was no response. Hm, mysterious …) Now he sells music gear and software to distributors in Asia and the South Pacific.
H: Are your kids musically inclined as well?
K: Most of them play multiple instruments — not to a concert or performance standard, but enough to enjoy themselves. Because they grew up with music, no one ever thinks, “I’m not musical,” or “I can’t do this.”
H: That’s so great. I think you mentioned that you have four kids?
K: Yes, I’ve got Tia (20), Amy (18), Rachel (16), and David (13). And then there’s Sam (16) who I’ve known since he was born. His dad is a coast guard in Michigan. He comes out to LA for acting classes and auditions and so on then goes back home for the holidays and all the breaks in between.
H: So you’re basically Sam’s stage mom as well! How did all of this start?
K: Well, when Tia was 14, she told me that she wanted to try musical theater so we found a musical theater camp. We were told that Tia had to prepare a monologue, a song, and a dance. Tia already knew how to sing and dance but she’d never acted before. One day, Tia and I were in the car and we heard an ad on the radio that said, “Does your child want to be the next star?” — you know one of those ads? I thought it was probably a scam but I said, “Hey, you know what, this can be a chance for you to try out your monologue before you go to the musical theater camp audition.” So she went along to this thing and got a call back. Peter found out through a family friend that the showcase — called The Applause Rising Talent Showcase — was actually very reputable and well-respected so I decided it was a good investment to spend a few thousand dollars to find out if Tia really wanted to do this, see if she was cut out for it. Tia went through the whole training and got some good feedback, even some offers to meet with agents and managers. She decided she wasn’t quite ready to jump into the industry but loved the experience enough to go back the next year. Oddly, she didn’t get any callbacks like the year before and she was pretty disappointed but we used the open interview time to get some feedback.
H: Did Tia take that initiative or did you prompt her?
K: A bit of both. A showcase is a really high-pressure situation but also a really great opportunity for parents to teach their kids how to deal with disappointment. When I go to these showcases now as a speaker or volunteer, I see a lot of parents who don’t know how to teach their kids about disappointment because they are too invested and don’t know how to deal with the disappointment themselves. They either come down really hard on their kids or say, “Well, you obviously have no talent.” It’s breaks my heart. With Tia at her second showcase, I said, “You know what, you’re a better actor this year than you were last year so there’s gotta be a reason why you got less interest this year. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to figure out what to do next.”
H: What a teachable moment!
K: It really was. At the open interviews, they don’t want to talk to parents at all. They just want to talk to the kids. So Tia was the one who had to take the initiative and say, “You gave me a callback last year. Why didn’t I get one this year? What was missing?” And they gave her a laundry list of stuff to do: get a local agent, do a student film, go to acting classes, etc. Our family life didn’t revolve around those things but we looked for opportunities. They were pretty hard to come by in Cleveland but she was able to knock everything off that list.
H: How did Amy, your second daughter, get involved in show business?
K: Amy was initially interested in the behind-the-camera stuff. I told her, “Let’s go to the showcase and go to all the seminars so you can get some foundational information.” She’s always been really, really shy. She didn’t think she’d like being in front of the camera but she really did! And she got a lot of callbacks! The first time at a showcase, you have no idea what’s going on. But by the time Amy got involved, I’d been to the showcase as a parent three times. We decided as a family that our next step was a one-semester trial in either New York or LA. Because it was winter, we decided on LA. None of my decisions have been based on advantages — it’s personal comfort, all the way.
Anyway, Amy and I ended up coming out to LA first to meet with managers and agents who had expressed interest in her at the showcase. We went home, sat on it for another week and a half, and then right around Christmas decided that we were gonna do it. So in January, we loaded up our van and our car, brought all the kids’ homeschool books, all their musical instruments, and showed up in LA.
H: So what happened when the Workman family arrived in LA?
K: Well, at the first meeting with our manager, I gave her a picture of our entire family. Even though she was only interested in Amy initially, she was excited to see David’s picture because boys are a hot commodity. He was really cute because he was so little. Now he’s a teenager and that’s a whole different kind of cute! David had no acting experience and was only interested in gymnastics but he’s pretty easy-going so I told him, “Tell you what, we’re gonna try one semester of this acting thing. Let’s take a few classes and we’ll find a gym for you to join and you can pretty much carry on with life. And if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t.” And, you know, he ended up loving it. Even now, three years later, his favorite thing to do is go to auditions.
