This is part of a package of stories, Care for Caregivers.
The first episode of Blue’s Clues aired when I was almost 3. Now it’s 2020, the year my son will turn 3, and I am showing him an ancient VHS tape of the Blue’s Clues episodes I watched when I was his age. And then he breaks the VHS player, one of the last relics left from my childhood. Thankfully we find the episodes to purchase on demand. All of this undoubtedly makes me a millennial parent.
The last time I wrote a story about parenthood for American Theatre, my boy couldn’t even walk. Now he is sprinting, throwing snowballs, coloring the walls. He has no interest in breastmilk; he’s moved onto chicken nuggets and choo choo trains. My family’s needs are constantly in flux.
The last time I wrote about caregiving, the parents I interviewed told me my needs as a parent artist would shift tremendously. I didn’t know what they meant. I thought I would be sleep-deprived forever. I thought I would think about breastfeeding forever. I didn’t know how it would feel to watch a teeny person do something new, day after day, and navigate what to do about it.
I’m getting it more now. Unfortunately, in getting it, I’ve become a bit more jaded.
I learned something recently that surprised me. I learned that Generation Alpha, the children born between 2010 and 2025, have more parents in their 30s than in their 20s. For the first time, like, ever. The statistics shocked me but underlined what I already suspected: Having a baby in my early 20s was, all things considered, pretty young. And the comments I received throughout my pregnancy and still get, about how odd it is that I would choose having a child over pursuing my early career, seem even more persistent.
I fought those comments for a long time. “I can have both,” I expressed with grating denial. I still believe it sometimes. I try to have both every day as I work a revolving door of jobs—sometimes four to five jobs at once—in hopes that one day I can land that mythical opportunity to just have one satisfying, decent-paying job. As a young playwright who’s a mother, how do I make it work? people ask. This is where I have to lie a bit, because I often feel like I don’t—not really, anyway. Since my son was born, I’ve written four plays and have had zero productions.
This isn’t about how I’m not sufficiently recognized. A big reason I’ve had no productions is because I don’t apply for many out-of-town residencies. I don’t gather groups of my 20-something friends and put up shows for free in old Chicago storefronts. I barely reach out to directors or producers I want to work with for happy hours or coffee dates, because I don’t have a lot of money or spare time (and I don’t love the moment when the bill comes and my card gets declined half the time).
This may seem granular, but hear me out: My child’s daycare costs $44 more per month than our rent. And that is with a 23 percent discount on his total “tuition.” I put tuition in quotes because he’s a toddler, and finding a safe space to take him while I need to work during the week doesn’t warrant, to me, the term “tuition.” The way access to decent childcare has been commodified in the United States is, to put it lightly, horrific.
I know that in order to have both work and a child, to be respected as both an artist and a mother, the first step is to get in the habit of saying “yes” to myself and my career. But beyond my immediate choices, if caregivers in this country are going to be able to say yes to ourselves, we need more institutions to say yes to us first.
The good news is that there is a growing network of advocates working every day to make this happen, in the theatre and beyond. We are building a language and growing, but we need to grow even more.
In December 2019, Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) for Performing Arts + Media held the first national summit regarding parent support in the performing arts, gathering more than 15 participating institutions from the United States and Canada. Around 50 people—artists, administrators, and advocates—gathered to discuss some of the issues faced by caregivers in the arts, look at models that are already working, and strive toward building new language and policies that might form a national standard for parent and caregiver artists. Founded by Rachel Spencer Hewitt, actor and mother of two, PAAL is a collective of both individuals and institutions committed to empowering caregiving artists in the workplace.
PAAL’s mission is conscientious about various intersections of artistic employment. This includes, among many factors, whether an employee is full-time, part-time, or freelance; whether an employee is onstage, backstage, in the scene or costume shop, behind the table, in the office, or wherever else around the theatre; whether the employee or the individuals the employee cares for have a disability; the employee’s race, economic background, and gender identity.
All this is to say that the infrastructure PAAL is advocating for does not and cannot have a “one size fits all” approach. PAAL’s National Handbook of Best Practices for Parent Artists and Employees is an amalgamation of years of research. One hopes that institutions take it to heart as well; though the conversation often starts when employees speak up, success really comes when caretakers are asked by their employers what they need.
Mary Hodges, who conducted a keynote with McCarter Theatre Center artistic director Emily Mann at the PAAL Summit, is an actor and director. She put this to me in terms that go beyond individual or even collective effort or advocacy; for Hodges, strides toward parent artist accommodations should rightly be considered a movement.
“You wrap your mind around how far behind this country is on caretaking,” she said, noting that this is also true of the arts. “We’re not asking for a lot.”
As a single parent, she has developed her own working methods around her son’s care. Hodges said her son, who’s now 9, likes being in the rehearsal room because he has always been there: as a toddler, as a baby in a carrier—even before he was born, all throughout her pregnancy.
