ABOVE: Costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart with her infant during a Zoom meeting. Says Bart, “This was in August back before baby had mastered crawling and pulling himself up to stand. He could sit still for longer periods then.” Photo Credit: Rick N. Ho
A Homecoming Turned Convalescence
When Chamblee Ferguson caught COVID-19, he’d been performing eight shows a week in the national tour of Broadway’s “Come from Away.” Playing to packed houses in dozens of cities amounted to infinite vectors of exposure. On March 12th the tour was playing his hometown of Dallas and his long time company, the Dallas Theatre Center, was hosting a celebratory reception when news broke of the citywide shutdown. Four days later he was symptomatic.
“I woke up on the 16th feeling, I’m sick, thinking, I hope this isn’t—but, it turned out to be, yeah.” Ferguson’s wife, actor Lynn Blackburn (who happens to be my stepsister), her mother, and their 6 year-old were ill for two weeks with respiratory symptoms Ferguson describes as “comparatively moderate.” Eight months later the couple find themselves unemployed while parenting their first grader full time, one of countless theater families whose lives have been upended by this crisis.
Parenting in theater was challenging before the pandemic. Now, embattled families must endure school closures, a collapsing daycare industry and skyrocketing positivity rates. As our industry reels from a tidal wave of layoffs, furloughs and canceled shows (virtual work notwithstanding), theater parents have the additional stressor of keeping their children healthy, learning, and fed at moment so many have lost, or will soon be losing, their health coverage and a quarter of American families struggle with food insecurity.
This pandemic has laid bare inequities across our society, and the theater world is no different. Freelancers are in freefall, many without recourse to unemployment benefits. Working from home while parenting at the same time is damn near impossible. Gendered division of parental labor combined with the wage gap means mothers’ careers are disproportionately sacrificed. And BIPOC theater parents face the additional stressors of the racism pervasive in our industry including scarcity of work and lower pay at the best of times.
Reporting this article, I spoke with theater workers around the country whose children range in age from newborns to young adults. Some have (or had) staff positions, some are freelancers. Some have academic appointments, others rely on survival jobs. Some are single, some are partnered. All are differently impacted by this pandemic. I am grateful for all who spoke to me and shared their families’ experiences.
“Should I continue to help save the American theater, or do what’s best for my family?”
Keeping the Ghost Lights Burning
Nationwide theaters of all sizes have been forced to cut staff. Workers who have been spared are scrambling to keep their organizations afloat, often while working remotely and pivoting to digital programming.
Lindsey Brooks Sag, General Manager at Manhattan Theatre Club, whose kids are 2, 8 and 11, uses the analogy “juggling feathers” to describe “making sure my kids are happy and healthy, while supporting a staff similarly affected by the pandemic, both active and on furlough.”
In Los Angeles Max Oken, Operations Manager at Center Theatre Group and his wife, Equity Stage Manager Cate Cundiff, are in perpetual survival mode. “With this pandemic came a great contraction in the theater world. We shut our doors and, for those of us who survived the layoffs, we were faced with doing the work of many people, while running an at-home preschool [their daughter is 2.5]. I find myself weighing my options. Should I continue to help save the American theater, or do what’s best for my family?”
Jennifer Gadda, Director of Production at Court Theatre in Chicago feels “lucky to be still employed.” Her husband, a former lighting designer turned software developer, works remotely. She works full-time remotely while parenting their 2.5 and 5 year-old. “When the quarantine first started, I worked out a family calendar with great zeal (I am a production manager, after all). The next week something went awry. The following week, something else. We learned pretty quickly that there was no new normal. Seven months in, we’re exhausted, the kids are nearly feral, the dust is an inch thick, and there is never enough time to work.”
Theater Parents in the Academy
In university theater departments around the country, working artists train the next generation of theatermakers. Juggling kids, teaching, and their own creative work during the pandemic has these professor parents reporting significant stressors and a heavier workload.
Playwright Kirsten Greenidge is Associate Professor of Playwriting and Chair of Theatre Arts/Co-Chair of Performance at Boston University’s School of Theatre. Her children are 11 and 13. “Because everything is on Zoom, I have been able to say yes to [more] projects.” Like many working mothers, she describes herself as “the driving force who sees that domestic tasks are completed, appointments kept, forms filled out, and emotional needs met.” Greenidge, who has combined households with her two sisters (also writers, one of whom has a toddler) and their mom, feels lucky that she hasn’t been shut out of the workplace the way scores of American women have this year. Yet, the writer-professor and Mellon Fellow admits she’s “supporting a ton of people’s emotional lives at present.”
