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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2015

Parent Artists' Childcare Challenges

Friday, December 18, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Lisa Drostova

In early December, a United Nations delegation of human rights experts visited the United States to evaluate women’s rights here. They were horrified by how far behind other nations we are, and one of their criteria was the availability of affordable childcare. In nearly half the country, childcare costs more than the average rent payment or in-state college tuition. The cost of childcare is driving some parents to take second jobs; in other families, women are leaving the workforce to stay home with the children because it’s less expensive than working and paying for childcare.  

Anna McShea (in blue) with adult actors portraying the church congregation in AlterTheater's multiple-TBA Award-winning production of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner. Photo: David Allen

Theatre artists with young children have a painful choice to make. Unless there is a partner with a perfectly complementary schedule and/or other family or friends to take the child, parent artists will need to arrange for paid childcare. To put this in perspective for childfree actors, Bay Area babysitters charge $20-25 an hour; more for multiple children, sick children, and during peak times. Daycare (for parents rehearsing during the day) can involve waiting lists and paying for weeks that aren’t used so the family can hold the spot. And even if there is a partner or family willing to help, theatre artists are acutely aware of the strain this puts on their relationships.

Director Jon Tracy talks about finding a way to, as he says, “break the wall that is seen by both sides. Producers that think twice about using artists with children because they assume it will take extra effort, and artists who don’t know if they can re-enter the field. I have heard so many stories like, ‘I have a one-year-old and I just did a show where after taxes I took home 450 a week but spent 750 a week just in childcare.’ That’s just a painful reality.” 

While male and female parents are both impacted by the economic reality of trying to balance artistic work with taking care of their children, mothers also worry that having a child will take them off stage for good. Because of the unequal distribution of roles for men and women, and the fact that there are fewer parts for older women, when a woman comes back to the stage, there is a fear that directors will have forgotten her, or that there won’t be interesting roles available. 

Which is truly unfortunate because new motherhood can be an especially artistically fertile time for an actor. As Tides Theatre producing artistic director Jennifer Welch experienced it, “It’s a very vital time for a woman and to step away from your art seems counterintuitive. When you become a mother you definitely change and that’s an interesting time to be exploring your artistic self also. It’s a shame that we’re put in situations where we have to make these choices. I think the opposite should be true.”

Tides Theatre producing artistic director
Jennifer Welch with her son, Miles.
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Welch 

It’s heartening that these issues are getting discussed more openly. The December 2015 American Theatre, for example, features an excellent article by Celia Wren, “How Theatres Are Supporting Work/Life Balance,” that describes steps being taken at certain theatres and artist residencies. But several of the examples are more oriented towards theatre staff than freelance artists, and none are local. How are Bay Area parents and companies handling the challenge?

Some parent artists just bring their children to rehearsals, which works well for some kids at some ages. A quiet corner of the theatre, a book, snacks, an iPad; no problem. Like many parents in other fields, Welch likes having her son Miles visit her workplace. “I think it’s important for theatre kids to have an understanding of what their parents do, especially since they’re gone at odd times,” she says.

But that’s not always an optimal solution. Some parents find having their children nearby while they work distracting, as do some castmates. Theatres are not safe spaces for small children, especially lively crawlers heading straight for all the sharp/toxic/breakable things laying around. Besides solvents and screw guns, Welch notes other ways actors might want to limit their children’s contact. “I have memories of going to work with my parents and having to do my homework or wait around, so for me it doesn’t feel unnatural. What’s hard is the content they’re being exposed to. Kids in the theatre see a lot. It’s enriched my son’s life, but sometimes he’ll quote a play, and I’ll have to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you knew that David Mamet quote.’”