Last year, when Hodges assistant-directed for Robert O’Hara on Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play on Broadway, the show’s mature content meant that her son couldn’t be in the room itself, but was installed in a private area nearby. Hodges scheduled the room with the production manager. The space, at the New 42nd Street Studios in Manhattan, also includes a private lactation room complete with a rocking chair, breast pads, and even a pump. Though Hodges’s needs for her son no longer include breastfeeding accommodations, she took note of the intentionality. For her son’s purposes, the scheduled room was perfect: safe, located down a secure hallway, and quiet.
The picture hasn’t always been so bright. In the beginning of Hodges’s motherhood journey, she remembers, people wouldn’t even bother to call. Most people assumed she had lost interest or was too busy because she was a mom. Her very parenthood made her seem unavailable. Then, when her son was 2, she got a call todo a show at Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Ky. She read the play and thought, “I can do this. I’m going to do this.”She had been on her own with her son since he was eight months old, so his father wasn’t around much. To participate in the play, she let her son stay with his father for the first two weeks, then with her family for the second two weeks. At the end of the four-week process, she had the company fly her to Virginia so she could go pick up her little one.
“Sometimes,” she told me, “you have to figure out how to salvage yourself. It makes you a better parent and a better caretaker if you’re fulfilling your needs as an artist. We shouldn’t be in a place where we have to choose. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice jobs we would like to take because we simply can’t afford to do it.”
Then she used a phrase I’d never really considered: economic compassion. To her the math is simple: If an institution wants an artist’s expertise, the artist needs to be paid fairly for the service they are providing. That means reasonable pay that doesn’t cancel out a paycheck after the cost of childcare and travel. She said, “There has to be more compassion and there has to be more empathy.”
In Hodges’s eyes, there are plenty of artists and caretakers who have been through all this who need to be advocates and allies. “This is where regional theatres can take note,” she said. “If this is so commonplace, they should have it set up in their database. If we looked at the numbers of how many parents or caretakers are coming through—helping their institution, helping them generate money—if we did a survey about how many employees they hired in a year that were parents, I wonder if they would even know the answer.”
I’m curious about this too, so I asked PAAL’s Rachel Spencer Hewitt if she has any numbers on this. The answer was, unsurprisingly, complicated.
“If we polled employees,” Spencer Hewitt said, “we would only be polling the people who are privileged enough to stay employed. It’s the people who have been forced to leave and who aren’t working right now—it’s those voices we need to hear first.” Spencer Hewitt recalls when she first started interviewing parent artists, back when she began her Auditioning Mom blog, and many of the interviewees confessed they weren’t even working anymore.
This is why it’s called the “invisible caregiver” problem. “When people become caregivers, they disappear,” Spencer Hewitt said. On top of that, asking an employee their familial status can be controversial, especially due to the threat of discrimination.
There are some indirect ways theatres can track the caregiving status of their employees, though. One way is to look at which employees used FMLA over the years. PAAL is working to develop some of these numbers. “We know that over 60 percent of nonprofit theatres don’t even have an HR department,” Spencer Hewitt said. “This comes from TCG’s own research.”
One measure of need, at least, is the number of people who have applied for a $500 PAAL grant to support their caregiving. Spencer Hewitt said she’d received more than 100 applications, asking for money to help parent artists direct shows, attend workshops of their plays, even go to auditions.
The grant applications also effectively aggregate other data. One application question asks, “How has parenting affected the following,” with categories including promotional and networking opportunities, new work opportunities, creative opportunities with others, and individual creativity. Survey participants rate their experience on a scale—and the most common rating for each question is “significantly reduced.”
“At the heart of it, we are talking about employment opportunities,” Spencer Hewitt said. “If you think $500 is too much for your company to set aside, know that it is definitely too much for a parent to set aside in order to come work for you. It is overwhelming for one individual but it is doable for your institution.”
And beyond just the work of PAAL, Spencer Hewitt is cognizant of the bigger picture. “If your lack of caregiver support is affecting your employees, you’re not just ignoring your employee’s needs—you’re ignoring a national and global conversation.”
Compassion, of course, doesn’t just have economic dimensions. I spoke with the director-actor-educator Nicole Brewer, whose focus is Conscientious Theatre Training (CTT), a holistic pedagogy for training theatremakers in “equitable anti-racist representation in all areas of theatre through disrupting harmful erasure,” as her website puts it. The core of CTT is “cultural competency, self-care practices, and anti-racist theory to create an embodied experience where participants learn to utilize their sphere of power to disrupt white supremacy culture.”
When Brewer began working on CTT, she operated with different communities under the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Then she realized she could expand. She felt the EDI lens still centered whiteness; she now uses the rubric of anti-racism, and more specifically anti-racist theatre. Accordingly, in the dialogue about accommodations for caregivers, Brewer’s work calls out discrepancies between treatment of white caregivers and caregivers of color.
