Parents in the Performing Arts: “Caregiving is the Reality”
Rachel is a mother of two and the executive director of partnerships, programming, and resources for the Parent Artist Advocacy League for Performing Arts and Media (PAAL). She realized that she was being silenced as a mother in the performing arts, and she wanted to change that. Voicing her story turned into hearing others’ stories. Eventually, Rachel decided to move into advocacy and create an organization to bring attention to the complete lack of support for caregivers in the performing arts. Her organization now provides everything from Human Resources training to grants for caregivers. They also recently threw a caregiver cabaret! (You can see more on that event here). Through her extensive work at PAAL, Rachel is working hard to create a safe and supportive community for caregivers who work in the arts.
This interview has been edited with permission for length and clarity.
Please introduce yourself and your experiences with work and caregiving.
My parents met in art school, and being creative was the culture of our home. I always loved it. Very early on, performing was a way that I found to express myself. I felt very safe on stage. I didn’t always feel safe in life, so later on, performing became a very important sanctuary for me. But I also experienced things like sexual harassment and not being able to own my own body. When I became pregnant, there was no one who told me outright that being pregnant was a problem, but I just knew in my being that I didn’t trust the industry with my body. I was five months into the pregnancy before I even told my family, and then I told my agents.
When I told my agent I was pregnant, he leapt out of his seat with joy and was so thrilled he threw open the door to the office and walked me around and congratulated me. I was so surprised, and then I was surprised that I was surprised. What did I expect? I really expected to have a devastating conversation, but I walked out of that office thinking this is the only appropriate response; I walked out of that office fully my own person and still having agency over my life and over my body.
Though I initially felt a lot of support from my agent, I thought having a child was something I had to keep a secret as much as possible. Then I went to an industry party when my daughter was just over a year old. I was speaking with a male, childless colleague, and he asked me, “How’s it going?” in this somber tone. At that point I had really been pulling myself up by my bootstraps. I’d been hitting the audition circuit harder than ever, and doling out cash for babysitters so hard, but I said, “Oh, it’s great! My agent has been so supportive. I’ve been really going up there on my own and making the auditions work. . . . ” And he stopped me, and he said, “That’s not everybody’s experience, so I wouldn’t talk about that.” And I was so stunned that I was being silenced. I’m sure that he thought he was trying to protect me and maybe protect someone else. But for me it was such an affront to have my story stopped at that moment.
I immediately thought about my daughter, who was a few blocks away with a babysitter in a Starbucks where I had changed into my party clothes to show up at this event looking like I didn’t have a child after commuting for two hours on a megabus from Philadelphia. I couldn’t even talk about my successes after putting in all of this work, while my daughter probably screamed her head off crying in the Starbucks. I was so lit on fire that I walked out of there, I picked up my daughter from the Starbucks, and I took her to the after-party at the bar and paraded her around to everybody. And on the entire ride home, I was holding her and obsessively thinking, “If I can’t talk about my successes, what happens to the stories that are not positive? Who was he trying to protect?”
Instead of taking his advice by not talking about it, I published a blog about it: auditioningmom.com. I was thinking that I was going to be a lone voice in the wilderness, but then messages started pouring in, and people started sending me their writings. It was everything from “I had to quit this job at this theater because they didn’t have maternity leave,” to “I had to turn these jobs down,” all the way to messages that said, “My friend got fired for being pregnant. Do you have any resources?” That’s when I realized this is way more than just someone’s positive spin being stopped because it’s too scary to talk about. This is systemic. This is a serious problem.
What was your experience like starting PAAL?
I’d been publishing articles on my blog about advocacy groups in Ireland and the UK, and my friend Jill Harrison—who is the founder of Directors Gathering in Philadelphia—reached out to me and said, “We need this in the US.” Within four months, we launched PAAL in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey and dedicated the first year to “Motherhood: Breaking the Silence.”
When PAAL first started, it started making waves right away. But the experience was very much a zoom call here, a zoom call there, megabusing with two kids into New York with no elevators going up and down the subways, knocking on doors, doing a conference presentation in Chicago when only one person showed up. It required me to believe that this is a conversation that needed to be had. And we saw how difficult it was even for caregivers to be able to show up for themselves. Part of what I think makes PAAL unique as a nonprofit is that it’s a nonprofit built by the people who need its support most. Even our board is people who understand what it means to have this need, and that has always been very important to us.
