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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2014

Parenting While Thespian

Sunday, November 30, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Velina Brown

To be or not to be a parent—it's a big question for anyone. But for theatre artists it can be especially fraught, and timing is key.


I know what it was like for my husband, actor/writer/director Michael Gene Sullivan, and I to come to the decision to have a baby (we planned it almost down to the second) and how we keep all the plates spinning. But I often wonder how other folks do it. So I decided to ask a bunch of wonderful Bay Area artists—ranging from expecting moms to parents with grown kids—several rather personal questions in hopes of demystifying the artist-parent life.

Cathleen Riddley (top) with Carla Pauli in AlterTheater's
The River Bride, January 2014. Photo: Benjamin Privitt

First up: What has surprised you most about mixing the parenting experience with being an artist? Actor Michael Asberry (one daughter, one son deceased) marveled "how supportive my kids were, and have continued to be," he says. "Not that I didn't expect them to be, but they really made it easy."


For actor Cathleen Riddley (one 12-year-old girl) it was "deciding whether to even audition for something. Will people think I'm a liability to cast since I have a child now? If I get this show and take it, is it ethical to put down my child's birthday as a conflict? How sick does she have to be for me to leave rehearsal? If I miss her dance recital because it's the same night as a show, am I an awful parent? If I would turn down a show because I'd miss my child's recital, do I really want this career?"


"Before I was a mom I would get all hyped up about auditions," says actor and teaching artist Fontana Butterfield, founder of the "Yeah, I Said Feminist" Theatre Salon (one boy, 5 years old). "Now I attack the sides with a concentrated amount of time and get it done."


Actor and casting director Dena Martinez, actor/casting director (one girl, age 15) keeps it simple. "I don't sweat the small stuff. Ain't got time for that."


"Instead of the ‘I'll take any job that comes my way' attitude you had when you left college, you really have to ask yourself if you want the job," says actor Patrick Alparone (one boy, 1 year old). "The Safeway Deli Industrial video about how to put on your plastic gloves before making a sandwich pays $500 for 10 hours. A babysitter to watch the kid for a couple hours while you get to the casting agency will cost you $40. Round trip on BART is about 10 bucks. I'd rather take my boy to see the ducks at the lake."


"Ten months after I gave birth, I started Ferocious Lotus," says actor, singer, writer and producer Lily Tung Crystal (one boy, 4 years old), artistic director of Ferocious Lotus. "So all the naysaying is simply untrue. You will work again. You will act again. You will be creative again. You will travel again. You will have a life again."


Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman (two teenaged boys) reflects, "I thought I understood Titus Andronicus until I had children of my own; then it just exploded open in new ways. Everything in that play hinges on an emotional experience that's inaccessible to you until you have your own children. We all have unique experiences and points of view that inform our art. However, most of those are lifelong. We become parents. And that's a startlingly deep and far-reaching transformational experience."

One of the most pressing questions for any theatre artist is how to handle childcare. Most of the artists I spoke with said they couldn't afford to pay a babysitter or nanny for every hour of time associated with going to rehearsals, performances, auditions, production meetings, etc. How have Bay Area theatre artists made it work?


Family, friends. Michael and I were fortunate. My parents and sister were available to watch our son Zachary countless evenings and weekends. Plus, Michael's sister owns and runs a daycare center, and gave us the "family rate" during weekdays. Sweet!


Craig Marker with Lauren English in
Reasons to Be Pretty at San Francisco Playhouse, 2013. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.


"I could never afford babysitters," says Dena Martinez. "I would send out my schedule to the entire family including cousins, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. Then I would book them with a detailed, color-coded calendar."


Playwright Joan Holden (three adult daughters) says she had the benefit of "a partner who did half (when he wasn't touring), Mom living in the area, and free city-funded daycare! In the '70s the SFUSD ran all-day preschools at different elementary schools, and charged according to income. SFMT salaries easily qualified us for admission free. Not sure when these centers were closed, but I know it was before my grandkids needed them."


Preschool for All. According to First 5 San Francisco's website, "Preschool for All is a citywide preschool program that offers free and reduced cost preschool for 4-year-olds who reside in San Francisco County." This sounds great! But it's only for 4-year-olds, and only half days, compared to the program Holden describes. Still, it's better than nothing. Check out what's available in your town.


Baby comes with. However, what if your baby is still so young that you don't want to leave them with anyone? The good news is, when babies are tiny it's pretty easy to bring them along. I'm not saying it's easy to take a shower, gather everything you need and get out of the house for that audition! I'm just saying that once you're out it's more likely that your baby will be quiet and content with you (especially if they are nursing) than once they are a toddler. Toddlers are more verbal and like to, well...toddle.


Actor/director/singer Cindy Goldfield says, "Occasionally I leaned on friends or asked someone to hold a child at an audition, but a lot of the time, I just had a kid strapped to me, often with a boob in his mouth, and just got on with things."