“I haven’t had any experience around my parenting that has not been racist,” Brewer told me. Part of her evolution within CTT is examining the ways she feels complicit in the narrative. She doesn’t want to be “living and breathing and normalizing this racism every day, but to be accountable for myself and the way I show up for others in this giant obstacle in my life.”
Brewer’s children are dual heritage, which means she often finds herself in situations where their appearances are exoticized. When she brings her children into predominantly white spaces, there’s often a conversation about how they look that doesn’t sit well. “I always have to be present so I can counter that narrative—that because they’re lighter-skinned, they’re more valuable than me,” she said. “And then I’m looking to see—do people police my children differently? Do they discipline them in a different way?” One shining exception was when she worked at Howard University. “When I was at Howard, I felt it was okay and that I could breathe. Anything outside of that historic Black college is a hard no.”
Sometimes, when Brewer is made to feel uncomfortable by how her children are talked about and treated in theatre spaces, she needs to put her foot down and take on a protective “Mama Bear” role. But that gesture has its own consequences. “In this field, reputation matters, so when you run out of favor with folks, it has a financial impact,” she said. For that reason, she points out, “I and many other parents have made the decision to cocoon our children from our work.”
Brewer is also acutely aware of the idiosyncrasies of every family and each child. For some children, she noted, attending rehearsals, being overstimulated and passed around by a bunch of strangers, is not ideal. For Brewer’s almost-8-year-old, a plush mat in the corner accomplishes little to nothing. And she doesn’t want to fall into the trap of keeping kids entertained with “zombie screen time” forever.
Pulling from the pedagogical mission of CTT, Brewer noted that a meaningful and actionable first step from institutions would be a paper trail. “Organizations need to have a written document around how they are going to support people, and let people have a say about what they need at that time,” she said.
I asked Brewer if she has ever had an experience in the theatre where she did feel fairly accommodated and cared for. She answered simply, “No.” But she also rejects the narrative many caregivers have that they’re doing the work all on their own—what she thinks of the “bootstrap” fallacy. Brewer honors her communities, knowing that without them her career would not be possible. Her parents watch her kids when she is out of town for the week, and her partner adjusts his schedule to help her make it work. She relies on her non-theatre friends to soften the edges of her often unpredictable schedule. Despite it all, there is sometimes a harsh reality. “My kids have these moments where I’m not there,” she said.
I told Brewer about some of my experiences in the theatre, in which I noticed children being disrespected by adults, even while they were present in the room. On multiple occasions, I’ve witnessed adults go on about how they never liked kids, thought kids were gross, or imagined that the responsibility was too much—all while children were standing nearby, listening. It is hurtful.
“There’s a huge blanket of, it’s my problem—I’m the one who made the choice to have the kid,” Brewer said. “But we as adults were kids. How do we forget to be gracious, to be kind, to get down on our knees and witness them?”
To push this work forward, Brewer is asking for accountability for institutions that fail to push forward equitable efforts, agendas, and policies. “Accountability is what many of these movements are missing,” she says. Pathways of accountability could work effectively to begin to normalize fair treatment.
With accountability on the brain, I talked to Ariana Smart Truman, producing director of the Off-Broadway company Elevator Repair Service. ERS is known for its avant-garde staging of texts from literature (Gatz, The Select) or other sources (Arguendo, which dramatized a Supreme Court hearing on laws about public nudity), and for touring these shows around the U.S. and the world. They have a less well-known history of providing accommodations for caregivers while on tour.
ERS began as a group of fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings in the early ’90s. By 2005, the company’s founder, John Collins, felt committed to making ERS the center of his life and began to dedicate his everyday grind to the ensemble. To help realize that, Collins enlisted Tory Vazquez, who had her first child around the same time. “Early on, when they had office space in New York,” Smart Truman said, “there were pictures circulating of a ‘typical workday’ at ERS, with Tory’s young daughter in the pictures, on a soft pad on the floor.” So from nearly the beginning, as Smart Truman put it, family-friendly policy was “baked into the administrative ethos.”
When Smart Truman joined the staff in the mid-2000s, her daughter was three months old, and from the start Collins and the rest of the team created a position that would accommodate her needs as a parent. Then the company had what she called a “baby explosion.”
“In the late 2000s, everyone was like, ‘I’m 36 and I’ve gotta have a baby,’” she said. “Because we had the explosion of babies and all these touring opportunities, we had to figure out how to make things work.” From the start, the company’s perspective involved “an incredible amount of attention paid to the details in everyone’s life,” as Smart Truman put it. “It’s all about saying to people, ‘What do you need?’”
