Tonya McKinny – from Actress/Model to Around-the-World Mom

Tonya McKinny started her professional life armed with degrees in acting and women’s studies. She now finds herself in the role of a lifetime as an on-the-road mom (as opposed to a stay-at-home-mom) and wife to a professional opera singer. Here’s a little bit about her background, and the different hats she wears in a day.

How did you get started?

I earned my undergraduate degree at Portland State University,  a double major in Women’s Studies and Theatre Arts (BS)  and then attended University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MFA). I also spent a summer at ACT in San Francisco, 6 months at the National School for Drama and Dance in New Zealand and a short study at the National Theatre Academy of China in Beijing and I did 6 months at the University of Louisville and volunteered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The funny thing is that I didn’t actually want to go to college, and my senior year of HS I got very very sick and didn’t apply anywhere.  My sister, an over-achiever, was applying to several out of state law schools and we agreed that I would go to which ever town she went to and go to school there.  She choose Lewis and Clark in Oregon and I went to PSU. While there, I got some good advice; “choose a city you want to live in or go to grad school”.  I went to grad school.  (I’m Cherokee Indian and school was free for me, so why quit and get a job?)  I went to UWM because I had met the head of the department while volunteering once and thought I could learn something from him.  And I did.  I was a very good actress.

When did you decide to change career paths?

When I met Ryan.

Really?

Yep. So I’m a trained actor, living and working in NYC. I had just auditioned for a tour, was working on a show and in a Columbia student film (that director won the Sundance award last year and now she’s famous!). I was busy!  And then I met Ryan. Two weeks later I got the call from the tour and they offered me the job and a 6 month contract… and I remember talking to Ryan about it and decided that I’d rather see how it worked out with him instead of leaving town for 6 months.  So basically I decided then that my career wasn’t as important as I had thought it was.  I don’t regret staying in NYC with him and then giving up theatre.  I miss the theatre.  All the time, but I love my family more.  (There’s enough drama here.  I’m sure you understand.) We also decided before we became engaged that I would travel with him, and we knew that meant no acting for me.  When we moved to Houston, I found out I was pregnant and that was the end of all auditioning for me.

Whoa! It’s a love story! 

It is!

So, What have been the big surprises in the ensuing years?

I didn’t miss the career as much as I thought I would. And I’m really surprised at how everyone else reacted.  I’m so tired of people thinking that “I need something for me.” (That really just feels like something else I’m supposed to do so that I don’t disappoint everyone else.) As far as positives, I’m not lonely and poor living in NYC as I always thought I’d be.  But on the negative side, no one claps for me, and my job is never over and finding time for myself is a huge struggle, though Louis will sometimes give me a “Brava” after we sing “twinkle twinkle little star”. Bless him.  The hard times are just as bad as I expected, but the good times are better than I ever dreamed and it evens out and usually the good wins by a landslide. I’m proud of us for doing what other people tell us is stupid and won’t work.  We are just making it up as we go along and so what?  Just because no one else has thought of it before doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I love my life just the way it is – seeing the world with the love of my life and my family.

****

Wow. Sounds like it’s all first class and bon bons

Ha. While there are pretty dresses sometimes, being the “Stage Manager” of our lives, with two small kids and a husband with an international freelance opera career is a pretty complicated job. I wear more hats in a day than I can count.

Really? Take me through a typical day.

Ok. Here’s a normal, non-performance day – this is the routine regardless of what country we’re in: US, Germany, Switzerland, whatever.

Our day starts at 6:30am.

  • The kids wake up (they’re remarkable consistent, regardless of where we are in the world…which in and of itself can be a challenge). My first job? Short order cook. Gotta get food in their bellies.
  • Maid. Clean up the breakfast dishes and the table.
  • Teacher. I homeschool Emma often (in some European countries it’s illegal, so in those spots she’ll attend public school); we have a routine, and there are requirements that she needs to complete each day.
  • Simultaneously, I’m an entertainer, helping to keep Louis occupied while Emma works on schoolwork. We spend about 90 minutes doing this in the morning. (And let’s be honest, sometimes I’m a mediator between the two kids.)
  • We then head out of the house, often to the gym. The kids get craft time with the instructor, and I either work out or spend the time in the lounge getting our files in order – insurance, taxes, travel plans. So I guess this would be my CFO time.
  • Back to nourishment procurement – it’s lunch!
  • After lunch Louis goes down for a nap, and Emma has unstructured play time. (There are two rules: no technology, and the play has to be self-directed so that I can get some things done. Often this is domestic stuff (laundry, etc.) or else I’m in scheduler mode, looking at then next few moves, thinking ahead to make plans for the kids, and working with Ryan to make sure that our family schedule syncs with his professional schedule.
  • Stealth educator.   (ed. would that be a  ‘Steducator’?)After Louis wakes up, we do something outside the house. I work about three cities ahead to schedule activities for the kids: library visits, children’s museums, NASA, playdates…it’s learning disguised as play.
  • Personal shopper. We swing by the grocery store to grab dinner and breakfast fixings.
  • When we’re together and Ryan’s not in rehearsal we have dinner together as a family. Ryan usually cooks. After dinner we all clean up together, and engage in some serious fun before dessert. (We’re big fans of chase!)
  • ChanteuseAfter dessert it’s bedtime for the kids. We sing to them. (ed: it must be a little intimidating to sing for a opera singer, even when you’re married to them. Right?)  I love singing, but try singing around an Opera singer sometime.  It’s not a good idea.  Especially if they love you.
  • Once the kids are asleep it’s time for more paperwork: Negotiator (a recent example -for a car. It’s so much easier to do online, without the haggling!), Travel Agent (researching flights for Ryan’s next gigs), Event Planner (finding activities for the kids to do for the next several gigs – I usually work 2 gigs out, trying to place them in activities). When that’s done, I’ll add Blogger to my list, as I write for a few travel mom and expat sites (www.trekaroo.com is my favorite – check it out!), and I keep up with a wide range of folks through their blogs.

Obviously, there are differences for travel days and for Ryan’s performance days…but this is the normal routine. And because we move every 4-6 weeks, we tend to plan get-togethers with friends as often as we can, wherever we happen to be – I guess you can add Party Planner to the list! Maybe especially because we are on the go so much, I want to share these amazing experiences with my kids and friends in a way that underlines how special they are. Some people would say that we’re nomads, but I disagree. Everywhere’s our neighborhood. Oh, and a tip – until you bake something, you’re not home. So you can definitely add baker to the list.

And I also have to say Collaborator is the one title that’s not on the list, but is a big part of my day: Ryan, even when he’s singing, only spends a few hours away from this same list…we’re a team, in every sense of the word.

So, what traits/skills have you carried forward from your academic and professional lives?

Oh a love for the arts has been a big help, and of course a love for and knowledge of the stories that relate to opera helps me to talk out the shows with Ryan.  It also helps that I’m not afraid and am actually comfortable with just about anyone, so all the dinners and events and new towns aren’t a big challenge for me they’re  just part of the day.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with a similar decision?

Do what you can sleep with at night.  I had to try it – I went to NYC and I was a working and sometimes paid actor with an independent  movie and some print modeling work, with an agent, and everything I thought I wanted and needed from life. It was very exciting – I loved it and I won’t trade those memories.  But I also loved working in the corporate and non profit worlds.

I also love being a mom.  Being Mom is the only thing I couldn’t give up.  This family is mine forever.  The shows were fun and at the time important, working was fulfilling, but this is who I am now.  We all change.  Change is good.  Just make sure it’s the change you can live with.


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