Not Child's Play - Revisioning Theatre Practice to Accomodate Parenting

Anana Rydvald leading a mask workshop for Imago Theatre’s ARTISTA program

Anana Rydvald leading a mask workshop for Imago Theatre’s ARTISTA program

When we head to work, there’s a pressure to leave our family behind at home. A separation between the two realms. But for theatre artists who don’t work a standard 9-5 it is trickier to juggle work and parenting. I have conducted a professional phone call with the Banff Centre whilst being engaged in the highly unprofessional situation of tending to my child on the toilet and I know this scene is common for many working artist parents.

Yes, it is possible to have children and work in theatre, but it’s not bloody easy. It relies on a village made up of a network of friends and family and an understanding theatre community. Structurally, there’s room for change in English theatre practice. Tech week is brutal for all concerned but particularly for parents. The traditional low and irregular pay for theatre artists combined with the all-consuming demands of our practice also makes parenting a challenge. Residencies are usually a place for parents to get away from their kids and create work but what if you want to take your kid with you? Can you factor in child care costs as part of your grant application to funding bodies? (the answer for individual artists is yes, according to the Canada Council, more on this later) If individual artists can include child care costs in their budgets, can an established theatre company include the same costs in their grant applications?

I asked mothers and fathers in the English Montreal theatre community (actors, directors, stage managers, technicians, designers) to share the challenges they face as theatre artists and parents, and also suggest ways that our practice can better accommodate parents.

Left holding the baby

Being away from children is the common challenge, along with finding – and affording – childcare. Parents’ schedules aren’t as flexible as non-parents. For children young enough to be in daycare, we are fortunate in Quebec to have subsidized daycare (although this seems to be under threat every election period). Sabrina Miller, a set and costume designer and mother to three kids, credits living in Quebec for her ability to return to a career in theatre after a five year break to have her children. “Thank god we have affordable daycare here. Otherwise I wouldn’t earn enough to justify sending my kids to daycare.” (We marvelled at how our parenting colleagues in Toronto and Vancouver do it).

But daycare doesn’t cover all eventualities. The standard rehearsal schedule of 10am-6pm, Monday to Saturday means that someone needs to pick up the child by 5pm or 6pm during the week and a full day of childcare is needed on Saturdays. That’s when a friend, partner, relative, or – at a great cost – babysitter comes in. One single parent and theatre artist who prefers to remain anonymous says: “I always have to calculate a good third of my salary will be used for babysitting fees… but all that adds up real fast so that’s a downside to being in the business and having a child…because the pay is already so low.”  Personally, I have used my fee to pay travel expenses for my retired mother to take care of my son when the project was out of town, as it worked out cheaper than hiring a local sitter.

Anne-Marie Saheb and Eric Davis in Imago Theatre’s lab performance of Fucking A, directed by Sophie Gee, stage managed by Danielle Skene. Photo: Pavlo Tull.

Anne-Marie Saheb and Eric Davis in Imago Theatre’s lab performance of Fucking A, directed by Sophie Gee, stage managed by Danielle Skene. Photo: Pavlo Tull.

Parents rely on a mixture of friends, family, and partners to do their work. Millie Tresierra, mother of two and former actor in the Montreal community, says: “I definitely rally troops in my acting community and would do things like cook meals in advance in order to prepare so my partner could stay with the kids. However, with my daughter I was a single mom, and I relied on friends’ generosity.” Dean Fleming, actor, director, former Artistic Director of Geordie Productions, current board member of Imago Theatre and father to two kids acknowledges the juggling act required to arrange childcare: “[My kids] were 6 and 9 when I took over at Geordie and so there were so many shows that I had to become a master scheduler to make sure they were picked up at school, fed, brought to the theatre to see me, where they did homework in the lobby… it was really hard at times.”