It would be lovely if big houses like American Conservatory Theater or Berkeley Repertory Theatre had onsite daycare for the children of actors and staff. But establishing and running a daycare is expensive, liability-heavy, and space-intensive. The State of California’s website notes that the state’s regulations governing daycare centers are not available for free in printed form, probably because they run to more than 100 pages; interested parties who would like a copy should make sure they have “plenty of paper” in their printers. Even the “highlights” document runs to 20 pages, including an exhaustive description of how infants should be fed, changed, and allowed to nap. Or imagine the logistical difficulty of a company in downtown SF finding a space with a minimum of 75 square feet per child of outdoor activity space. And if somehow you build it, you have to insure it, which raises issues you’ve probably never considered. One insurer that handles daycare facilities proudly advertises that it can cover the policy holder in case they’re sued for corporal punishment or molestation; they will also reimburse “child abduction expenses.”

So it’s not that theatres are insensitive to the childcare issue; the larger ones have probably had this conversation with the best intentions, but then they (or their Boards) have shuddered away from child-abduction insurance and 100+ page lists of rules and tried to find smaller and more manageable solutions. Here are a few places to begin:

Help parent artists offset childcare costs. This is challenging; some companies can’t afford it, some childfree artists may feel it unfair, and even a company that can afford a little more is not going to be able to completely cover it. One director I talked to was concerned that producers would avoid working with actors with kids because it’s more expensive. But then another said that when she was hired for her first job with a particular company, she asked for an increase, and they were able to help; she suggests it’s always worth trying.

Build a parent-friendly rehearsal schedule. Welch casts the people she wants to work with and then creates a schedule. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve allowed the calendar to control the casting,” she says. “I ask them for their ideal schedule and then I try to make that happen, with everyone but especially parents. Performance schedules are rigorous and that’s hard on any family, but if you can find a rehearsal schedule that isn’t intrusive on bedtime schedules, that’s ideal. For example, late afternoon to early evening. Start at 3 p.m., the kids would be there after school, and then partners or parents could pick them up and take them home, and the artists are home at 8:30.”

“We’ve tried everything,” Welch says. “You have to be flexible. Each show has its own kind of demand. Are you a theatre that’s providing small stipends and most of your creative team has nine-to-five jobs, or do you have a lot of artists with a nocturnal lifestyle?” 

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival artistic director Rebecca Ennals takes a similar approach. “I try to schedule rehearsals in such a way that allows parents to take advantage of daytime childcare and school that they already have set up anyway, and leaves them free for family time in the evening,” she says. “Of course, this works great if you’re paying a living wage—and sucks for actors without kids who are trying to keep their day jobs while doing the show. It’s a dilemma.”

Use your space. Tides Theatre is on hiatus while Welch focuses on other projects, so she’s no longer working out of 533 Sutter where she directed Sweet Bird of Youth a few years back. Sweet Bird had several parent artists, so Welch arranged to “hire a share-care nanny and we would expense that as past of rehearsal expenses and anyone could bring their child. If anyone wasn’t comfortable with that, we would increase their stipend so that they could put it towards childcare. We childproofed the green room and filled it with tons of toys. We put in new carpet, made it possible to lock the bathroom so kids couldn’t get into it when other people were using it, the windows were locked at all times, all the outlets were covered—we had to take our ‘mother eyes’ and ‘father eyes’ and baby-proof the room. No tools. Making sure that it was a safe kids’ spot and people weren’t building back there. But it takes effort to do that and you need extra space. It’s the equivalent of giving up office space, or a rehearsal room.”

Use your people. Michael Gene Sullivan of the San Francisco Mime Troupe says, “We feel the artists are able to do their best when they don’t have to worry about something much more important than our production—their children. Normally, during summer productions, we have workshoppers and interns who have to put in a certain number of hours to pay off the classes; if needed, some are assigned to watch the children when the parents are unavailable. 

“For those parents who don’t want to bring their children to rehearsal we have, in the past, had a childcare stipend. It doesn’t cover all their childcare, but it’s a certain amount per child to help defray the cost. When we tour, if parents have to bring their kids with them, part of our tech rider for our presenters will be childcare during rehearsal, set up, and for the performance.

“Since our shows are about how we all need to take care of each other, that there is more to life than money, we feel it’s important that, whenever possible, we practice what our shows preach,” Sullivan says.

