Confessions of a Stage Mom
Mary Anne Gomez sits down with the team, and gives stage parents a better rep
Words by Ayana Tolentino | Photos by Matt Lee
‘The phrase ‘stage parent’ doesn’t exactly inspire applause: with the rise of reality TV programs that spotlight mothers who push their overworked children past breaking point, wearing the label has become a surefire way to set off alarm bells. But it would be unfair to pin this all on Dance Moms and its ilk—after all, can you remember a time when stage parenting as a concept didn’t seem so sinister? The image is always the same: parents hover over their child to tell the poor thing to smile wider, work harder, do better or else… And while it’s true that this happens in the performing arts a regrettable amount of times, the fact is it’s not the only view of stage parenting that exists.
When I first met Nelsito (“Nel”) Gomez, fresh from his American Idiot run, and his mother Mary Anne, they were far from what I’d expected: they were comfortable with each other. Mary Anne wasn’t fussing over Nel like a caricature of a mother hen, and Nel spoke to her easily, unrestrained, as though anyone might speak to a good friend they had tremendous respect for. They laughed between themselves when I briefed them on the interview topic, the joke being that this isn’t the first time they’ve been asked to talk about how Mary Anne’s stage parenting has settled into their relationship—and, also, that no one can be blamed for being curious about how they’ve come to work it so well.
“Stage mother isn’t a label I mind wearing, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with being one,” Mary Anne explains when asked about all the negative connotations that come with it. “The original stage mother is Tita Ligaya Salonga, Lea’s mother. And you know what? I don’t blame her [for stage parenting Lea]. She started out very young, Tita Ligaya had to be there to guide her through. Just as Nel was a young boy, then: I had to be there.”
“Even though it was difficult,’ she sighs, but not with any genuine regret. “Because I had a life of my own to live. You see, I really think you have to have that. Stage parenting only becomes a problem when you get lost in it.” Micromanaging your child’s flourishing career is a poor substitute for a personal life—it’s no wonder some parents take it too far.
It’s great to be involved, especially if you enjoy what the industry has to offer. But also learn how to pull back and give space
Nel shares that it only gets murky when lines are crossed and arguments spiral out of control, but that it’s generally smooth-sailing between them given that they’ve both learned when to leave it at ‘agree to disagree’ “As long as we have that guiding line, I think at the end of the day the difficulties don’t really matter,” he explains.
For her part, Mary Anne adds that she trusts Nel to be smart about his career, as both his mother and stage mother, given how she’s watched him grow to be more knowledgable about the theater industry throughout the years. “He still runs his decisions by me, which l appreciate, but it’s ultimately up to him,” she says. Mary Anne has always known when to just be mom—supportive and open.
On what he most enjoys about having his mother around his work, Nel says that she keeps him sharp: “It’s another set of eyes. As an actor and theater practitioner, you’re always giving your audience a message. And she’s a good audience member! She’ll always tell me if I’ve been clear or if] haven’t been. It’s the constant feedback. And it’s feedback that follows every show—so she really sees the differences, and there are differences from show to show.”
Workplace blooper reel
It’s no surprise that Nel and Mary Anne get caught in their fair share of funny theater moments—the two have the kind of odd couple dynamic that entire sitcoms have been built on, after all. “She’s actually closer to the cast of American Idiot than I am,” Nel says with a laugh.
“She’s the one hanging out with them after shows. And I’m like, ‘[fake-coughs] I have to sing tomorrow!’ She’s the cooler one. They invite her out to drinks more than me. I’m a bit of crab sometimes,” he says, hanging his head, mock-ruefully.
“He’s just very serious and focused. So when he has his shows, he’s very responsible about it!” Mary Anne counters, the ‘aww’ evident in her tone.
And when the cast asks to hang out when Nel’s busy being responsible, well—Mary Anne can party enough for both of them. How’s that for a zany subplot?
It’s all about dialogue
As someone on the receiving end of stage parentage, Nel has some insight: “Definitely something that has to be emphasized here is—all the actions that a stage parent takes is motivated by love, no matter what. I think the reason the negative connotations come up, and why it’s always such a complaint, is because people lose sight of that.”
“But there are some that are really, you know. Over- the-top,” Mary Anne quips, raising a brow, clearly referencing a past conversation. “For me, as long as the kid doesn’t mind it, then it’s fine. But when the kid minds it, that’s a problem”
It’s true: there’s no ignoring the reality that while Mary Anne’s loving support of her son might be unambiguous and undemanding, not every stage managed kid is treated to the same. That’s why the stigma exists in the first place—because there are certainly a few who’ve experienced a disappointing lack of compassion from their parents.
In the interests of remedying this, Nel offers: “An open dialogue should always happen. I feel like, again, that’s why there’s so much negativity surrounding it, because there’s no dialogue.”
Without honest conversation, Mary Anne says, “[The relationship] becomes all about control.”
From a stage mom who does it right
To fellow parents who might want to dip their toes in their child’s performing arts world, Mary Ann says: “It’s great to be involved, especially if you enjoy what the industry has to offer. But also learn how to pull back and give space.”
And for those who are controlling? “Learn to ask your child, ‘Ts this really what you want?’ Sometimes they’re not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for you. It shouldn’t be like that. There needs to be mutual respect and open communication between parent and child,’ Mary Anne insists, getting to the heart of what makes her and Nel such an effective pair.