In New Haven, Amy Boratko, Literary Manager of Yale Rep and a lecturer at Yale School of Drama has a 5 year-old and an 8 year-old. Her husband teaches in person; her classes moved online. “My strategies rely on…the ability to go to another workplace. I’m used to working nearly six days a week and a lot of evenings to be in rehearsals or commute to New York City.” Now from home she toggles between her projects at Yale Rep, teaching and parenting without any of the usual boundaries between her home and working lives.
In Salt Lake City, sound designer and composer Jennifer Jackson, teaches full time at the University of Utah while parenting her 4 and (nearly) 2 year old. “My job overall has shifted almost entirely to technical support and coordination for our virtual shows as well as the entire theatre department on top of my teaching load. I am constantly bouncing between taking care of our kids’ needs, work responsibilities, and household chores from morning until often well after midnight. I have no time or energy or motivation to be creative while I am simultaneously struggling with an intense longing to create.”
Playwrights and Plague
When lockdown began playwrights were incessantly reminded Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague — well, probably. But the prolific absentee father famously left his wife and children in the country. He wasn’t penning immortal soliloquies whilst changing a diaper and supervising preschool on Zoom.
“Some of us are home all day because theaters are closed, but more of us are home because our ‘money jobs’ in restaurants and bars and fill-in-the-blank are barely operating,” says Playwright Julia Jordan, Treasurer of the Dramatists Guild, who is “extra worried about those of us with extra mouths to feed.” She wants everyone who identifies as a writer for theater to know “the Dramatist Guild Fund will help you financially. It’s a simple application, the grants are generous, and they don’t want to turn anyone away.” In Jordan’s other capacity as co-founder of The Lillys, “We bought laptops for young artists at Brooklyn Children’s Theater and The New Victory who were without and couldn’t take part in the virtual program, or school for that matter. And we gave funds for food.”
As for Jordan’s own writing? “I haven’t been able to. Parents, and especially mothers in most cases, obviously have more demands on not just their time, but also their brains right now. I find it hard to switch quickly from ‘take care of business and wipe noses’ to creative work with any flow at all. But I do find myself not writing—on paper—but doing little ‘thinks’ on a piece I’ll write someday, in the spaces between motherhood duties. It will be well thought out, when the time comes.”
In Los Angeles, Stephanie Alison Walker employs a similar strategy “using the skill I developed when my babies were babies—writing in my head while doing other things like dishes, laundry, sitting with my 6-year-old in Zoom school.” She admits, “The only time I get to write is at 4:30 in the morning.” In Chicago, playwright dad Alvaro Saar Rios also writes “in the very very early hours.” He feels “fortunate to still have commissions, but being under deadline is lots more stressful.”
In Austin, TX, Jenny Connell Davis laments lost opportunities, “What’s been tough is that I’d spent those [early years of motherhood] working hard to line up opportunities, and with the uncertainty in our industry, those have evaporated. In the meantime, other writers (without kids) can push forward fast…at the end of this, they’re gonna be light years ahead. It’s like paying the ‘mom tax’ but exponentially more.” Chicago playwright Caro Macon concurs: “Pandemic moms are expected to do it all, but times 5000%. Working, cleaning, cooking, childcare, lessons, teaching, reading. When you need to provide and there’s no more government aid… parents are doing what they can to keep food on the table and the water running. It’s causing life-changing stress.”
Freelancers in Freefall: “Fulfilling Myself as an Artist Will Have to Be Put on Hold”
Theater is a collaborative art form; a source of community as well as creative fulfillment for its practitioners. For freelancers forced to put their careers and creative lives on hold during the pandemic, this can feel incredibly painful and isolating—especially for parents of young children. Artistic identity, along with career goals, are particularly impacted.
Costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart is quarantined with her infant in Yonkers, NY. Bart “primarily worked Off-Broadway and regionally across the country. I would’ve currently been in Tokyo to work on an opera for a month and was excited at the possibility of expanding my work internationally. One month before the shutdown, I gave birth to our first baby. Now he’s 9 months and I’ve become his primary caregiver while my husband works from home. We are privileged that with my husband’s salary, my measly unemployment benefits, and the savings I’ve had, we are able to function. I keep telling myself that we are also saving money by not having to pay for childcare and that fulfilling myself as an artist will have to be put on hold.”
