Supporting mums in theatre

29th May 2021

I read an interesting article recently by a friend, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, in The Guardian.

Morgan has written a brand-new psychological drama entitled ‘Mum’, which centres round raw and real exploration of early motherhood and mental health. It is a thought provoking and honest account of the emotions, anxiety and pressures new mothers can feel in a variety of scenarios.

As a busy mum of two herself, she knows only too well how challenging and overwhelming it can be juggling parenting with other factors, including a career. 

She hopes that her play, which includes an entirely female cast who have children, can help push the change we need to improve working practices for parents, particularly those within the theatre industry. 

Theatre hasn’t had a good reputation for looking after mothers. Before now, many female theatre workers wanting to start a family would be scared to approach the subject with their employer as it would be seen as an end to their careers.  More people now are finding a collective voice and things are starting to move forward in terms of reaching a successful and sufficient support mechanism for mums, especially with the help of Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PIPA). 

PIPA was set up in 2015 by actor Cassie Raine and director Anna Ehnold-Danailov to address a lack of provision for parents and carers in the performing arts.

As they say on their website: "In 2015, 400 people from across the performing arts attended a meeting at the Young Vic to discuss the impact of caring responsibilities on career progression. Three months later, Parents and Carers in Performing Arts was born".

It is a shame that we haven’t always been looking out for working mums. However, having this support to be able to start having the right conversations about working practices and making effective structures that are accessible for everyone is a great starting point.

Working mothers in theatre are still very few and far between. The fact that evening and weekend work will always be part of the theatre culture is a huge challenge to any parent trying to find childcare. Shift patterns can change at the drop of a hat, days are long with antisocial hours, which normally don’t fit in well around schools, club and nurseries. It isn’t always easy to get a babysitter who can work around the clock, which can get expensive, and many theatre workers can afford this added outlay. 

It is still not as easy as it could be to combine most theatre roles with being a parent. Some people do manage it if they have a stay-at-home partner or parents close by.

If both parents work in the performing arts, then there is a constant balancing act to find childcare, which can put extra frustration and strain on families. However, it is sad to say that the majority of the time it will be the mum who stays at home with the children.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, PIPA conducted a survey which found that of the 1000 participants who worked in the arts and were parents, 80% had to turn down work because of childcare responsibilities, and 43% had to leave the industry identifying caring responsibilities.

In October 2020, PIPA conducted another study that shows just how detrimental the last year has been on parents within the arts. 80% of women are forced to turn down work because of parenting/caring responsibilities and a huge 72% said they were thinking of leaving the industry altogether. 

It’s very interesting to see that even though we have been through a devastating year, the number of women who are forced to turn down work due to being a mother/carer before and during the pandemic remains the same. It shows that mothers are fundamentally disadvantaged in the theatre industry. That is precisely why it is has become male dominated.

All workers are entitled to ask for a flexible working pattern or job share, but it can come at an additional cost to the theatre. But if the theatre is looking at it in the right way, it would be more costly to them to lose a good member of staff, freelancer or performer.

Job shares are still quite a new workable solution to our industry. The first example of this was with Charlene Ford in 2018 who was almost pushed out of her ensemble role in 42nd Street after having a baby. She came up with idea of a job share with a fellow artist and it was successfully negotiated with Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Many theatres are aware and conscious that they are losing huge amounts of female talent that have been potentially forced to leave the industry after having babies. We need to harness this talent and look after these women so they can return to a role where they belong.

People should never be made to feel that they need to choose between being a parent and a career. All theatres need to be committed to finding long term solutions to keep mothers, and parents, in theatre roles.

To end, here is a positive story as to how this artist, Lainy Boyle, was able to keep up her acting roles after having her first baby.

Parents needs to be part of the theatre conversation to make the progressive change we need.