For me and baby Zachary, however, sometimes there wasn't anyone to watch him in the waiting room, and I'd have to bring him into the audition room. It was just too stressful and distracting for me. And if he would fuss or cry at any point during the trip to the audition the mammary sprinkler system would kick in and soak the front of my blouse.


I learned that I needed childcare if I was going on a corporate video or feature film audition. Goldfield was able to bring her boys everywhere and book work under those circumstances, but I wasn't. We're all different. Be respectful of your own needs and adjust accordingly.


Barter. In lieu of money for sitters, leaning on your family and friends or bringing your child with you, bartering is another great option. "Lately I've been able to trade coaching for childcare, which is great," says Fontana Butterfield. Joan Holden has a "basement studio I could trade for babysitting."


"When our son was about 7, Velina and I were cast in two shows that overlapped," recalls my husband, Michael. "There was no way we could do both shows and not have to spend quite a bit of money on childcare. So when I was offered the chance to direct a local circus, I negotiated that instead of cash the circus would pay me by providing childcare. So while my wife and I rehearsed and performed, our son was watched by clowns. We had a one-to-one deal: an hour of rehearsal for an hour of childcare."


Actor Elizabeth Carter (one boy, 2 years old) says, "We joined a babysitting co-op with three other families, which means every other week one family watches all the toddlers and the other three have a night out (or at rehearsal). The families rotate every two weeks. It has been a lifesaver!"


Be a policy maker. Of course the best is to be the one who sets policy and makes the schedule. In Brad Erickson's HowlRound interview with Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, she spoke about how important it is for women in positions of leadership to go ahead and shape the culture of an organization: "If you are in a leadership position, the easier it is to make choices that sustain you. So when women sit back when they're young and don't try to advance because they're scared they won't be able to both accomplish the job and have children, by the time they have children they have much less power to say, 'This is how I'm going to set things up.'" So if you're thinking about pursuing leadership roles in the theatre, know that you have the potential to make the workplace better not only for yourself but for future generations of parents. There's a good reason to "lean in."


Impact's Melissa Hillman says, "My husband and I are both in theatre, and the fact that I was the AD of the company and making the schedule meant that I could ensure that we had kid coverage almost all the time."


San Francisco Shakespeare Company artistic director Rebecca J. Ennals (one newborn boy) attests, "SF Shakes for many years was mostly a boys' club. In its 32-year history, no one has ever taken maternity leave until now. Now I can make the organization a more woman- and parent-friendly place to work."


For myself and my husband, being San Francisco Mime Troupe collective members (co-artistic directors) has meant that we've had a voice in how things have been done, how schedules are set up and whether we bring our child to rehearsal or on the road. It's still difficult, but the Troupe has had a lot of mothers help set the agenda for the company.


I also asked people, what's been harder than you expected? Shotgun Players artistic director Patrick Dooley (three girls) says, "I did not succeed at finding balance between family and work life in the early days. A turning point for me was [my wife] Kimberly telling me a story of driving past the theatre with our second daughter Josie (now 7, but then 2) and her saying, 'That's where daddy lives.' I may have thought that I was present enough in the lives of my family—but I was not. It's much better now. Now I just put my kids in the plays with me!"


Time away is also an issue for Alparone: "I hadn't thought of the part of a performance schedule that only allows you to do dinnertime/bathtime/bedtime once a week. Putting my boy to bed at night is one of my favorite rituals." For actor Craig Marker (two girls, ages 6 and 2), "I also work a day job, so when I'm in production I will work all day, then go directly to the theatre. I'll see the girls in the morning before school and tucked into their beds sleeping at night. That is the single hardest thing." Dena Martinez says, "I worked all over before she was born, but after she was born I stayed close to home. It wasn't until she was 11 that I felt she was old enough to handle me being away."


One hurdle for Cathleen Riddley has been "the fact that people judge you on your childrearing decisions. Even your close friends and family. Another is I constantly second-guess myself as to whether I'm making the right decisions for my career and my family. I worry that I am somehow missing out on an important time in my child's life. I'm afraid that I'll not be there right at the moment(s) my daughter might need me, and she may feel I'm choosing my career over her; afraid that I'll miss chances for roles and shows that I really want to do, and that I'll age out of roles that I'd still like a chance to do while I'm taking time off to raise my child."


"Unexpected auditions at inconvenient times are very challenging," says Fontana Butterfield. "And yes, making enough money has been harder than expected. It's one thing when it's just us two, but caring for a kid is challenging for an artist family living in San Francisco. We really thought we'd be out of our one bedroom by now."


Actor Arwen Anderson (one boy, 4 months old) says she has trouble with "the sleep deprivation." One side effect for Melissa Hillman has been, "Unless I'm directly involved in the creation process, it's very difficult for me to see plays where kids are hurt or in danger."