Use your stage. When a member of Jeanette Harrison’s AlterTheater ensemble got pregnant, Harrison says, “Her biggest fear was, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to work again.’” But Harrison asked instead, “What would it take to make it possible?” AlterTheater’s next show was James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, which is set in a Harlem church, and four of Harrison’s actors had children—a newborn, twin eight-month-old boys, a 12-year-old boy, and a 13-year-old girl. “We started out with the babies in the rehearsal room so their parents didn’t have to get a babysitter,” says Harrison. “And then I thought, ‘why don’t we just have them be in the show?’”

She gave the teens lines and songs and parceled the babies out to characters whose stories would be deepened by having children—and, according to Harrison, “It was amazing, it was really fabulous. Anna McShea, the 13-year-old, was a professional baby sitter, and she offered to be the chief baby wrangler when the moms were on stage. A lot of the time, I was directing a scene with a baby on my lap. Having the kids in the rehearsal space helped us build the show in a natural, organic way.”

Eventually the babies were all fired—one of the twins learned to crawl and the littlest to scream, necessitating her replacement with a prop understudy—but while none of them performed in the show itself, they were still at many rehearsals. “The children didn’t impede the process, other than the crawling,” Harrison says.

They also didn’t impede the cast and crew from taking home four TBA Awards. “The beauty of working with kids is that they force you to be at your best,” says Harrison. “Having kids in the room makes everyone a better artist, because your focus has to be right there but your heart and your attention has to be that much wider. This was an experiment in a world where there would be children present. It was more natural to do a process like this on a show where there are children in the script; there are stage directions that we hear them singing. I can’t imagine why more theatre companies don’t do this. I would do it again in a heartbeat. The easier we can make it for parents to be in this theatrical world, the better. We can’t afford to pay them for childcare, so it behooves us to find a way to help them do the work that feeds their soul without going broke. And theatre should have children in it, it just should.”

Form parent artist networks. Welch, who acts as well as directs, says, “I’m always the first person when I’m outside my zone to ask, ‘Who are the other parents?’ ‘Do you want to have a few rehearsals where we do share care?’ Miles makes friends and I enrich my experience with my castmates. I’m sure [other] people are doing that—I hope people are doing that; financially, it makes more sense. Of course you have to live nearby.” These connections can help you after a show is over; perhaps one of these parent artist allies can help out if your child gets sick while you’re in tech.

Change the conversation. Jon Tracy’s Lights Up Project, a nonprofit regranting organization that is still under development—with the help of people such as Carey Perloff, Jim Kleinmann, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Velina Brown—is an elegant response. Tracy’s plan is that, “if a freelance theatre artist in our Bay Area scene who is a parent gets a job, the company that hires them can coauthor a grant that evens out the weight of childcare costs,” the director says.

Tracy sees the big picture of which making childcare accessible is a part. “There are all the things we want to change in the world, and it’s very hard to see the clear path to do so,” he admits. “And then there are moments where you see the path and the way to address it. One moment it’s glorious and inspiring, and in the next you’ve become responsible to do it—because when you see it so clearly, you become irresponsible for not acting on it. When I saw the clear, direct path to filling a void, it became a responsibility.”

Tracy continues: “We can create a web in order to support each other, we can move onward from there, we can reinvent the wheel on how to make money. We don’t have to make money on the scale of corporations and big startups, because we have created a web. We are at our best when we set the trends, not follow them. Our job is to build worlds, so we can create methods and try out different scenarios for different models that people could use not only in the theatre scene but the business scene. We are primed to be the ones to figure out how childcare is part of every institution.”


Lisa Drostova is the public engagement manager for Ragged Wing Ensemble and the Flight Deck, and a member of Ragged Wing's Performance Core.


More resources for parent artists:

• Facebook groups:

New Parents in Theater
Theatre Parents Network
Bay Area Theater Babies

• HowlRound’s Parenting and Playwriting Series by Catherine Trieschmann

• The Stage, October 2015: “Parents in Performing Arts launches with calls for job shares and better rehearsal scheduling

Do you have other ideas about helping make childcare accessible to parent artists?
Share them below!