This is part of a package of stories, Care for Caregivers.
At this time last year, I was preparing to attend TCG’s annual conference to facilitate a lab on creating supportive work structure and environments for caregivers in our field. None of us could anticipate that in just 12 short months, our world would be on lockdown and our livelihoods in crisis.
The irony in this anniversary is that while our planet experiences a seismic shift, the work and strategies generated in that lab have become more relevant than ever. I’ve received messages thanking the Parent-Artists Advocacy League (PAAL) for acting so quickly to provide solutions to current conditions. But the reality is that gathering these solutions has been in the works for years because, for better or worse, caregivers have extensive experience with necessary work accommodations, conditional employment loss, and experiences of isolation.
A year ago these were thought of as challenges chiefly for the vulnerable—for workers who might be allowed to form their own affinity groups during the lunch hour only to wait months, if not years, for their organizations to listen to their advice. In short, accommodations for caregivers were once a niche issue. Now, tragically, these accommodations have become necessities for everyone.
When I began collecting information for this piece, I contacted caregivers who have endured their own versions of quarantine, remade their creative spaces, and created solutions for working at home—all before the field at large was ready to hear them. It is an extraordinary privilege to share these solutions on a universal scale to honor the stories of caregivers who have proven to be accidental Cassandras for our current state.
What were once essential needs for seemingly few have, in a matter of months, become the essential needs for all. We now have the opportunity to use the lessons from caregiver solutions to make this time of crisis a time of organizational reinvention. In order to achieve resilient reinvention, however, we must take intentional steps to reshape our way of thinking, our way of working, and our way of making. Before the crisis, the solutions were effective for caregivers. After the crisis, the solutions are universally necessary. What an opportunity to take these lessons and implement them to make our collaborations healthier, more effective, and designed for humanity. This began as a piece on solutions for caregiver support, and it now can serve as a blueprint of intentional steps toward the reinvention we need to shape a sustainable future.
Mindset Shift: Everyone Is Vulnerable
When I presented for the first time at the Statera Conference in Milwaukee in 2018, I conducted a workshop on “Motherhood and Leadership.” I invited mothers to share their experiences, non-parents to ask their questions, and leaders to challenge themselves to walk away with one actionable item they each could implement to support their caregivers. While that workshop could be an article in itself, the most striking moment happened after we dismissed. I was approached by a non-parent who had attended as an ally. She shared with me in confidence that in her organization, there was a time when she was diagnosed with a serious illness at the same time her co-worker became pregnant. Almost simultaneously, she shared, her illness and her co-worker’s pregnancy created a shift in how they were treated. Conversation on solutions was nearly non-existent, the organization had no plan in place, and both were left to endure their major life events alone: in isolation, without structural support or cultural awareness.
These two colleagues had parallel experiences of abandonment by their leadership because their organization had shaped its policy outside of the realm of events that make us dynamically human. I often share that there will be a point in every individual’s life where they will experience a major life event: illness, birth, loss. We are all vulnerable at some point. In a conversation with Ann Marie Lonsdale from the HowlRound webinar “Artists in a Time of Global Pandemic,” she offered a phrase that has circulated throughout the disability community: “We’re all temporarily able.” We have long failed those in our field who have had to face their major life events alone. Now that we have a universal life event, we must cling to this experience to define the priorities of our organizations as they’re remade.
At PAAL we talk about interconnected access. This refers to the belief that by centering our policies on need versus convention, we find solutions that elevate benefits of the work environment for everyone. For those terrified of the financial implications of this concept, not to worry: It is actually economically beneficial. As all our financial plans feel shattered in this moment, as we reconstruct the pieces to shape a new financial future, our fragile structures will survive if they are centered on the realities of what it means to be human.
Work from Home Policies for Every Organization
As many states shelter in place, both administrative and creative work has moved to virtual connections. In interviews with parents, they say that work from home has helped increase their time to bond with children, reduced financial strain by cutting back hours needed for childcare or unnecessary travel for occasional production meetings that could be conducted virtually, and provided contingency plans when schools were closed, and prevented tapping into much-needed sick days when it has been their child that needs care.