Geordie Productions’ The Halloween Tree, with costumes designed by Sabrina Miller. Photo: Andrée Lanthier


The Halloween Tree produced by Geordie Productions. Costume designer: Sabrina Miller. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

The Halloween Tree produced by Geordie Productions. Costume designer: Sabrina Miller. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

Alternative rehearsal schedules – an underused option

One change that Dean brought to Geordie was to begin using an alternative rehearsal schedule  where a show rehearses five days a week, five and a half hours a day, for four weeks. The pay for the artists is the same as a standard three week rehearsal period, pro-rated over four  weeks. This model is part of the Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA) and any company can choose to work this way but, of course, there are financial repercussions to this – and approval from both PACT and Equity are needed before it can happen. First to financial considerations: if a company brings an artist from out of town, lodging costs go up. A rehearsal room needs to be rented for four weeks instead of three, and the artist has to pay for the insurance the extra week (between $18-$33). Most prohibitively perhaps, under the CTA, a Stage Manager’s rate cannot be pro-rated so if a company chooses this option, they have to pay an extra week for the Stage Manager. Due to these costs and the financial pressures theatre companies operate under, it’s not surprising that the alternative rehearsal schedules are an underused option.

The other reason an alternative rehearsal schedule is not often employed is that approval from Equity is needed for companies to access this option. According to the CTA, “the nature of the work may require an alternative from the standard rehearsal conditions of the CTA”, meaning that the needs of the piece itself is taken into consideration, not the personal needs of the theatre artists. There’s another option. Companies working with a standard rehearsal schedule can vote to reduce the working day to five hours from 8.5 hours or to reduce the working week from six days to five but the pay remains the standard rehearsal amount of 42 hours a week. These options cuts down on precious time in the room as no extra week is being added, so it’s evident why they are not so popular. However, beyond the obvious benefits for parents, a rehearsal period with shorter days and a longer rehearsal period with space to breathe and reflect has benefits for all artists involved and ultimately, the work itself.

Why isn’t theatre practice more accommodating to parents? It might be that the needs of parents most likely don’t come into the minds of the people with the power to make changes. If we look at the theatre companies in town, how many of them are run by parents? It’s significant that Geordie adopted an alternative rehearsal schedule when Dean was running the company. Of course we can look at it another way – perhaps theatre practice itself is so unaccommodating to parents that not many make it to the top positions. And unfortunately women still bear the brunt of childcare so this issue affects women disportionately. Ron Haney, Labour Relations Specialist at PACT notes: “the standard rehearsal schedule is a traditional model from the 50s when we assumed that someone will be home to take care of the kids. Reality has changed.”

Inhumane week (aka tech week)

Everyone acknowledged how difficult and inhumane tech week is. Dean Fleming weighs in saying that “tech week in English theatre is not actually human – certainly not for a director, stage manager or designer and only slightly better for an actor.” Warona Setshwaelo, an artist and mother comments “Do I ever feel the pressure to choose between parenting and being a theatre artist? Every tech week.” All the parents I spoke to acknowledged how brutal tech week was for them and their kids. But how can we change it? Dean offers that companies can “book more time in the theatre and spread the schedule out. It’s doable but more expensive. I think we need to make choices and some theatres are in a better position to make healthier choices than others. A theatre company with its own performance space could certainly envision lengthening the tech period without taking a major hit financially (it’s not nothing but again, it’s about choices). A company that is renting a theatre has a tougher time but, again, it’s about choices.”

Evenings away

Then there’s the challenge of being away from your child during all the evenings of a production run. There are many stories of young kids getting distressed by not seeing their mom or dad for evenings on end. Bed-wetting and other regressive behaviours or being angry at their actor parent at the end of a run were common. Parents have talked about the challenge of long runs. Anana Rydvald, actor, creator, and mother of two says, “Several weeks needing to leave my kids at 18:00 to prep for a performance would just be too tough for my family to manage.”

