If you haven’t already, hop on over to Twitter and follow the incredible Tamara Harvey who has been inspiring me every day with tales from the front line of working and parenting in theatre. The reality of needing to finish a scene while you can hear baby screaming outside the door, or breastfeeding through a meeting and wondering whether colleagues are ok with it – every single tweet really resonated with me.
I’ve been considering posting something about this on here for a while (‘best production I’ve ever created’ and similar punny headlines) – and something has always held me back. But almost 15 months in, and with a kick up the ass from TH my new theatre mumspiration (yes really, I went there) I’m ready to shout about it. I had a child!
I spent my entire pregnancy anxious that post-baby I would be unemployable. I kept everything off Facebook and Twitter, I even changed the settings so that if anyone wanted to post about me, I had to approve it first. I deleted comments from well meaning friends who referred to it in order that the whole subject remained firmly OFFLINE. I didn’t know many director Mums who are making it work* – I mean, I know they are out there, but there’s a world between the likes of Marianne Elliot and Carrie Cracknell… and ME. And if you can’t see it, you can’t see it.
I more or less hid my pregnancy professionally until the middle of January (baby due start of April) and then gave my cast of LEGALLY BLONDE the shock of their lives when one day I just thought ‘Oh Bugger This’ and wore a tight T shirt into rehearsals one morning. Up till then it had been baggy dresses and hoping to hell that I wouldn’t have to run out of the room to throw up.
I had to give up two amazing jobs – one too close to the due date, one too far from home. Withdrawing from them was a heart sinking, stomach churning moment – it’s so hard to let anyone down and it felt like I was already becoming unreliable. ‘Baby isn’t even here and already she’s flaky….’ I’m sure I was the only one thinking all of this but round and round my head it went, usually at 4am sitting on cold bathroom tiles hugging the loo for dear life.
Somehow I managed to persuade the wonderful Jeremy Walker to let me carry on heading up the NYMT new commission BILLY THE KID even though the first day of rehearsal was my due date. Ha. ** I’d briefed the team and we had a plan for if I was there, and a plan for if I wasn’t there. I spent the rehearsal week bouncing on a massive green Pilates ball, willing the baby to wait, wait WAIT, and due to the incredible chauffeuring skills of my erstwhile husband who drove me the hour each way to rehearsal in Sevenoaks every day (with sick bucket, pillow and of course hospital bag in the car) I made it to the end of the week and grandly exited on the last day feeling like A ROCKSTAR. I HAD DONE IT FOR ALL THEATRE MUMS! I AM NOT UNRELIABLE! BABY WAITS UNTIL END OF REHEARSALS! BABY RESPECTS MY CAREER! I spent the whole journey home throwing up so violently I peed myself a little bit, and the baby didn’t come for another week. By which time I couldn’t stop crying and googling natural induction techniques, and husband had to take my phone away and hide it in a cupboard.
But eventually, baby did arrive, and that was the end of life part 1. (The whole baby/ parenting/ chaos/ life thing is a world of discussion that I won’t start down the road of..) THEATRE PARENTING is where my brain is at today.
Anyhow, his name is Finn, and he loves music, and being in rehearsal. Singing, drumming, playing a tiny ukelele. Here he is in the Sitzprobe for SUPER HERO, this year’s NYMT show, with his buddy Isaac – son of the incomparable Hannah Chissick , and along with Finn, our other NYMT mascot.
I went back into rehearsal when Finn was 3.5 months old, to finish BILLY THE KID. I felt confident enough in the NYMT family that it would be all right, especially with Darragh O’Leary and Charlie Ingles by my side – two of the most supportive, generous and adaptable collaborators I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with. And the added bonus of Ben Frost and Richard Hough – child loving calm presence-ing chaos managing writers – between us, we’d make it work. My folks came to Sevenoaks and stayed in a rented house with me, looking after Finn and bringing him to me in the breaks to feed. I was exclusively breastfeeding – child wouldn’t reliably take a bottle – ha, the best laid plans and all that… and not on any kid of normal schedule like every 4 hours. No. Relentlessly, and around the clock, about every 2 hours. In every break I fed him. In every unexpected break (because sometimes you just have to call a break and give everyone a moment, don’t you?!) when my folks weren’t back from their trip to the shops, I pumped. (Aside: source of much amusement among my team mates when I sat in the corner trying to hold a sensible conversation while hooked up to a small yellow machine which extracted milk from my body which I then attempted to hide from everyone in the back of the fridge because OH NO WHAT IF I GROSSED THEM OUT). Semi skimmed? Soya? Almond? Oat? Breast?
Along with model box and rehearsal expectations, my first day speech included information about breastfeeding and baby issues. I shared with my young company the phrase FOOD NOT RUDE and joked about getting it put onto on a T Shirt. I learned to feed in a carrier and felt like a superhero, boobing away while staging a hoedown. I fell in love with my job all over again watching the Sitzprobe through Finn’s eyes. We all decamped to Leicester to open the show at Curve, and I sat at the back and fed/ cried/ hysterically laughed my way through tech (easy environment for the sleep deprived, it’s dark, gallons of coffee are normal and no one has any idea what anyone else is doing, right?) The show was a huge success and a little glimmer of light had shown itself. I’d introduced Finn to Nikolai and he hadn’t made a ‘you’re a PARENT? Don’t come near my theatre ever again’ face. RESULT! A couple of the girls in my cast told me that they hadn’t seen a working theatre mum and this rehearsal process had inspired them. Wow.
