It started with a workshop. In 2014, actor Cassie Raine met director Anna Ehnold-Danailov at Prams in the Hall, a parent-friendly theatre company in London. In 2015, their shared experiences as both mothers and artists inspired the formation of Parents in the Performing Arts, or PIPA, an advocacy group intent on generating solutions for caregivers in the performing arts. By early 2016, PIPA had formed a consortium consisting of eighteen top theatre organizations in the UK led by The Old Vic, including National Theatre of Scotland, Belgrade Theatre, and Equity UK. In the fall of 2016, PIPA distributed a survey to gather data on caregivers in the theatre arts and trial resulting initiatives for a specific purpose: to draft a first known charter of “best practices” for caregivers and their employers in the theatre arts intended for widespread use and implementation. The charter hopes to make the theatre more accessible to its dedicated practitioners with caregiver responsibilities. The speed with which PIPA and its consortium have developed from grassroots movement to national edict has as much to do with passion and dedication as it does with its profound relevancy, not only to the increasing number of theatre practitioners dedicated to work and family balance but also to the overall evolution of employment in the arts and the national economy as a whole.

Over 400 people, including 70 kids, attended the PIPA first launch at the Young Vic on October 16, 2015. Photo by Abby Warren Photography. 

From Grassroots Movement to National Edict
From the beginning, Anna and Cassie established PIPA as a consortium consisting of top theatre organizations to “get as much weight in the room” as possible, allowing for conversations on potential solutions to include individuals “already running the system.” Anna added great emphasis on this project’s ability to “attract the industry as a whole.” The driving force behind creating this survey was a desire to inform theatre administrators of “the reality of the situation, not just the impression.” Founders Anna and Cassie knew they would need proof beyond collected anecdotes in order to encourage participating theatre companies to experiment with creating and developing interventions. Dr. Tom Cornford, Lecturer in Theatre and Performance at the Royal Center for Speech and Drama, joined the PIPA campaign as lead researcher. With experience as a parent in the theatre arts prior to his teaching appointment, Dr. Cornford and his wife encountered many common parenting obstacles while pursuing theatre work. As the primary caregiver at the time, Dr. Cornford identifies the conflict he experienced as constantly juggling “which hat you’ve got on.” PIPA’s campaign is crucial, he says, to help reveal the “hidden factors” that shape the work theatre practitioners can and want to do by identifying obstacles that arise behind the scenes, obstacles that perhaps “[one] can ignore as an audience member.” In order for data to be encapsulating, Dr. Cornford said their interest focused on “the ecology of theatre as a whole,” spanning widely across discipline and employment as well as vertically in terms of structural hierarchy.

Promoted internally amongst theatre staff and publicly on social media, PIPA’s best practices survey gathered double the expected number of participants. While 500 individuals would provide substantial information, Dr. Cornford and his team received 966 participants. The large cohort proved crucial to ensure a representative sample, not only in diversity of caregiver experiences but also in diversity of discipline within the theatre community.

Social media promotion on Twitter for survey participation, PIPA Best Practices Survey 2016.

The Caregiver Penalty to Upward Mobility
Most worth investigating in terms of gender and employment, perhaps, is the suggestion that caregiver responsibility may play a significant role in preventing full-time and upper management employment for women. The restraining effect of the caregiver burden on upward mobility in employment is no new topic, but the following numbers shed light on how the obstacle may affect caregivers in UK theatre, specifically. The survey report states that “people with child dependents are likely to be missing opportunities to earn money and/or advance their careers up to once a month.” The majority of survey participants, 74 percent, identified as female. Participants also reported four times as many women as men claiming responsibility for 70 percent of childcare. Only women reported taking on 100 percent of childcare responsibilities. Because women take on these responsibilities to a greater degree than their male counterparts, female practitioners may be more vulnerable to missing out on promotion and employment, leaving fewer female candidates eligible for upper positions and project opportunities. This dilemma could contribute at least in part to the persisting gender disparity in certain disciplines. The survey release states that “current support for employees is steered toward employed, full-time workers” and identifies full-time employees as 50 percent more men than women, with three times as many women in part-time work as there are men. Not only does support then go to practitioners capable of full-time work, the majority being men, but upward mobility also favors employees in full-time positions, reducing the amount of opportunities for women who must choose part-time work due to childcare responsibilities and lack of resources and support. One statement from the survey affirms a connection in an individual case. The testimony states, quite plainly, “I had to become part-time and abandon any chance of career development.” Survey responses also reveal the perception of bias reaching beyond employment to work culture, with 68 percent of all male and female participants agreeing “women are treated differently by the organization they work for after becoming a parent.” Only 9 percent “actively disagreed.”

Men are not excluded from the obstacles of caregiving and pursuing a career in theatre, however. Though only making up 26.8 percent of survey participants, the minority status of men as caregivers often results in overlooking male employees in terms of both provision for or consideration of caregiver responsibilities. Social stigmas infiltrate the theatre culture as well. One respondent cited “the assumption that [men] will not have caring responsibilities, even when it is known they have children.” Male performers who are caregivers at home admitted being told “not to mention caring responsibilities at interviews for fear of creating an impression of limited availability or appearing less masculine than they otherwise would.” Survey comments also noted a lack of awareness from theatre organizations that “dad may well be looking after both mother and child” in terms of post-birth care. These comments hint at the topic of paternity and maternity leave in theatre, a provision that could provide relief at home post-birth in an artist-household likely dependent on the financial provision from all caregivers.

For many, finding ways to better support the long hours would provide substantial change. When caring responsibilities are a factor, 79 percent of survey participants overwhelmingly affirmed last-minute commitments as an obstacle within the theatre work culture. The best practice survey found that “stage managers and technical and production staff seem to be among those who suffer most” from the last-minute commitments and extended hours. Identifying obstacles within the workload is not to be mistaken as disinterest in investing long hours, however. Engaging in last minute changes and extensive hours were still positively identified among caregiver practitioners as “evidence of a high level of commitment to their work,” revealing a willingness on behalf of the caregiver practitioners to maintain a quality work ethic while simultaneously admitting a need for better efficiency and means of support. This highlights the assertion that while caregivers in these disciplines remain capable of and committed to doing the work required, employer ignorance of caregiver lifestyle, inflexibility of process, and employer lack of planning can lead to strain on artists balancing both life and work responsibilities.

Hidden Carers
PIPA’s data also uncovered a subset of caregivers referred to as “hidden carers,” those Cassie describes as “people who have no children but [instead] a partner or spouse [or other adult family member…requiring constant care] that go under the radar.” According to the survey’s report, these hidden carers “are much less likely to have had these responsibilities recognized by their employer and much less likely to be confident” in asking for employment adjustments. Three quarters of the survey’s hidden carers reported that they had never been asked about their responsibilities by upper management or organization representation. Not only does this “significant minority” tend to remain invisible to their employer and likely also to stay silent, it also registered as the group “most likely to experience very frequent interruptions…as a result of their responsibilities.”

Perhaps most notably in terms of defying expectation, the survey revealed “a higher degree of overlap or porosity between employment and self-employment” than originally anticipated, with a majority of both groups reporting having “lost both work and opportunities to secure work” due to caregiver responsibilities. The trial initiatives, then, hope to bring solutions that assist artists in both freelance and full-time staff categories. The solutions phase also hopes to address a current imbalance of instigating change in terms of accommodation: a majority of respondents identified themselves as having to propose, implement, and manage the change in role or working pattern on their own, in absence of their employer—even if the employer were welcome to the change—and very few reported any sort of support or training during the adjustment. Participants who were most comfortable discussing caring responsibilities with their employer were those “who do not have any caring responsibilities.” In other words, those involved who did not have the need were open to conversation about the need. The survey report continues by saying there is “reason to believe that theatres would handle such requests [for caregiver balance and solutions] sensitively and constructively, but that when people find themselves in this position, they seem to lose confidence.” Only 25 percent of participants reported a “management policy about making enquiries about caring responsibilities,” and 43 percent of narrative comments mentioned caregivers taking initiative to begin the discussion with their employer. The best practices charter aims to rectify the imbalanced perception that initiating conversation about caregiver adjustments in employment must fall solely on the caregiver. By encouraging action and initiative on the part of employer through implemented interventions, caregivers may find clearer channels of communication and access to theatre superiors and opportunities.

Childcare setup for PIPA focus group. On Twitter.

Solutions
The survey found three potential solutions particularly popular among participants: childcare provided by employers, long-term scheduling, and flexible hours. These interventions ranked nearly equal in popularity with both employed and self-employed groups. Flexible working hours was the most popular option, ranking first with employed and second with self-employed. The survey commentary calls it “largely untested,” making it prime soil for groundbreaking restructuring in the theatre community’s rather traditional process of scheduling and meeting requirements. Childcare provided by employers also ranked high on the list of possible initiatives, but is “almost never available.” Long-term scheduling was equally popular with both groups, and survey feedback indicated that the majority of participants rarely experienced this advantage. Reduced hours and part-time work ranked surprisingly low in terms of solutions, and even then remained preferred more for employed than self-employed, suggesting again that participants want to work. They just want the hours to be workable.

Beyond improving the gender disparity and support of hidden carers, tackling the caregiver challenge opens doors to creating solutions that could improve working conditions for self-employed theatre practitioners regardless of caring responsibilities. Because the campaign’s initiatives to support caregivers will significantly impact the self-employed who make up almost half its participants, the best practices charter will articulate solutions relevant to the UK’s upward trend toward what Dr. Cornford refers to as a “gig economy,” or work population with “portfolio careers,” as self-employment across UK industries continues its steady rise since the early 2000s. Anna affirmed that “the deeper we delve in our own campaign, the more we realize how everything is connected…[and] similar to what other industries are engaging in as well.” She continued that because a “massive percentage” of the population is self-employed, the economy is going to “need solutions…maybe we can come up with something creative that other industries can learn from.” Cassie confirmed this relevance saying, “we have an opportunity to lead the way on the self-employment front because we are more used to working that way.” Anna added that the UK theatres’ unique position to recreate working solutions for the self-employed could reinstate the theatre industry as a significant voice in the national conversation on modern employment, potentially impacting the forward motion of the UK economy and economies around the world.

In a time when funding for the arts receives active cuts and remains on short lists for ejection by government institutions across the globe, creating steady jobs within the arts will continue to be a matter of revolutionary reinvention within limited resources. Admission of obstacles by caregivers and other groups within the theatre should not be perceived as reduced commitment or compromised work ethic, but instead should be seen as the pursuit by dedicated theatre practitioners of more efficient means for achieving high production standards. Theaters who participate in creating supportive practices for caregivers could develop solutions for more sustainable contracts and progressive work culture for employees across the board. In this way, the best practices charter set to be released by PIPA this coming September could fortify the theatre as a social bastion in terms of gender equality, invisible needs, and employment evolution. PIPA’s campaign reminds theatre enthusiasts and practitioners of the craft’s great power and, arguably, its social purpose. Throughout cultural shift, the theatre is meant to be a leader of thought and sanctuary of progress and inclusion not just in content but also in practice, and the fulfillment of that call includes taking care of its contributors whose own lives include taking care of others.

From January to June of 2017, fifteen theatre organizations in PIPA’s consortium are experimenting with various solutions to make theatre more accessible to practitioners with caregiver responsibilities. Part 2 of this coverage will report on the trial results and best practices charter.