Not to mention touring. Actor and father Eric Davis says,”I recently got back from a six-week theatre tour in Newfoundland. While the experience itself was wonderful, the hardest part was being apart from my 3 year old daughter for that long, the longest we’ve been apart to date. She weathered it like a trooper, thankfully, and we had daily video messenger calls which helped. Both my wife and I had discussed the contract at length before I accepted and we decided it was a great opportunity, not to mention paycheck (it was with the NAC). That said, it would be very difficult for me to take another long contract away from home again if I didn’t have the option to bring my family along or at least have them visit.”

Anne-Marie Saheb and Eric Davis in Imago Theatre’s lab performance of Fucking A, directed by Sophie Gee, stage managed by Danielle Skene. Photo: Pavlo Tull.

On top of the hours away, the schedule of a child’s life conflicts with the theatre schedule. Danielle Skene, a stage manager and mother to two shares her scheduling challenge. “I have school aged children and during the week the alarm rings at 6am. Due to the discipline in which I work, I am often one of the last people out of the theatre. It doesn’t matter when I have come home the night before, the kids are on a school bus at 7:15am. I recognize that my energy resources are finite. It was not something that I even considered earlier in my career. If I had a late night, I slept in.”

Staying relevant/staying visible

A parenting theatre artist is literally invisible if they can’t get out to see shows. When my son was born a couple of years out of theatre school, I found it very difficult to reconcile my life as a (dormant) theatre artist and a new mother. When seeking advice about how to return to work I was told to go out and be seen more, which was easier said than done. But if you don’t get out, the phone stops ringing, the emails stop coming. And if you do get out, there’s enough work out there that it’s easy to be out two/three nights a week, but our kids need our time as well. Sabrina says she limits herself to two shows a month. The rest of her time is for her kids. This, of course, means that she is not able to see a lot of theatre work. Even with going to two shows a week, I find it difficult to see everything. There was a tension for many I interviewed between wanting to support colleagues’ work, the guilt of being away from their kids too often and the costs associated with going out.

The costs of supporting work is difficult when the cost of babysitting is factored in – this goes for both theatre artists and audience members who are parents. “Yes, I know lots of theatre companies have reduced tickets for artists. As a parent, I am paying babysitting on top of that, so reduced prices are still too expensive for the most part,” says Warona. Millie talked about how she would share babysitting costs in order to see a show. “Sometimes a few of us would get together and hire one babysitter for all the kids.” But the onus is on the audience member/theatre artist to organize this, which is understandably a hassle (organize the sitter, get your kid to the agreed location and then head to the theatre…).

If theatres offered childcare at the venue itself for one or two matinees during a run, would that help parents attend more shows? Canadian Stage offered childcare for one matinee for each production during their 2013/2014 season but the initiative did not continue beyond that, due to the high costs involved. Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director at Canadian Stage commented that the initiative enabled “parents of young children to go to the theatre without the expense or organizational complications of finding a babysitter. The program was highly appreciated by those who used it – on average 4 – 6 children each performance – but the cost of the program was inordinately high (with an obligation to have two licensed daycare workers at all times) and without specific funding, the company was unable to make this commitment beyond this first season.”

The Belfry Theatre in Victoria has been offering free childcare in a space a few minutes’ walk from the theatre during select matinees for all performances since at least 2000. They accept up to eight children at a time and places must be booked in advance. The uptake for their initiative varies: sometimes they are fully booked and sometimes only one or two parents use the service, but Ian Gibson, Audience Services Manager at the Belfry, considers it an important initiative to improve accessibility. I found two theatres in British Columbia that offer childcare for select performances but it’s an initiative that has not yet reached Montreal, though the suggestion piqued the interest of many parents. Anana commented, “how amazing it would be to have my children involved in my artistic endeavors rather than be a separate protected entity, secluded and safe in the confines of their home.” There are costs involved and maybe as a community we can find ways to offer childcare afforably, but it is a question of improving accessibility: who are we making theatre for? who might we be excluding, on both sides of the stage, through the way we currently do things?