Historically, remote work has also been a key factor in increasing accessibility. Says Talleri McRae from National Disability Theatre, “I always appreciate—whether it’s related to parenting, disability, or neither—flexibility and understanding. Flexibility on tight deadlines whenever possible. (My turnaround time has tripled since becoming a parent.) Flexibility in how I can participate, in person, by video, or even by email before a meeting happens because the meeting is during toddler bedtime. Understanding that meeting times might shift, rehearsal plans might get rearranged, but also trust that things will move forward. Questions will be answered. Discussions will be had. And just because I’m disabled and just because I’m a parent doesn’t make me less capable to do these work things. It just means shifting how I—and we, the team—get things done.”
In PAAL’s new HR Health program, we’ve launched the online workshop “The Readiness Series” on how to seek employment and effectively work from home. In this series, we are releasing the resources once meant for caregivers that could now help our field at large. The recommendations for successful execution in the work from home environment include
a) Start each call with a personal check-in to generate healthy relationship over digital space
b) Create a physical space in the home dedicated to the work to create a physical and psychological boundary
c) Articulate as a team or organization specific times “off-line” where emails and calls will not be answered to create healthy work expectation
d) Commit as leadership or with leadership to write these time boundaries out as company-wide commitments and articulate any project exceptions and how to compensate exceptions with additional off-line time frames
e) Engage with caregivers on supportive streamlining for calls and deadlines (occasional work calls post-bedtime while the next morning is designated as “off-line” or scheduling all work calls in the afternoon to leave the morning off-line so they can establish schooling, home routine, outdoor time, etc.
f) Understand that the more humans involved, the more compassion is required. If your colleague has to negotiate a sibling war or is changing a diaper or has to pause the call to bandage a wound, remember our humanity is the priority here, and the project a far second. Take a breath and the opportunity to be generous and even take a moment of meditation for yourself—then offer one to your colleague who may reenter the call breathless and likely amped
g) Engage leadership to make work from home a provision for major life events and work/life balance moving forward.
Supportive Scheduling to Reduce Burnout and Financial Burdens
Our theatre culture clings to tight production schedules and extensive office hours as indications of commitment or passion. For caregivers whose human responsibilities require more supportive scheduling, this mindset cuts into their reputations, employment opportunities, or financial and physical health. But many caregivers in leadership—often women, such as the case of the leadership at Detroit Public Theatre, and primarily women of color, to be more specific, including Roberta Pereira and Patricia McGregor—have broken ground in restructuring more humane schedules to more relevantly support our time, and to define commitment and passion by the work contributed, not hours logged.
Supportive scheduling includes the five-day rehearsal week, restructuring tech days, and creating administrative off-line boundaries with project exceptions and off-line compensation times (as listed above). With the five-day rehearsal week, it has been proven time and again that financial and logistical burdens are reduced for everyone and the quality of the contribution rises. Award-winning director Patricia McGregor is a powerful advocate for the five-day work week and restructured tech schedules. Also a caregiver, McGregor told me that her belief in a more humane work schedule preceded her becoming a mother. Her own mother was a union worker who marched for teacher’s rights decades ago. Both witnessing and participating, young Patricia learned of the inextricable nature between labor and equity. Here and now, she says, the theatre “has an opportunity” to be a leader “not in what has always been but in what should be in redefining how collectives should work.”
Supportive scheduling will make it more possible for more artists and administrators to contribute as we rebuild what it means to commit in our field. The five-day rehearsal week is available for every equity contract, and PAAL has outlined how to engage with it.
Shape the Space for Needs Over Convention
In the play Goodnight Nobody by Rachel Bonds at the McCarter Theatre Center this past fall, the lead character Kay pumps her breast milk in a farmhouse. The audience hears the breast pump running—a mechanical and jarring gear-plus-suction sound—for 25 percent of the show, then witnesses Kay washing her pump parts in the sink. While the character has a three-hour timer for pumping going off in her head, she also wrestles with identity, a full-time job, caring for a seven-month-old baby, and loneliness.
The McCarter’s production featured a radical element offstage. Kay was played by actor Arielle Woodweiss, who, at the very moment of production, was a new mom to a seven-month-old little boy. Throughout rehearsals and tech, Bonds, director Tyne Rafaeli, and the theatre engaged in constant dialogue with Woodweiss about her needs, specifically in terms of space. Finding powerful advocates in Bonds, a mother herself, Rafaeli, a committed ally, and the McCarter, an organization with a reputation of this kind of support, Woodweiss said she learned language in real time to articulate what she needed to live in housing with a child and pump on-site while bringing the story of a breastfeeding mother onto the stage.
