Real Baby vs. Theatre Baby by Sarah Shephard
When Katy and Vic suggested this topic for our first company blog in years I was excited but also did not know where to start. As a newbie to the world of Motherhood, who is very much muddling through, I feel extremely under qualified to give any kind of advice on how to balance parenting and making. What I can do is share my experience so far in the hope that some of my ramblings might prove useful to other artists out there.
In the spirit of honesty, there are a few things that it might be useful to know about me before we start…I am Co-Artistic Director of Filskit Theatre but I also freelance as a Director and Lecturer. I have an almost 2-year-old called Luna. I don’t live in London (this effects so many things; travel, childcare costs, living costs). I have a Husband, he’s nice. He’s self-employed but not in the arts (my Mum was so relieved). I run my own Company with two of my best friends in the world.
Let’s dwell on that point for a moment. As three female graduates eager to get out there and start making our own work we were often met with the question ‘what will happen to the Company when you all hit 30 and start having babies?’. This question was always asked by men, older men. Back in 2009 this was the farthest thing from any of our minds. As far as we were concerned Filskit was our baby. Jump forward 8 years. We are in the midst of a Christmas tour and after a week of sneaking off before shows to be sick in the dressing room, whilst playing a Polar Bear, I tell the others that I’m pregnant.
As my news spread through family, friends and colleagues, people tentatively asked how this big change was going to affect the Company and my work. Family friends would offer helpful advice along the lines of ‘oh, you won’t want to go back to work after having a baby’, and I became a pro at biting my tongue.
Now, I probably should have added to the list above that I am extremely stubborn. Before I had Luna I was 99% sure that I would want to continue making theatre. That stubborn streak in me resented society for telling me that I had to give up something that I loved long before I decided to become a parent. You don't have a baby and get rid of your cat do you? I also feel like being an artist isn't completely a choice, when you hit on an idea it kind of becomes all consuming, like you have to do it…just me?!
Anyway, the truth is you never really know how you will feel once you’ve had a baby. I might’ve taken one look at her little face and decided never to go back to work or to take a four-year career break, and so what if that was the case? What’s right for one person, isn’t right for another. But I wanted to continue to work. Of course this decision brought on a whole extra set of emotions and introduced me to the wonderful world of ‘Mum Guilt’ - Am I a bad Mum for wanting to work? Have I not bonded with my baby the way I “should” have? Am I a terrible person for hating Melody Tots? etc., etc. Ultimately the old mantra ‘Happy Mum, Happy Baby’ won. With the support of my fellow company members, friends and family I had made up my mind. There was just the small matter of how the hell I was going to do it.
It’s no secret that making small scale theatre for children isn't the most lucrative industry. As a result, paying for childcare isn’t an option. I remember a tweet from one well known artist that said her childcare bill for making her most recent show came to a total £6000…ouch! The free Grandparent babysitting service is also off limits as my parents work full time. They have taken leave to help me out on occasion but that’s their time so I try not to make a habit of it.
With my options looking fairly thin, I broached the idea of bringing Luna to work with me. Bringing her into rehearsals seems small fry in comparison to Jacinda Arden taking her baby to the UN, but luckily Katy and Vic were both up for the challenge of making work with a baby in the room. I know that I am in an extremely privileged position to run my own Company with these two - we call the shots and if we want to try a new way of working we can, no questions asked. We’re also very close friends so of course we want to support one another.
So the plan was…when we are in rehearsals or R&D, Luna comes along. For performances or workshops where she can’t be with me, my husband takes over. In the early days, Carl was employed so we used the Shared Parental Leave scheme, much to the bewilderment of his (male) Boss. Nowadays he is also self-employed so we split the parenting much more evenly, although it’s a bit of a juggling act with our schedules.
I know that taking your child to work won't be the answer for everyone. There are so many things to consider and I’d be lying if I said that this way of working isn’t hard. I have to be extremely organised with snacks, toys, baby carrier, bottles. We all have to be flexible and efficient at the same time. And I have to be upfront about those times when it’s really not right to have her there, when she’s teething or recovering from a cold. But despite all of those things for us, right now, it seems to be working and I must say that I’ve been astounded by how supportive people have been. It definitely helps that we make work for children, therefore a lot of the venues and organisations that we work with are intrinsically child friendly.
Luna seems to be relishing her role as mini Director too. At 22 months she has made 4 shows, been on tour, stayed in numerous Airbnb’s and attended countless meetings including her first meeting with Arts Council England at 8 weeks old. I make it sound like we’re using her for cheap child labour (we’re not). Rest assured any time I have off is spent at soft play or swimming or visiting friends. We’ve even tackled Peppa Pig World!
Being a parent in the arts is a hot topic at the moment. I’ve spoken to many parents who in the past have been made to feel as though they almost have to hide the fact that they have a child, that finding childcare for their 10-hour rehearsal day is their problem and no-one wants to hear them complaining about it. Even I have had to fight the feeling that if I don’t accept a freelance job then some young, commitment free graduate will swoop in and take my place forever more. However, with news of jobs shares on Broadway and interviews with the likes of Tamara Harvey dominating my Facebook feed, it feels like change is afoot and so it should be! I wonder how many incredibly talented people this industry has lost because we make it too difficult to return to work after having a baby?
At Filskit we are making changes to the way we work, for me but also for any parent that we may work with. We are open to having children in the space and are exploring different rehearsal schedule. There seems to be this belief in the theatre world that in order to make good work you should sacrifice every single other area of your life and it’s simply not true. We want to prove that it is possible to make the creative process accessible to parents AND make great theatre.
One of my proudest moments of parenting and making was when we were auditioning actors for our new Christmas show Huddle. One of the actors that we wanted to recall couldn't find childcare, Luna was going to be with us anyway so we said he could bring his little girl along. Luna sat alongside Katy and I while we directed him and he did the whole audition with his daughter in a carrier on his front, loving being on the stage. It worked beautifully. My only regret is that no-one took a picture - because that right there was the future.