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Lester Hellman Shamos, Megan Cramer, Martin McWatters, Lena Hellman, and Lindsay Torrey at SPACE on Ryder Farm in Brewster, N.Y. (Photo by Talya Chalef)
Lester Hellman Shamos, Megan Cramer, Martin McWatters, Lena Hellman, and Lindsay Torrey at SPACE on Ryder Farm in Brewster, N.Y. (Photo by Talya Chalef)

How Theatres Are Supporting Work/Life Balance

In trying to strike a healthier work/life balance for their staff and artists, theatres find that flexibility, space, and planning are key.

Conference rooms can be stark, sterile places. Most of them could probably benefit from the addition of a Mr. Potato Head.

A conference room at Cleveland Play House does boast one, and he’s not alone: The Flory Family Room also boasts a Fisher-Price kitchen, a colorful toy castle, and assorted playthings. Also furnished with grownup necessaries such as a desk, computer, and meeting-ready table, the room is designed as a resource for parents who need to bring their children to the office—on a snow day, for instance. People caring for an elderly family member with dementia might also work here while supervising their loved one. When no family situations require its use, the room can revert to hosting office meetings.

Another space at the company’s offices is a “privacy room.” Equipped with a crib and other useful items, the spot is available to mothers who need to nurse babies or pump breast milk, or to parents seeking a place to give a child a nap. Individuals who need a temporary private retreat for other reasons—a private phone call, say—can also find a refuge here.

Both rooms—and a new set of policies governing matters like family leave—are part of recent adjustments designed to help Play House staff and artists balance work and personal life. Education director Pamela DiPasquale says the “Self and Family Wellness Policy” arose from a 2013 task force initially convened to revise the company’s maternity-leave policy.

“We pretty quickly decided that it wasn’t [just] about maternity leave,” says DiPasquale. Rather, the group needed to find a broad range of strategies to support the personal lives of artists and personnel. “It was a really large shift in how we thought about how we take care of everybody,” she says.

The Play House’s efforts are among a spate of recent work/life balance initiatives in the field. In August, the Lilly Awards Foundation teamed with SPACE on Ryder Farm, an artist’s residency program in Brewster, N.Y., for a playwrights’ retreat with fully funded child care. Coinciding with the start of the 2015–16 season, California’s La Jolla Playhouse launched the Paula Marie Black Endowment for Women’s Voices in the Art of Theatre, a fund designed to support female writers and directors with resources that may include child care.

Much-needed conversations about family-care issues have “started snowballing” in the field in recent years, says playwright Julia Jordan, a cofounder of the Lilly Awards, which honor the work of women in the American theatre.

The question of “what it means to institutionally choose to be a culture that accepts family” has garnered new attention in recent years, agrees Hana S. Sharif, an associate artistic director at Baltimore’s Center Stage, whose 4-year-old daughter spends so much time at the company that she has her own mini-desk-and-drawer “work” station in Sharif’s office.

Creating a supportive work enviornment can address both old dilemmas and new social realities. Jobs in the nonprofit theatre can be less lucrative than jobs in other sectors, observes Amanda White Thietje, managing director of Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre. At Mixed Blood, she says, “The salaries do not match the corporate headquarters nearby.” So it behooves the company to consider, as she puts it, “What are the ways we make sure [employees] feel rested and appreciated and have time with their families?” Such a strategy can have the added bonus of cutting down on employee turnover, which is expensive and disruptive for a company, she notes.

Goodman Theatre managing director Peter Calibraro notes the Chicago company’s new paid-parental-leave policy, and adds that the Goodman has partnered with outside firms to work with employees and artists on issues like stress reduction and injury avoidance. Such undertakings make sense for a younger generation joining the theatre field, who place a premium on “clean living, including diet and physical fitness,” he says.

The new developments come at a time when America’s work/life balance resources are getting a second look. Major companies like Netflix and Microsoft have recently announced family-friendly changes. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has incorporated a call for paid family leave into her campaign platform.