Some people are intimidated by this topic because they know if we open this up, it might apply to everyone. But that’s how it should be. We’re all caregivers at some point. Even if they’re saying, “You chose to have a child; I don’t want children,” that’s totally fine. But if a family member gets sick, or if you get sick, I want to make sure we’re all investing in this workplace culture so that we know what to do when it happens to you and how to take care of you. Not in an emergency way but in a planned way.
Now we have about 10 local chapters around the country. We’ve partnered with multiple organizations (see the end of the article for the whole list). We’ve spoken internationally. The impact and the reach that we’re seeing is really exciting, because it went from presenting to one person in a room to now people reaching out and saying, “We’ve heard of you. We need your help.”
What is it about being an artist and a caregiver together that requires particular support?
I do see a real need for caregiver support in all disciplines of the performing arts. This industry is so unique in that it is a constant combination of employee, administration, and gig worker–and caregivers fall through the cracks at every level.
The arts is also an industry that professes to be so deep in empathy and so progressive, but we are failing here when it comes to caregiver support. What we’re seeing is that caregiver discrimination still exists because of the lack of universal support, the lack of education about discrimination issues, the lack of HR, the lack of consistency in employment. You could be on six or seven different contracts in a year, but then you’re not hired for months, and you’re really just pursuing work all year for a single contract. Then when you do get a job, you’re at the mercy of whoever’s behind the table. The standards start to get really Wild West out there—there’s no standardization.
Why do you think we’re still experiencing discrimination toward caregivers and especially toward pregnant women?
Our systems center the most able as opposed to centering those with the greatest access need. Even from a strictly capitalistic perspective of talent, retention, turnaround, and long-form productivity, we’re learning that all of those things can be achieved through healthier infrastructure and work culture. You cannot have stable and equitable infrastructure and healthy work culture unless you are centering those with the greatest access needs. And right now, caregiving is not seen as an access need. Caregiving is seen as a choice.
A pet peeve of PAAL is the weaponization of the word choice. People say, “Well, they chose to have a child,” and that word choice is only allowed to be used to liberate an individual to have agency over their own life. But if that choice is used against another individual as an excuse to absolve ourselves from communal responsibility for their realities, that is a weaponized version of that word and is actually doing the opposite of what it’s intended to do.
From an evolutionarily biological standpoint, we don’t get to see reproduction as a choice. It is necessary to our existence. The problematic choice is not having a baby; the problem is the organization choosing not to provide an infrastructure that can support it. We’re so behind because we keep seeing caregiving as the obstacle. But it’s the poorly built infrastructure and the lack of support that is the obstacle. Caregiving is the reality.
What are some supports that would make caregiving easier for artists?
We created something called The New Standard of Care, which bridges the gaps between employer and employee and acts as an advocate for employees (whether they be performers, crew, gig workers, or others) who need support in their caregiving roles. Here are some of the basic ideas:
Build into the organization funding for childcare. In the performing arts we have things like tech rehearsals, which often stretch from morning to evening, sometimes five to six days a week and twelve or fourteen hours a day. Creating a caregiver fund means that the theater is going to be raising money to help compensate for some of the childcare costs.
Next, implement family leave structures. They’re just virtually non-existent in the arts, unless it’s demanded by law, and even then sometimes theaters don’t do it.
Abolish the 10 out of 12 and 6-day rehearsal week, which is tech week, where you bring all the technical pieces together with the performance. It’s called 10 out of 12 because the actors and stage managers who are Equity are contractually only allowed to work 10 hours of the 12 that are booked on those days. Everyone else has to show up a few hours earlier and stay a few hours later. If we reduce the Equity contract to eight out of ten, it will reduce the hours for everyone else as well and create more boundaries with everyone else’s contracts.
Have inclusive sick day policies and understudies. We want to abandon a lot of the idea of letting yourself work sick or letting your body be harmed for the sake of the show so that people are able to not only prioritize their own mental, physical, and emotional health but also say, “My child is sick, and I need to take care of them.”
Create space if a child needs to come into the work space. Have a point person where you can talk about that and how to make that safe. Children are not like pets. I am not obligated by law to take my pet to work with me. But I will be arrested if I leave my five-year-old home alone. So there are legal ramifications for this. How are we creating access on site for children?
Stop firing pregnant people. Stop that. Stop it, please. And stop asking people what their childcare support is going to be in job interviews. That’s illegal.
What else are you doing to assist caregivers who want to remain employed in the arts?
We believe that all theaters need to outsource their HR. Right now, usually it’s someone inside the organization who has to learn the laws to the best of their abilities. We believe that all staff and hiring persons should take regular HR anti-discrimination training that includes what companies need to do to support caregivers.
We have our own initiatives that we’re doing to influence the field. These include a huge survey that we just launched to gather quantifiable data on how caregiving is impacted in the arts. We also have a childcare and caregiver grant program that’s now in its third year and emergency return-to-work grants. We have provided over $30,000 in grants for parents and caregivers, and that’s not counting this next year coming up.
We also have a curriculum called compassion training that now has a sister curriculum called anti-oppression and caregiving, where we go into organizations and identify how caregiving is an access need. We have organizations say, “We don’t have time or capacity to talk about caregiving yet, because we’re working on anti-racism,” and the devastating reality of that is that you cannot have an anti-racist organization without formal caregiver support. If I create an anti-racist program but it’s not going to be providing caregiver support for the groups who are traditionally part of sandwich generations, where they’re caring for children and elder care, and at an economic disparity, how the hell am I going to be having a truly anti-racist program? How are we going to have disability integration into our organizations if we don’t talk about what caregiving means? This curriculum helps identify how to integrate that conversation and those initiatives into that practice.
Is there room for part-time options for caregiver artists?
There totally is, and there’s a theater group called Ten Thousand Things that has for a very long time done rehearsal hours between nine and two. It was intentionally done within the hours that there was childcare through the school system.
One other conversation is, again, changing the 10 out of 12 to 8 out of 10 and taking the rehearsal week, and potentially performance week, from 6 days down to 5. Technically, that’s part-time work for a theater worker. For everyone who has adopted this, there is definitely an adjustment period. But are the contributors in the space finding increased time to rest, increased time to memorize their lines, increased time to sleep when they have to come in and build sets and use their physical bodies, increased mental health, increased emotional health, increased positive relationships with their coworkers? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Those are the benefits of part-time work. (See the work of Nicole Brewer for more on this; other resources include No More 10 Out of 12s and The Business Roundtable study on construction overtime.)
What else do you want to add about caregiving and art?
The conversation is still around how prohibitive the workplace is. And that is because we’re failing to have the conversation around how this applies to all of us. We are forcing people who are technically non-caregivers to pretend as though they don’t need care, and that to me is one of the greatest harms of the lack of having a practice of care and creating caregiver support.
I have a lot of hope because I believe that we’re all starting to realize that actually hanging on to these archaic structures is what’s devastating the arts financially. Seeing the arts as a social contribution, and seeing caregivers as valid social contributors, could be a really beautiful marriage, and we could see a flood of time and resources into the arts. Audience members may not know why you need to pay extra money for a couch on set, but they will understand if you have a childcare matinee or if you say we’re fundraising for a caregiver grant for this artist because they have elder care needs. The audience is going to start to see themselves in the arts organizations. And then the arts organizations may appear more human, and human beings invest in human things.
Here are some of the wonderful partners working with PAAL. Take a peek at the work they are accomplishing together:
We’ve partnered with Black Motherhood and Parenting New Play Festival. It’s going up again this year for very large theaters across the country to support Black artists and Black playwrights. We partnered with The Playwrights Realm on the Radical Parent Inclusion Project to help them create a budget for an Off-Broadway play, and on every single budget line item, we created caregiver support. They have taken that initiative, and they continue to provide caregiver support even to some of their virtual online classes. If you need childcare or caregiving in order to attend the online class, they’ll reimburse it.
We also partnered with Broadway Babysitters from the moment we launched to our involvement in the Radical Parent Inclusion Project, and we continue to partner with them. We’ve done multiple childcare matinees with them in New York. We’ve done on-site care for auditions and callbacks. We’ve done rehearsal care. We would really love to see every theater provide their staff with membership in Broadway Babysitters so that they can have access to the database of sitters.
And then there’s an organization called Seed Art Share in the North Carolina triangle area who works with our partners the National Women’s Theater Festival (NWTF). Seed Art Share partners with theaters to create childcare support that is curated to go along with the play that the adults are seeing. We partnered with them at the last NWTF, specifically, to sponsor and launch their new seedlings nursery.