For my son’s 1st Christmas I wanted to get him a special gift. I chose ‘Little Robin Red Vest’ by Jan Fearnley - a picturebook with gorgeous illustrations about a little bird who gives away all his warm clothes in the days before Christmas. My son is 4 now, and ‘Little Robin’ comes out every year with the tree decorations.
It struck me that ‘Little Robin’ would make a wonderful family theatre show. So, I found an email address for Jan and asked whether she’d consider granting the rights. And - though I wasn’t really expecting a reply - there were some folk I’d worked with on a recent show who I reckoned would be perfect for this project, so I put some feelers out. And then Jan replied – she was in…and so was everyone else!
As anyone who works in theatre knows, making a show is a long process. It took 3 months to secure an artist residency at artsdepot for research and development, 2 more months to plan and write an application to Arts Council for funding, 9 weeks to wait for a decision from ACE, then 3 months to prepare before the R&D finally took place. And while all this planning and writing and applying was going on, I found out I was pregnant. My daughter was born in November, so she was 3 months old when we headed off together to start making the show.
Here are 10 things I learned while juggling this project with a baby:
1. Planning is everything – From early on this project was planned knowing I’d have a baby and a 4-year old, and that others in the team also had caring responsibilities. I had to allow myself extra time to prepare, knowing I’d never get a full day’s work done. Although, I could have planned the timeline better – our ACE funding decision was due on my due date…luckily it was good news!
2. The team is key – artsdepot were really accommodating and most of the core creative team are also parents, so everyone gets it. Zoom calls were planned around naptimes and school pickups, and all that planning meant everyone recruited into the project knew there would be a baby in the R&D space, setting the tone from the start. The generosity and positivity of the whole team made a massive difference.
3. You have to be flexible – That adage ‘we expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work’ is as exhausting as it is true. I found the only way it works is to take the pressure off where possible. So, if I had to sit out of the actors’ warm up because I can’t play keepy uppy with a baby in a sling (I tried – bad idea), or if a meeting had to be cut short because the producer’s toddler had woken early from their nap, then that’s OK. The work still gets done. And because no-one is wasting their valuable time and headspace trying to pretend they don’t have children, they can divert that energy into actually doing the work.
4. Acknowledge luck and privilege – even with all the planning, teamwork and flexibility, a lot of the success of this project was down to other factors. I have a partner who pulls his weight with parenting, and enough childcare support to leave my 4-year old at home for a fortnight. At the time of the R&D my baby was going through a really good sleep phase, only waking up once or twice a night for a quick feed, so I was much less exhausted than I thought I’d be. This was, of course, pure luck. And the timing worked out perfectly – once they’re on the move, babies are so much harder to have in the rehearsal room.
5. Acknowledge power – The other thing that plays into how possible it is to have your baby in rehearsals is your role in that room. I can hold and feed my baby while directing, but if I were a performer this simply wouldn’t work. Plus, this was my project, so I could tell people ‘I’m going to have my baby with me’, because otherwise that project wouldn’t happen. I was grateful for those in the team who were happy to pick her up and give her a cuddle, but I think it’s important not to take that for granted.
6. Money matters – theatre doesn’t pay well. Shocker. If there was enough money in the budget to pay for childcare, then more parents could work. Or if theatre pay wasn’t so low, people could pay for their own flexible childcare from their wages. This is an obvious point but it’s worth making it. Even if I wanted to leave her, hiring a nanny for the time I was away would have cost me more than the project paid.
7. It’s a massive positive – Over the years, both my babies have loved being at work with me, and got loads out of it. Constant entertainment, live music, puppets - it’s like one big baby sensory class! And I’ve found it to be really positive for the creative process too (and not just for early years work).
8. There are negatives – it would be disingenuous of me to pretend there weren’t times during the R&D when I felt like either my mothering or my work was compromised from trying to do both at once. I could have done more writing in the evenings, and been in earlier in the mornings, but I was too tired. I didn’t always finish early enough to call my son before bedtime, and I still feel guilty that I missed my baby rolling over for the first time because I was watching the actors instead.
9. There’s a price – I don’t know whether this is true for everyone, but I find I can be really ambitious in the things I can accomplish while having a very small baby, but there is a price to pay. It’s easy to look at the 2-week R&D in isolation and think ‘yes! I can do it all!’ – but it’s important to factor in time for preparation beforehand and rest afterwards. I was physically exhausted by the end, and was ill for about a month after.
10. Access is good for everyone – Thinking about what I needed, to make this R&D work for me, prompted me to be proactive about what the rest of the team might need. And the feedback from the team was that they felt comfortable and taken care of. Which can only be a good thing!
I learned loads from this project. And I’m going to try to keep reflecting on it to incorporate what I’ve learned into the next phase of development for ‘Little Robin Red Vest’. Because, in the face of a massive talent drain from the theatre industry, and research from PiPA telling us parents are more likely to work part-time or leave theatre altogether, we should be doing everything we can to make it possible for those with caring responsibilities to keep working.
Victoria Briggs - @MissVicBriggs
Main image by Zoe Manders