Talleri McRae seconded the importance of space access. “As a disabled parent, one of the things I appreciate the most is a no-judgement attitude, if my toddler attends a meeting or a through, and acts—well, like a toddler.”
As we reimagine what a “professional space” means, many of us need not look much farther than the dining room table or the couch we now call “the office.” Children entering the rehearsal space may happen time and again due to financial and logistical failings. These examples are critical to include in our conversations with parents now as we all navigate how to communicate with children in the space, and ask what artists’ access need may be in order to best contribute. Because, at the end of the day, shaping the space for access needs rather than adhering to convention affects the stories we can tell. It is impossible to bring diverse content to our stages and create accessible opportunities for our audiences without first learning how to do it for our artists and administrators behind the scenes.
Dedicated Funds for Leave Policies and Childcare/Elder Care
Even before the crisis, budgets for nonprofit theatres often strained financially. At our national summit on caregiver support last December, we engaged with many leaders who provided real numbers for funds they created to support childcare, including Elevator Repair Service, the TEAM, the Playwrights Realm, and more. PAAL has outlined the steps to creating a fund for caregiver provisions. While budgets look slashed and hopeless now for so many institutions, freelance caregivers are in the same boat—and they don’t have access to boards or a platform for their voice. If they are to return to our field, we need to hold space for their support. What we’ve found is that when a fund is dedicated to caregiver support, donors find it a relatable cause, as caregiving affects all of us in some way, especially in times of crisis.
This a wonderful opportunity for individuals to be specific with how they can help rebuild our institutions. At the PAAL summit, the Realm also explained how they were able to provide paid maternity leave for producing director Roberta Pereira: The Realm created a fund with a surplus for artistic risk and expanded its use to support a leave policy shaped with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) standards. While not every organization has a surplus or qualifies to fulfill FMLA obligations, every institution has the opportunity to demonstrate the commitment of their budget’s narrative to gender parity, diversity, and improving the retention rate of upward mobility in our field. That applies even when rebuilding. And the national statistics prove that gender parity, diversity, and retention rates are directly impacted by caregiver funds and leave policies. Every institution must include a childcare fund as they rebuild. Structuring the budgets of our rebuilding field around these provisions will improve our efforts in rebuilding communities as well.
As quickly as the world can fall into crisis, even more quickly it can forget what it means to be vulnerable. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to convert the energy generated by our fear of the future into energy to fight for it. There is no future worth that fight where we gather again, healthy and working, while a few are left to quarantine in their own crises because we’ve neglected to take this time to make “need” the priority of structural change. In a social media post this past week, Johanna Maynard Edward, executive director of Women’s Theatre Festival of Raleigh, N.C., and PAAL chief rep, documented her family life during social distancing. In a video, she shares her experience running a theatre company and caring for her family while in isolation during the time she was also being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition of the cardiovascular system. Her experience helped equip her for the current isolation with a child on the spectrum. The takeaways Edwards offers include, “We are parent artists. We are the most creative problem solvers on the planet. We were made for this moment.”
While layoffs, budget devastations, and shuttered productions threaten our institutional sustainability—or, in some cases, very existence—we must find our light. Whether it’s conscious of it or not, our field is more flexible than ever in its understanding of “necessity” and “luxury,” and this flexibility can foster growth if we invest in the right ways. Remote work, flexible scheduling, childcare, and leave provisions in the past were often categorized as “luxury” because they only impacted a few. Now that these provisions are everyone’s necessity, our time now opens wide the door for the theatre to lead the way through it. Thanks to caregivers who persevered, we have the next steps for how to learn from a crisis we couldn’t anticipate to create the future our field deserves.
New York-based actor Rachel Spencer Hewitt is the founder of Parent Artist Advocacy League for Performing Arts + Media.
Creative credits for photo: Goodnight Nobody at McCarter Theatre Center, written by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, with sets by Kimie Nishikawa, costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting by Jen Schriever, and sound by Daniel Kluger.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!