Anana Rydvald leading a mask workshop for Imago Theatre’s ARTISTA program

Carving out time for the work

What about artists who work outside of rehearsal hours, such as designers and writers? I remember a creation residency I had when my son was a year and a half and in part time day care. By the time I arrived at the studio at 2pm, I had already worked a full day before even stepping into the rehearsal room. I had woke up with my son at 6am and was exhausted. The challenge of finding time to fit the creative process into our lives is a recurring theme. Sabrina says that her optimum work time is 3pm-11pm: “It’s when my brain is at its most creative.” But with daycare and school schedules, she has to work from 9am-3pm and then 8pm-11pm once her kids are asleep. Time is often fragmented and a laser-like focus is required to work.

“Parenting has made me a more efficient artist,” says Warona who, like many others, has acknowledged that when you have little time to do your work, you make it count. Alex Haber, playwright and mother of four explains that “when you are me, as a mother and a wife who ultimately always wants to be the one to make a good meal and the birthday cake and make sure the house is clean so people feel cozy and comfortable and be there for whatever you child needs you for (and bear in mind most of my kids are big now, like adult size, but they don’t seem to need me that much less emotionally). I always find it hard to turn off and stay or get in the flow of writing. When I do I love it, but I always feel like I am on a time limit and sometimes I wonder who or what I could be/accomplish if I could/would give over all of my energy to it.”

Warona Setshwaelo in Imago Theatre’s An Intractable Woman. Photo: Tristan Brand

For parents who are writers and creators, childcare costs can be included as a budget line in grant applications to the Canada Council. Sean Devine, Program Officer of Explore and Create at the Canada Council spoke of how the Canada Council already supports parents as individual artists. “The flexibility and openness of our budget forms and our peer assessment committee’s own flexibility and openness are great examples of how Canada Council systems and practices can support the needs of working parent artists. Canada Council has covered artists’ subsistence needs for years, and child care expenses have always been seen as falling within subsistence needs. And philosophically, the Canada Council’s New Funding Model is all about opening doors to under-represented artists and communities, so that comes into play as well.” If there is an openness at the arts council, I think it’s time to test it by having individuals and theatre companies include some form of childcare in their budgets or to increase production budgets to account for a longer tech period, or to cover additional costs associated with using the CTA’s alternative rehearsal schedules.

A question of value

All these proposed changes (the alternative rehearsal schedule models, arts councils covering childcare during production or creation periods, offering childcare during select matinees) seem modest. It’s nothing radical. As Ron Haney notes, “opening the accessibility to the alternative rehearsal schedules is a low-hanging fruit. All it takes is a recognition that the nature of family life is equally important to the nature of the work.” But making these changes are radical because having the funds to implement them would entail a complete rethinking of the value of art and children in our society. Dean says, “we have major flaws in how we create theatre. We’re stuck in a model that doesn’t take life into account and it certainly doesn’t take children into account… All in all our system is broken. It’s a big conversation. It involves the granting bodies, the governments, and our union (all having conversations together) because there is a lack of money and infrastructure in our industry… but it also involves companies making decisions of where they put their money and we, as artists, working alongside companies to try and find new ways to work and not rely on the models we all currently choose to use.”

The word choose is key here. We choose to use this model. If no better alternatives exist, we can choose to make new ones. And there’s action we can take right now. The next round of CTA negotiations are at the end of January 2018. Ron suggests that Montreal PACT companies write to Kristen Dion at Theatre Calgary, Chair of PACT’s negotiating team for the new CTA and Equity members can write to Equity’s Executive Director Arden Ryshpan, Chair of CAEA’s negotiating team, to voice their needs so that they will be taken into consideration during the upcoming negotiations. That’s one thing we can do to try to effect change.

Parents and theatre artists alike do the most extraordinary things with very little resources and time. Let’s make some much needed change in our practice. Parents, children, our creative work and our audiences; it will benefit us all.

Sophie Gee is a director who presents theatre and multidisciplinary creations under the name Nervous Hunter. She is Imago’s Artistic and Administrative Assistant and a mother to a toddler who is obsessed with ninja.