ERS now includes a line for “childcare” in every production budget they create. The expense typically makes up less than one percent of the entire production budget. And even “childcare” is a loose term; parents who need it may use the money for childcare, as a per diem for meals with their children on the road, or any other resources that would serve them best. Last fiscal year, ERS budgeted $7,900 for childcare and ended up using $2,975 of that. In light of the company’s total fiscal year expenses, the percentage of the budget dedicated to caregiving expenses occupied less than half of one percent. Smart Truman sent me the ratio of childcare-to-production costs for ERS dating back to 2012. In other years, too, the actual expenses turned out to be less than the projections.
According to Smart Truman, the budget allocation for childcare is an educated guess; as the production gets closer, people become more specific about what they need. She added, “The number is not consistent, which is an insight that’s really important. Sometimes we are in a position where we can cover half of people’s needs, but sometimes we’re able to cover the whole amount.”
Smart Truman also works with the Wooster Group, another storied New York devising ensemble, which also interweaves childcare into their budgets, so that teaching artists can take care of their children in whatever way they need. Smart Truman said the founders of the Wooster Group are about a generation older than the folks at ERS, so they were influential on how she thought about the compatibility of caregiving and theatre.
Another important player in this movement is Hana S. Sharif, who began as artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis last year, and before that worked as a multi-faceted director, playwright, and producer. Her daughter is now almost 9.
Since she took her new job, the heat has turned up on some of her work-life balance challenges. For example, Sharif’s daughter was worried her mother wouldn’t make it to her big Christmas concert. She woke Sharif up at 5 a.m. the day of the concert and demanded, “Is it true you’re going to New York today?” Sharif said yes, but promised she would be home for the concert. Her daughter countered that the flight might be delayed, or that Sharif might get caught up in a meeting, or any number of factors that could leave her stuck in New York. She said, “Mom, I know your job is important. It is important for you to be a great artistic director, but some things can’t be more important than me.”
So Sharif picked up her phone in front of her daughter and cancelled her flight. At that moment, she said, the important thing was to make it clear that her responsibility as a mother was larger than her responsibility to do anything else.
Unsurprisingly it’s imperative to Sharif that St. Louis Rep embraces a space that is family-friendly, not just for her but for all staff and freelancers. For instance, when director Rebecca Martinez went into rehearsals for Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles with a four-week-old baby, Sharif sat down with the production’s management team and had a frank conversation about how to support a director who was a new mom.
Being the leader of a major LORT company hasn’t altered Sharif’s belief in parent artist advocacy. “For me, it’s an easy yes,” she said. “It’s the 21st century. So much of our world is digital. If you need to work from home, or call into a meeting, why is that hard? If you need time away from the theatre to heal yourself and bond with your child, then let’s come up with a plan to find someone to fill the physical space while you are gone, but give you rest, assured that you have a place here and you are an integral part of this company’s family.”
Having been on the other side of that call, Sharif well understands the significance of an intentional gesture from leadership. “I am fortunate I get to be the boss now,” she said. “Because I can just say yes.”
Still, she knows there is work to do for so many communities and so many people. “It would be completely unreasonable to say it’s easy, especially if you don’t have a support system,” she conceded. “As an artistic director, I have the power to make it easier or harder for people to find their way through what feels like an impossible situation.”
In Chicago, where I live, Free Street Theater and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble are noted for providing family-friendly accommodations, policies, and events for their artists and audiences. I was recently invited to a reading by the playwright and activist Hallie Palladino, for which she arranged a childcare opportunity for attendees. Another big area of need for caregiver support is not just when theatremakers have a job but when they are seeking jobs. To that end, Chicago Theatre Access Auditions offers services and in New York, Broadway Babysitters refers artists to safe, vetted care for children.
This is just a handful of examples of theatres and people who are making the effort, but there are still gaps. If this country is going to continue to drop the ball on policies that support families, can we, in the theatre, just agree to not do that? As PAAL teaches, there are three big questions every institution should address in the conversation about policies for caregivers. Is your policy legal? Is it ethical? Is it compassionate?
If you run a theatre and you have no written policy in the first place, consider that step one. Step two is trickier, because it requires you to have honest conversations with your people about what they need to continue working for you.
Maybe you are reading this and wondering what that looks like. I wish I could give you the answer that would fix this, a magical panacea, but I can’t. The answer is going to be different for everyone and every institution. But that’s no excuse not to start this conversation, if you haven’t already. I know it is hard. It is hard. But we all tackle harder things than this every day in our work and our home lives. If I can find a way to balance the daily demands of a toddler and my creative soul, I believe that together we, as a field, can handle this.
Caroline Macon Fleischer is a multi-genre writer and editor based in Chicago. She has worked with Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, Chicago Children’s Theatre, and more. She is a member of Chicago’s “Poems While You Wait” and is pursuing a master’s in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University.