Theatre as Family, or Pumping Across America

Aditi Brennan Kapil is the Playwright-in-Residence at Mixed Blood Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.

There are a lot of really amazing benefits to being a salaried playwright in residence with a theatre, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a specific benefit: maternity leave. This is theoretical because I’m done having kids, I have three, I’m so done, but I’ve been thinking about what a complex puzzle it was at the time, and how different it would have been if I had been an artist on salary versus a freelancer.

I started working at Mixed Blood Theatre right out of college. Artistic Director Jack Reuler cast me in my first summer stock show, and then my first professional show.

I directed my first production at Mixed Blood. The first play I wrote premiered at Mixed Blood. Actually, the first seven plays I wrote premiered at Mixed Blood. This theatre has been my family my entire professional life.

Living on the side of a mountain in rural Ireland instead of the lap of New England old money, Mag and Maureen coexist in a home of isolation and dysfunction. This home…unites a mother and daughter in a trinity of dilapidation.

In 1999 I got my Equity card, mainly for the health insurance. I wanted kids.

I had my first daughter in 2002. Actresses don’t get paid maternity leave, so Jack tried to throw me some financial stability in the first few months of parenthood by offering me an understudy gig in Jevetta Steele and Thomas W. Jones II’s Two Queens, One Castle. Direct quote: “don’t worry, understudies never go on.” Three weeks after the baby, I was on stage in a brand new musical with under three hours of rehearsal—singing, dancing (in a bathing suit for one scene), lactating, running into the other actors backstage because backstage insanity is un-rehearsable. The show was a big seller so we had two show Saturdays with only about a forty-five minute turnaround. My husband brought the baby so I could nurse between shows, which is when I learned that a babies don’t latch to sweating breasts, and breasts that have been dancing for two straight hours sweat for a while. I switched to backstage pumping, which was only slightly more effective, since pumps don’t much like sweaty breasts either. Luckily the cast was full of mothers, so they made it OK—they even made it kind of funny. We got through the parts the audience could see with grace, the rest by the skin of our teeth, and the income was welcome and necessary.

woman reading to two children
Dramaturg Liz Engelman reading to my daughters at Tofte Lake Retreat.

A few years later I was pregnant with my second. I was having some success as a playwright but the always unpredictable income equation was wearing on us. Also, Equity health insurance depends on the number of weeks you work, and between babies I’d make my weeks, but every time I got pregnant I’d slip just under the quota and lose my insurance until I was able to accumulate the weeks again. Playwriting was starting to pay, but not to provide benefits, so we started talking about my quitting theatre and getting something more like a “real job.” I’m pretty sure Jack invented work that year to help me reach my health insurance weeks, he also pushed me to not quit quite yet, which was a good thing because after a decade in the theatre I wasn’t really qualified for anything else.

two young girls writing
I dragged my daughters with me to the Reichgericht in Leipzig, Germany to research a play about the Reichstag Fire Trial in 1933—they have a Georgi Dimitroff museum in a back room. And yes, as a reward for being insanely bored but relatively quiet about it while I got my research done, I let them sign the guest book, thus de-classing the joint completely. 

This seems like a good time to send out belated thanks to every director and theatre that made accommodations for me and my breast pump over the course of my decade of baby-having. Directors who respected that an Equity break is only enough time to pump one breast, and planned the rehearsal schedule to let me take a double break so I could pump both, maybe even pee. Theatres across America that thought through with care what I might need in order to attend a convening or take advantage of a development opportunity. Special shout out to Arena Stage for that one room that they unlocked just for me so I could sneak off and pump, to that shared bathroom outside the old Lark space where all the dancers stretched while I pu

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Thanks for sharing your experiences. How artists get and maintain insurance is such an important question. Especially for women who would like to have children. I envision raising children in the theatre community, directing while baby-wearing, but will be a juggling act to make this work financially.