A fascination with wellness has gripped modern workplace culture. Intel has offered mindfulness training for its employees; Aetna has offered yoga. Popularity with corporate customers meant that Fitbit’s recent IPO valued the company at $4.1 billion. “A growing body of research suggests that nurturing employee health and wellness has a significant impact on productivity,” trumpeted a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review.

But the world of the gray flannel suits has hardly gone soft. As the New York Times noted while covering the corporate world’s recent, ostensibly family-friendly gambits, working parents may fear that actually taking their allowed time off will damage their careers. A recent Washington Post poll found that more than three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers in the U.S. say they have left jobs or foregone work opportunities to care for children. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gives certain American workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family-care purposes, the U.S. is an anomaly among developed countries for its lack of a paid-parental-leave guarantee for workers.


What’s more, the rhythms of 21st-century business tend to eat away at what personal and family time employees do enjoy. “Everybody wants an immediate response” to any business communication these days, points out Joette Pelster, executive director of the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. As if that weren’t bad enough, people in the theatre field “are so devoted and committed to the mission” that they are sometimes reluctant to take what time off their job allows, she said.

Center Stage associate artistic director Hana S. Sharif and her daughter, Zahara Sharif-Jackson.
Center Stage associate artistic director Hana S. Sharif and her daughter, Zahara Sharif-Jackson.

The most recent Employee Benefits Survey conducted by Theatre Communications Group (Christopher Shuff and Ilana B. Rose summarized the 2012 snapshot study) shows theatres addressing the work/life balance issue in various ways. Of the 154 surveyed theatres, five reported offering no paid leave. Of the remaining theatres, 31 percent offered general paid leave, while 69 percent offered various specific types of paid leave. Ninety percent of the theatres in this last category offered sick or family-emergency leave, while 76 percent offered “personal” leave, 36 percent offered maternity leave, and 27 percent offered paternity leave.

The average number of paid maternity-leave days ranged from 24 to 43, while the corresponding number for paternity leave ranged from 14 to 25. Some theatres reported that maternity/paternity leave drew on unused vacation, personal and sick leave first, before moving into unpaid leave. A number of theatres also observed that they were flexible and tended to allow employees to take time responsibly, as needed.

Flexibility is a watchword for many. The survey revealed that 39 percent of theatres—and 54 percent of small theatres—offered flexible hours or workweeks to employees in the “support staff” category, with a higher percentage offering the benefit to department heads (48 percent) and artistic and managing leaders (57 percent). About a quarter of theatres allowed support staff to telecommute, with higher percentages granting that benefit to department heads and other leaders. A number of theatre workers interviewed over the summer emphasized the value of flexible schedules in creating a healthy work environment.

“We don’t have set office hours,” says Jenny Larson, artistic director of Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin. “No one has to clock in. Everyone can drop in and out…We only care that you get the work done!” With her small company, a lot of work “can be done in your own living room, your own kitchen. Sometimes it’s more effective to write a grant at home in your pajamas!”

Jennifer McEwen, managing director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, enjoys the company’s unwritten flex-time policy, getting to the office as early as 7:30 a.m. so she can pick up her infant daughter in the afternoon. An elastic work schedule isn’t the only factor shaping the True Colors work environment: McEwen says she urges staff members to take compensatory days off after hectic bursts of activity; deliberately shuts the office on Fridays in August, and between Christmas and New Year’s, so staffers have more personal time; and plans staff retreats, such as one designed to include a private yoga class and vegan lunch in the middle of the company’s busy period last season.

As for artists, she says, True Colors has moved to a five-day week for rehearsal and performance, at the suggestion of artistic director Kenny Leon. “Kenny started doing film work, and he [said], ‘Every industry but theatre gives people two days off! One day’s not enough!’” she says. “So we’ve really shifted what our rehearsal schedule looks like to accommodate the personal needs of the artists.”

The personal needs of female artists may be particularly acute, given that women are still the ones who get pregnant, breastfeed, and—according to a 2015 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP—fill the majority of the nation’s family caregiver roles. Addressing the needs of artists who are both playwrights and mothers was the goal of the child-friendly writers’ retreat launched in August by the Lilly Awards Foundation, in association with SPACE on Ryder Farm.