Next up, my annual show in Singapore. Gulp. This one involved me, husband and 5.5 month old child all flying halfway across the world to do CHICKEN LITTLE for Singapore Repertory Theatre. I’ve worked there every year since 2012 and it’s one of the highlights of my year – such a glorious team – I didn’t want to back down on that one. This one was an interesting negotiation – Finn’s Dad*** is also a theatre freelancer and this was the first time we’d had to really juggle diaries. An ongoing and mind twisting exercise in ifs and maybes – he had to turn down a show so that I could work. SABOTAGING HIS CAREER SO THAT YOU CAN DO EVERYTHING! SELFISH MOTHER! Oh, pipe down, annoying voice in my brain. Bugger off. So this time, I had to make it work professionally so that SRT would have me back, but I also had to pay the mortgage on just my earnings for the month. And fly everyone to Singapore. Juggle, juggle, juggle. Particular highlights of this trip were Finn’s half birthday which we used as an excuse to stuff the actors full of cake, and the notes session when the company set up our (prop) chaise long for me to sit on, and I ended up giving notes while breastfeeding like some kind of glass ceiling smashing Victorian Matriarch. The show happened. It was brilliant. I LOVED having my family with me in Singapore and even the flight wasn’t too awful. I’VE DONE IT! I’M AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION! WORLD TRAVELLER WITH FAMILY I CAN DO ANYTHING! Finn cut his first tooth on the night we opened the show, and the heady mix of adrenaline and two hours sleep before travelling the six thousand miles home the next day brought me back to earth with a suitcase packing bump.
Since then, we’ve just been making it work. It’s tough, and there are times when I feel like a terrible parent and a terrible director, like I’m giving neither thing the attention it deserves. But there are other times when it really feels ok to have ambitions for myself as well as for my son. Both I and his Dad get to spend a lot of time with him, and I love observing the parts of their relationship, which are independent of me. The lack of routine is a ballache sometimes, but one of the great advantages otherwise. Finn has so many amazing people in his life who talk to him, and play instruments for him, and sing to him.
I missed a day of work once. Finn had a temperature of 40 and we were sent into A and E. I was directing a reading for BEAM and we had our hour long tech session. It was my worst nightmare realised – the ‘UNRELIABLE’ voice was loud and clear that day. My team were kind, and understanding. Everyone asked how he was. I tried to change the subject as I was embarrassed, when inside I wanted to scream ‘they keep pressing his rash and talking about blanching! Do they think it’s meningitis?’
Life dealt me a good lesson that day in not believing my own hype – the company coped, the show happened, it was clear to everyone that I couldn’t leave the child in his hospital bed and I was there the next day. Everyone’s replaceable. The show must go on. That’s what we theatre people do, isn’t it? – we make it work.
Other things that have been tough: meetings stretching into the evening. For the first 13 months, Finn would only go to bed if I was there. Any essential evening activities would end with a frantic race home to a hysterically overtired baby and the two of us would collapse onto the bed together, both in tears, before eventually one or the other would fall asleep. I didn’t go out for a year. I have only been to matinees, and that with a guilty sick feeling that I’m having a nice time at the theatre when I should be with the baby. I’ve declined invitations to countless press nights and convinced myself that is where the job offers happen. Having to make constant judgements on all the work I’m offered – What does it pay? Will it cover childcare? Will it advance my career? If it will be a really fun project, is that also ok? Will something more interesting come along for Finn’s Dad in that time and how would we manage that? It’s made me very aware of money, and how little there is, especially in the field of new musicals. I haven’t always earnt my half of the mortgage. We’ve made it work. I’ve appreciated the teaching that friends have thrown my way. Sustainability – is this actually practical going forwards? If not, given that my husband earns more than I do, what else can I do with my life?
Fast forwarding to now – I’ve worked on countless other projects over the last 15 months, always with the common factor of husband/ grandparents coming through to make it happen. I can’t find the words to say how grateful I feel to everyone who has helped me MAKE IT WORK. There are so many challenges big and small, but becoming a parent has made me a better director in a lot of ways.
I’m acutely aware that I come from a position of enormous privilege, because in many ways as director I get to call the shots. If I want to finish early and get home for bathtime, I do. If I were to have a total childcare crisis I could take him with me, or cancel a rehearsal. Actors don’t have that luxury. There’s a huge upsurge in awareness of those in the arts with caring responsibilities, including a call for job shares for actors. Parents in Performing Arts and Equity are doing some incredible work on this and I encourage everyone to keep an eye on them.
I’m making a show with Claire Sweeney at the moment, and our rehearsal process has thrown up new discussions about what it means to be a parent and a theatre maker. Some of Claire’s stories about her own journey into parenthood have found their way into the show – but we’ve both realised that generally we just don’t talk about this stuff!
Seeing other parents doing it has been key for me – having the confidence to know that it will work out somehow, because it has for other people. My parent crew – you know who you are – you continue to inspire me and I’m grateful for the honesty (and the gin) – and of course the middle of the night WhatsApping.
I saw this exchange between Tamara and Andrew Keates. Of course, TH ever humble:
I have to say Tamara, I disagree – your honesty and transparency has changed the picture. If I’d read your tweets two years ago, I’d have had a very different time of it, and on behalf of all parents, carers and might-be-parents, thank you for sharing with us all. You’ve inspired me to share some of my own stories which I hope will add more fuel to the fire and help to get us all actually talking about this stuff. You really are showing us how it’s done.
And on that note, he’s woken up – so that’s it for now!
*shoutout to Helen Eastman and Hannah Chissick both of who kept me sane and didn’t seem to mind too much that I asked them over and over again ