Radical Inclusion of Parent Artists

Women in theatre are warned not to have children because motherhood will derail their career. If they choose to become mothers, they are warned to keep pregnancies secret from potential employers. Once those children arrive, parents are discouraged from asking for what they need, despite the prohibitively high cost of childcare and intense rehearsal and production schedules, especially considering artists generally get paid low rates. But there’s a movement happening in theatre communities all over: parent artists are bringing these particular challenges they face into the light and are advocating for change.

I’m the founder of the advocacy group Parents in Chicago Theatre. In a recent survey of parent artists, we found that 91 percent of respondents had turned down theatre work because of scheduling or the cost of childcare. On top of that, 70 percent said their income had stagnated or gone down since becoming a parent, and around 80 percent felt their career trajectory had been interrupted.

One Chicago theatre has been quietly practicing radical inclusion of mothers for the last decade: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, whose mission is to help advance the lives of women through theatre by providing a home for them to develop their work. Ten years ago, artistic director Tara Mallen and her husband, ensemble member Keith Kupferer, were forced to start thinking about how to work with parent artists when they had a baby. Thanks to words of encouragement from fellow theatre artists with children, Mallen created a support group with a number of colleagues who were struggling with the same challenges and felt emboldened to create an environment where parents could bring their children to work.

At Rivendell, there is a tub of toys in the rehearsal space and a tent in the dressing room where children can spend time, especially during shows that are not kid-appropriate. Mallen recognizes the importance of family dinners and kids’ bedtimes, so schedules are flexible. Daytime rehearsals, five-day workweeks with two consecutive days off (including one on a weekend), and no ten out of twelves (a limited number of technical rehearsals specified in an Equity contract, where actors can rehearse ten hours in a twelve-hour period) are typical for a Rivendell process. “We cannot be a female-centric organization and not encourage women to continue working on their craft and bring their children along,” Mallen says. There have been many more pregnancies, births, and adoptions among Rivendell creatives over the last ten years, and Mallen’s guiding principle has been, “Come on in. The door’s open. We will celebrate your child and we want to be part of your child’s creative community.”

people sitting around a rehearsal table holding babies

Women in theatre are warned not to have children because motherhood will derail their career. If they choose to become mothers, they are warned to keep pregnancies secret from potential employers.

Rivendell’s final show of 2018, Scientific Method by Jenny Connell Davis, exemplifies how the company has codified their practices to be more inclusive for parents, as both the playwright and director are mothers with young babies. I was brought on board to help document Rivendell’s practices so they could be amplified and shared with other theatre companies. The play started as a workshop over a year ago, when Connell Davis was pregnant but barely showing. Rivendell wanted to schedule the world premiere production in March 2018—Connell Davis’s due date—but when they found out she was pregnant, the company flipped the schedule to put the play in the fall slot.

Connell Davis, who is based in Austin, was prepared to bring her new baby along for the ride, having had experience traveling for work with her older son, and Rivendell was prepared to accommodate. While in Chicago, she asked for a room with a bathroom and a pack and play for the baby. She asked to be relatively close to the theatre so she wouldn’t need a car seat, which would also allow her to enjoy the walks to and from rehearsals with the baby. Her older son, who is in school, stayed behind in Austin with her husband.

The director attached to the production had to back out, and Mallen had to find someone new quickly. She had seen and liked the work of Devon de Mayo, who also works as a university lecturer in Chicago, and invited her to see The Cake, the show that took Scientific Method’s original spring slot. de Mayo didn’t know this invitation was going to be a job offer, and Mallen didn’t know that de Mayo was eight and a half months pregnant. The surprise when Mallen saw de Mayo after the performance is now the stuff of Rivendell legend. Mallen told the director: “I want to make it impossible for you to say no. I want to explain who we are and how we work with moms.” There was already going to be a baby in the room—what was one more? Mallen also reassured de Mayo that if at any time she needed out, that was also okay. de Mayo said yes.

For the first week of workshops and rewrites, when both parent artists were present, there was a designated babysitter in the room, as well as an assistant director who, it turned out, didn’t mind holding a baby. The two mothers split the cost of the babysitter—who is also a theatre artist and therefore understood the culture of a rehearsal room—during the workshops and first week of rehearsals. de Mayo said that having babies in the room lowered the stakes in a good way and let everybody relax. “We don’t have to just be these perfect professionals.”

Knowing that every parent is different and has various needs, Mallen regularly checked in with the creative team throughout the process to make sure their needs were being met. After the first week, de Mayo found a rhythm to rehearsing with her baby in the room. There was an office that locked for pumping and a refrigerator to store the breast milk. de Mayo was comfortable breastfeeding in the rehearsal space, but she was quick to make it clear that first-time mothers should not hold themselves to this standard. Breaks to change diapers became a running joke and kept the mood light in the rehearsal room. Actors were on board with the process and said that it was really cool to see a director breastfeeding while giving a really smart note. de Mayo organized outside help during tech week, which was made easier by daytime rehearsals without any ten out of twelves—she only had to pump once. For the final dress rehearsal, the baby slept in a rocker in the back row.

Breaks to change diapers became a running joke and kept the mood light in the rehearsal room. Actors were on board with the process and said that it was really cool to see a director breastfeeding while giving a really smart note.

Connell Davis came back to Chicago for previews and even more rewrites before opening. This meant rewrites had to happen during the day, cutting into time with her baby. She brought her mother along to help with childcare, and other family members who came to Chicago to see the play took turns alternating going to the theatre and helping with the baby.

The path to working as a parent artist is never easy, and Connell Davis and de Mayo have been working on balancing motherhood and working in theatre for several years. Both artists were clear that the support offered by Rivendell helped them do their best work, and that they were each grateful to have the other as a close collaborator who understood that the energy they each put into their families wouldn’t take away from the energy they put into the work. There was no need to apologize.

That’s not to say the experience wasn’t still difficult, but these parent artists took it as a challenge. de Mayo said the rigor of working on a world premiere play with a newborn made her sharper and better. Similarly, Connell Davis said, “Each kid has turned up the fire under my ass to write harder and write better. Adversity fires me up.”

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is an example of how a company can have parent-friendly policies even without an enormous budget; their policies and procedures will even be included in a handbook on best practices that Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) is putting together. If more companies in Chicago and around the country adopted similar practices as part of their inclusion initiatives, it may mean that mothers’ careers aren’t halted and more women will be able to progress to leadership positions, improving gender equity in the theatre industry.

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Agreed! Women in theatre have to see it to be it. I had a chance to talk to the assistant director and costume designer on Scientific Method (both women with no kids) who said working on this production made them think differently about being a parent and working in theatre. Just seeing others doing it lets everyone coming up know that it's possible! If we keep more mothers working in theatre we'll see more mothers' stories on stage.

Love this article. Have mother's front and center in the theater while raising young children is paramount for all of our liberations. I would also love to see more plays about mothers on stage. Thanks for this great article.