In Chicago, Stage Manager Katy Mae Garcia, mother of a 6 year-old, reports: “My husband was a PM for a rental company and was constantly traveling (2 weeks/month). I was an ASM/PA at a LORT theatre and working 12 hrs a day 6 days a week. He’s found work as a temp in a warehouse for the meantime but I have become a full time stay-at-home mother. With school still shut down it is impossible for me to work. It was hard enough when [our son] was in school until 2:30 every day. The one grace is we aren’t spending half my paychecks on child care anymore.”
Says Chicago dramaturg Gabrielle Randle-Bent, whose baby was born during the pandemic, “Being responsible for a tiny human makes what we do more poignant and real. The question really becomes: is this the best way to impact the world? Practically, I find myself saying yes to fewer things and saying yes with more conditions, making time not just for my child, but for my own self. Recognizing that this work is a part of my life but it isn’t my life, and it’s not even any longer the most salient definition of who I am. I’m much more efficient and also much more thoughtful about what I invest in and what I put my name on.”
“Only as Happy as Your Least Happy Child”
While parents of younger kids have become full-time tech support and teaching assistants for remote-learning littles, parents of tech-savvy teens and young adults cite emotional well-being as their biggest concern. “My kids are teenagers and have grown up using devices so my cross is lighter to bear,” says Lisa Portes, Head of Directing at DePaul Theatre School. Her focus instead is on supporting her children through the emotional strain of adolescence during a pandemic.
Playwright/director Penny Penniston and her husband Jeremy Wechsler, Artistic Director of Theater Wit in Chicago, say their kids, 11 and 15, are as emotionally invested in the company’s survival as they are, “They’ve grown up at Theater Wit. They’ve baked cakes for opening nights. This is the first time our kids have heard their parents admit that 1) We don’t know what is going to happen and 2) we are fighting an uphill battle against forces beyond our control.”
Meanwhile, closed campuses, an abysmal job market, and isolation from peers make this a miserable time to be a young adult. Actor Shariba Rivers’ children are impacted by all of the above. “My 23-year-old is a gig-worker, so he has been out of work and struggling to get unemployment. I have been helping him as much as I can. My middle child is working; he’s a ‘Mr. Fix It.’ My youngest is dealing with Zoom classes at School of the Art Institute. At many times during the day, my husband, my daughter, and I are all in different Zoom meetings. I’m in rehearsals at night. It’s all a bit taxing.”
Chicago Director Hallie Gordon invokes the saying: You’re only as happy as your least happy child. “I watch my kid, who has ADHD, struggle with focusing on schoolwork while working remotely, and my other wanting to go back to his college experiences. As I navigate searching for a new job/career during a pandemic.” But adds, “There is something in our families’ current struggles that are bringing us closer together. More talks, more laughs, more understanding of what we are all going through and seeking.”
Supporting Parents as Inclusion Work
The work of child rearing has been commonly misunderstood in America as a private matter, but the pandemic has revealed caretaking work to be essential to a functioning society. Ignoring the predicament of caretakers, especially the need for childcare, prevents us from moving forward together. How then, as we rebuild, reconfigure, and reimagine our theatrical institutions and practices, can the lessons of this pandemic become a catalyst for positive change?
“No longer can our parents and caregiver support be occasional and project-based,” says Rachel Spenser Hewitt, founder of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). “We must commit across the field to uphold consistent and systemic parent and caregiver support if we are going to rebuild with some of the greatest socioeconomic needs in mind. We cannot have anti-racist or inclusive institutions without parent and caregiver support. It is impossible. When we commit to including major life events and support for families we commit to true inclusion because every family possesses intersections of need as well as wealth of passion, resilience and resourcefulness.” She urges organizations to, “Check on your parents and caregivers and then commit to centering their access to support, remotely now and on site when we return.”
The Dramatists Guild Emergency Grants
Freelancer Relief Fund Theater Designers
The Parent Artist Advocacy League
- Free community meetups monthly (third Thursdays) for parents/caregivers
- Monthly affinity spaces (BIPOC Mothers, Mother Directors, parents/caregivers in the disability community)
- Emergency Grants
- PAAL Summit (training on rebuilding with parents/caregivers in mind)
- PAAL HR Health: office hours for remote work management, job description/hiring advising
- Black Motherhood and Parenting New Play Festival. Active call for new plays that bring the stories of Black parents/caregivers into the arts.
Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund