Taking Your Child to Work, When Your Job Is Making Theater
Posted November 6, 2018 10:45 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — There were babies at Studio 54.
That’s not a reference to actors dissatisfied with their dressing rooms or patrons griping about their seats.
It’s just that the play now being performed here — a journalism comedy, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale, called “The Lifespan of a Fact” — is the first on Broadway with an all-female design team. Most of them have children. And several of those children are very young.
So when Leigh Silverman, the director of the play, was putting together her team, she asked what seemed like a straightforward question: What would the new mothers among her designers need to manage the long hours required for preparing a new stage production?
The question of how well — or poorly — the theater world accommodates child care has been talked about for years and is closely bound up with the discussion of why women are so underrepresented as writers, directors, and designers at the industry’s highest, and highest-paying, levels. Of the 20 nonmusical plays announced for Broadway this season, just three — including “Lifespan” — are directed by women.
“Women tend to get pregnant right when their careers are taking off, and that has to be addressed or we’re going to lose talent,” said Julia Jordan, a playwright and co-founder of the Lilly Awards Foundation, an organization honoring women in theater that has pressed for greater attention to child care issues.
Child care, of course, is a challenge for many working parents. But a career in theater brings its own challenges. Artists are often self-employed freelancers, so they don’t get parental leave. The arts tend to pay poorly, making hiring nannies or paying for day care difficult. And the hours are often long, especially during rehearsals and previews, making any work-life balance much harder.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl was so concerned about the issue that she took $5,000 from her $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award and made it available, through New Dramatists, to playwrights who needed money for child care so they could take part in workshops or productions. “There’s huge invisible attrition for parents in the field, and it’s a problem people are just starting to become aware of,” she said.
Some of the issues seem easy — making sure rehearsal breaks are long enough for nursing mothers to breast-feed or pump, for example — but women are sometimes reluctant to ask for accommodation. “When you’re an emerging playwright, you don’t feel comfortable asking because you’re just so grateful someone is producing your play,” Ruhl said.
The theater world is experimenting with a variety of small-scale solutions to make the juggling easier. A group of actors, dancers and other theater professionals, for example, formed a private Facebook group, called Broadway Baby Mamas, to share ideas. The topics include “everything from what bottles to use or lactation consultants to call, to how do I go on tour with my kid, to ‘is anyone going to be at Pearl Studios tomorrow who could hold my baby while I audition?'” said Jessica Rush, an actress (now featured in the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”) who helped create the group.
And actress Rachel Spencer Hewitt (“King Charles III”) formed the Parent Artist Advocacy League to provide resources and ideas to theaters that want to improve the work environment for mothers and fathers.
There are institutional efforts as well. In Brewster, a village about 50 miles north of Times Square, Space on Ryder Farm has become one of a handful of residency programs around the country to start inviting artists — most of them working in theater — to bring children with them.
Space established its “family residency,” in association with the Lilly Awards Foundation, in 2015, offering artists with children ages 6 to 12 a weeklong retreat at the 130-acre organic farm. In 2017, the family program was expanded — there are now two one-week sessions — and this year, for the first time, artists were allowed to bring children as young as 3.
“If we actually want to achieve parity, these people have to be given the opportunity to write plays,” said Emily Simoness, a seventh-generation member of the family that established Ryder Farm in 1795, and the executive director of the Space program.
Ryder Farm became interested in the issue when it invited set designer Christine Jones, who later won a Tony Award for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” to come for a weeklong retreat. Jones said she would not come without her children. “I wanted to be a mom and an artist,” she said. “And I’m trying to model for my children what it is to be a working artist, and I also want my kids to be exposed to other people making work.”
Jones brought her own baby sitter, but there is now nature-focused arts programming, led by theater educators, for children while the parents work. The artists have adults-only lunches but are joined by the children for family-style dinners, and at the end of the week, just as the artists present to their colleagues a sample of the work they have developed, the children display their own handiwork. (The week I visited, the children were turning their clubhouse into a museum to exhibit their farm-inspired visual art, as well as practicing dance moves to “Let It Go.”) Among the parents there this summer, working in a barn beside bales of hay and strings of drying garlic bulbs, were a married couple, composer-lyricist César Alvarez and visual artist Emily Orling. They were starting work on a musical about motherhood inspired by Orling’s own experience.
“I felt particularly trapped and shocked by the limitations of being a mother, and I endured a lot of that postpartum anxiety and depression,” she said. The work, she said, will examine “what is female; what does it mean to be a mother, and what does it mean to be creative.”
“Lifespan of a Fact” tested a different proposition: that new parents could be accommodated by a commercial Broadway play hurtling toward opening night.
“I feel like I had to make a very conscious decision not to pursue having a family, and for my female colleagues who have made that other choice, I don’t want them to be punished,” Silverman said. “I just tried to make it as easy as possible.”
So she organized a phone call with the designers and asked them for a wish list. The result: A dressing area was converted into a lactation room, with a lock, an outlet, a chair and a refrigerator so women could breast-pump. Another was set aside for a play space, so on especially grueling days the designers could bring their children, as well as someone to mind them, to the theater. The requests were made easier by the fact that the play has just a three-person cast, so there were rooms to spare backstage, and the producers readily agreed.
One afternoon as the show was in previews, Silverman ran through the day’s punch list for the designers. Radcliffe’s microphone was creating a scratching sound when he touched his hair. A carpet length was causing Cannavale to stumble. An apartment looked too neat and needed a pile of mail. The projections weren’t clear from one section of the audience.
Afterward, the team — set designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Linda Cho, lighting designer Jen Schriever, sound designer Palmer Heffernan and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon — stayed to chat about balancing mothering and designing. Lien is a classic example of the quandary. She is at an enviable turning point in her fast-rising career, having won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2015 and then a Tony Award in 2017 in her first Broadway outing as lead set designer, for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
In January, she gave birth to twins. She wanted to take three months off but resumed working in just six weeks. “I’m totally in love with what I do, and I can’t imagine not working,” she said.
She also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be part of this group of women — a point made by others as well. “It’s very cool to be part of the first all-female design team, and I would not have missed that opportunity,” Mackinnon said.
Mackinnon, who has a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old, said even with a female director, she hesitated to acknowledge that she had a newborn.
“When I first got the call from Leigh, I still felt a bit of pain having to tell her I was going to have a 2-month-old when we went into tech,” she said. “I assumed she was going to hear that and suggest maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to do the show.”
“It’s not like the theater has been transformed into an ideal place for children,” Mackinnon said, “but being able to have them here makes it possible for me to breast-feed rather than pump, and possible for me to see them.”