Okay then, what's been easier than you expected? For Cathleen Riddley, "that so many directors, other actors and SMs have been willing to allow her to come to rehearsal as long as she behaved well." Craig Marker says, "Learning lines. I have much less time to actually spend with a script, but I still learn the lines. I believe in osmosis and that parenting puts emotion and physical action closer to the surface so you can make quick choices in a rehearsal hall and lines drop in much faster." Actor Brian Trybom (one girl, 18 months old) says, "Asking for help has been surprisingly easy. People seem to love to be able to help out." As for Dooley, "I can't think of anything that's been easier than I expected."

I also asked, what's the most bogus thing you've heard about becoming a theatre parent? Most said the most bogus thing they'd heard was some version of "You'll never work again."


Elizabeth Carter says, "A casting director once told me that once women have children their careers don't really go far. I never forgot that. It made me angry. And if it was a male parent, would they be sacrificing their career?!" Dena Martinez agrees: "‘Oh wait, she's not available, didn't she have a baby?'" Lord, she didn't die! Please let the mother decide if she's ready to get back to work. Not your call."


For Cindy Goldfield the myth was "that you have to take time off, or that you have to have a nanny or a super-helpful spouse. If I had taken time away from theatre, I would have been broke and depressed and not myself." For Melissa Hillman it was "that the kids will be permanently scarred because you're at rehearsal."

Here are few best techniques, suggestions and pro moves that came up in these conversations:


Choose your partner very carefully. This is a good one even if you're not in the business! But if you are, you need to make sure your partner understands that you're not going to suddenly quit your art and become someone else! You're still the same artist, with the same hopes and dreams, and parenthood is a wonderful addition, not a replacement. Also, raising a child is a team sport. Make sure you're on the same team.


Ask for what you need. Everyone said this. Everyone. A commenter on the helpful website said it beautifully: "Don't apologize for being a parent, but at the same time don't expect non-parents to know what you need, or to change their lives because you decided to have a kid. Identify what would help you be involved and let people know that, and they can decide whether or not to accommodate you. Do you need a place to pump? Do you need to end rehearsal by 5:00? Organizations and people can only know what being supportive looks like if parents communicate their needs (in a non-jerky, non-entitled way.) It doesn't occur to some folks to move the nail-studded boards, or to give a heads up about tons of chipping paint, or that there is a creepy monster mask and loud electronic music in the preshow."


Hire someone to clean the house at least one to two times a month. "Right before your day off, so you can enjoy the illusion of sanity and start the week fresh," says Carter. Butterfield adds, "Seriously cheaper than couples counseling."


Take time off, if possible. "If you work constantly, one day you look up and your babies are no longer babies," says Craig Marker. "My youngest, Ruby, was born during rehearsals at Center Rep, which was immediately followed by Marin Theatre Company, then two other gigs on the heels of that. I woke up one morning and Ruby was walking. I cannot recall her being an infant."


Try to get a Monday-night date night in once in a while. "Maintaining a strong couple relationship helps the family stay strong," says Carter.


Aim for a fair division of labor. If both partners feel like they are doing 60 percent, it will be about right. "Take turns with your partner in the course of the day, so each of you gets a bit of time to yourself," says Joan Holden. "He took the breakfast/off-to-school shift so I could sleep late; I took the dinner/bath shift so he could watch TV."




Don't be so hard on yourself. "When you have your first baby, take one day to clock the time that you spend with and on her; it will turn out to be eight hours," says Holden. "With cooking and housework, you now have three fulltime jobs; forgive yourself for not keeping up."

I asked, what do you wish your current self could go back in time and say to your pre-parenthood artist self that would be encouraging? Riddley says, "There's never the perfect time to have children—never enough money, never enough time, never a year when there is no show that you're interested in—so if you're feeling like you really want to have a baby, do it, and figure it out as you go. Your art only gets better when you become a parent, because your world is so much bigger and your experiences so much broader. Your parenting only gets better when you do your art, because you are being who you are, and that's who your child wants to know." Actor, costume designer and director Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (one boy, age 13) says, "It hasn't really been the scary Mount Kilimanjaro I expected."

And finally, for people considering having kids, how do you know when it's time to go for it? "We have this mythology in our culture that everyone should want to be a parent, and that something is wrong with you, especially women, if you don't," says Melissa Hillman. "That's nonsense."


Don't start too early. Until you're ready to reallocate a bunch of time you'd otherwise have spent learning and perfecting your craft, doing your art, going to the theatre and making professional connections to changing diapers and reading Goodnight Moon, don't pull the trigger. It's a temporary reallocation, but it's real. You just won't be able to do as much, period, and even when you have free time while they're little, you'll be more exhausted than you've ever been in your life. When that trade-off becomes worth it—when going down to one show a year or whatever you can manage is worth it—it's time.


Velina Brown is an award-winning actor, director and owner of The Business of Show Biz, a career consultation service for actors. For more info, visit