Writers’ retreats and play-development programs provide an invaluable service, Jordan says, but such programs have historically either not welcomed children or else not planned for them in a way calculated to produce the best experience. A child admitted to a program’s premises as an afterthought, without recourse to age-appropriate activities, is unlikely to be happy—meaning that the parent-playwright is unlikely to see the situation as a viable option.

As a result, Jordan says, female playwrights “have to step aside and stop applying” when children enter the picture, which tends to happen “right when we become adult writers.” Under-investment in child-care resources is a significant factor in gender disparity in the theatre, she believes. Women artists “have to take our careers down a whole bunch of notches when biology sets in,” she says.

Aiming to rectify this problem, the August retreat—which Jordan organized with Emily Ryder Simoness, SPACE’s executive director—hosted five invited playwrights, as well as Jordan, a mother of two young children. When the writers were at work, child-care professionals supervised the assorted youngsters in nature- and art-related activities. Other time slots were earmarked for family time. Jordan says the experiment was a success and—an important point—not hard to set up. “It just requires a little thinking ahead,” she says.

As in Jordan’s case, personal experience led La Jolla Playhouse trustee Paula Marie Black to take steps toward making work/family balance possible for others. Over the years, Black had felt the strain of juggling motherhood and career (among her credits: serving as a producer for Fun Home on Broadway). “I know what it feels like to be a woman who has to be in two places at one time,” she says.

Black’s answer was to establish her $1 million endowment fund. La Jolla artistic director Christopher Ashley says the fund will support commissions and workshops, but will also go toward meeting female artists’ needs for child care, health care, and other essentials. The goal is “to try to make sure we’re not asking our artists to make a choice between life and work, but really trying to create an environment where their life is as supported as we possibly can make it, so that their work is as empowered as possible,” he says.


The privacy room at the Cleveland Play House.
The privacy room at the Cleveland Play House.

Could programs that benefit a specific category of people—women or parents—make others feel excluded? Ashley believes that male theatre artists have enough “generosity of spirit” to appreciate that La Jolla’s new endowment simply aims to “level the playing field in a world that is not equitable.”

Another approach to life/work equilibrium is to frame it more inclusively. Ashley Davis, who works as programs director for Alternate ROOTS, an Atlanta-based arts-service organization, says it’s best to pursue wellness for everybody, not just parents or caregivers. Too often, in theatre and beyond, addressing family needs means overtaxing young single people, Davis says. When she worked at California theatres, she noticed what she saw as a field-wide problem: “Single people in their twenties were working 80 hours a week, but those with children weren’t. It really was kind of a divide: If you didn’t have a family, you were expected to do more.”

That practice is not only unfair but unsustainable, increasing the chance that young people will burn out, she says, noting that the problem is much discussed by members of the Next Gen National Arts Network, a coalition she helps lead. The solution is to “focus on wellness for everybody,” Davis says, observing that the Next Gen network is doing advocacy to promote wellness in the arts.

An inclusive mindset informed Cleveland Play House’s recent changes. The theatre defines its privacy room as a space for anyone with privacy needs, not just nursing mothers. And in drafting its family-leave policy, “It was really important to us not to identify gender for parents, and also that we didn’t give preference for the primary or secondary caregiver. The family needs both caregivers!” DiPasquale says. “We also wanted to make sure we weren’t just talking about birth, but any way a new child might enter a family,” such as through adoption or foster care.

The family-friendly ethos at the Play House includes guest artists as well as staff; rehearsal schedules now account for artists’ child-care needs as a primary variable. Too often, in DiPasquale’s view, theatre folk have felt pressured to keep mum about private concerns while putting in the strenuous hours the field demands. A wiser outlook, she says, is to recognize that “to be the best artist I can be, I have to be able to embrace my family’s wellness and my own wellness.”

Celia Wren is a former managing editor of this magazine.

  • 2Peas

    So glad everyone’s talking and thinking about solutions. Like a family, it won’t be one size fits all but hopefully one program will fit an artist’s family’s needs at a given time.

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