K: I know. It’s so weird. He’ll be reserved during acting class and seem like he’s not fully committed. But the moment he steps into an audition, he’s all in.
H: I guess he knows to reserve his energy for the right moment.
K: I don’t know. But, anyway, he was hooked.
H: When the kids started receiving various feedback from the industry, how did you as a parent deal with how the kids perceived themselves and each other through this external feedback? How did you keep them from comparing or measuring themselves against their siblings?
K: Amy was most successful last year with a couple of big commercials, a number of short films, and other projects. Tia has been the least busy with acting but she had the opportunity to be on some really big projects as crew and she keeps getting repeat calls to come back to help out in the art department or to be a PA or something. At such a young age, it’s been a wild ride for her to get in at this level on these jobs. David wasn’t too busy last year because he grew too tall for his age for booking purposes. But he didn’t care because he had gymnastics, which he’s so passionate about.
The thing with all the kids is that they see where their individual strengths are. As a parent, I’m always encouraging them to move towards what they want. I think that makes it easy to celebrate someone else’s success and not to compare.
Amy as a principal in a recent national UPS commercial
H: So there hasn’t been any situation you’ve had to handle as a parent where, for example, Tia is affected by seeing Amy booking jobs because has the “right look” while Tia herself isn’t booking as many gigs?
K: There are times that that happens but, you know, we talk a lot. I say, “I think it’s really great the way you guys support one another because, obviously, it’s not like, ‘she gets a job and then he gets a job and then she gets a job’.” And they say, “It’s ok, Mom. We know how this industry works.” I guess my thing is to make sure they understand the industry for what it is so they have a healthy distance from it all. Plus, Amy and Tia have very different looks so they very rarely go out for the same role. I think if they were going up for the same roles then maybe we’d have more to talk about.
H: Was Rachel, your youngest daughter, ever interested in the industry?
K: Rachel was flat-out not interested. She’s a math and science girl.
H: Oh, my gosh, she’s like the poster child for STEM!
K: Yeah, that’s her. She’s eating that whole STEM pie. She’s 16 and already taking college courses at Pasadena City College.
H: That’s really amazing. And then Sam! What is your responsibility when he’s in town?
K: He’s like one of my kids. He’s very musical and a talented actor so his parents have sent him out the last two years. My responsibility is to get him to his auditions and meetings, take him to jobs on set — take care of all his acting stuff and all the behind-the-scenes stuff. And of course the parenting part of the equation!
H: Right! That’s incredible. What’s the biggest challenge of being a stage mom?
K: Logistics is always the challenge. There have been some weeks where three kids are working and one has an audition and you have to make sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there. Tia is now an adult and Amy graduated recently. That helps a lot because I no longer have to be on set in the same way with them as before.
H: Do you still have to be on set?
K: Yeah. When a child graduates early or passes the GED, the child no longer needs a teacher or do schoolwork but the parent still has to be there to sign papers and those kinds of things. Oh, and another big challenge is helping the kids make choices that are going to be good for them in the long run.
H: Is there a general set of criteria that keep in mind when looking over potential jobs for the kids?
K: No, not really. I pray a lot. And I’m confident enough in our kids. I think we raised them to make good choices and I’ve never asked them to do anything that goes against their conscience. I do influence them one way or another but I always leave the ultimate decision up to them. If I say, “This role will be really good for your career,” but they’re not sure about it or they don’t like it for whatever reason, I never push them to do it. If I push them, they’re not gonna do their best job and the director won’t get what they want so it’s unfair to both the production side and to my kids.
H: Have you ever had to pull any of the kids away from a project?
K: No. But I think it’s because they’re so self-censoring and know how to listen to their gut.
Come back next week for Part 2 of my interview with Karen.
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Follow Karen on Facebook and order Baby Steps to Hollywood.
Visit Tia Workman’s Actors Compass website.
Visit Amy L Workman’s Actors Compass website.
Visit Applause Rising Talent Showcase (ARTS) online.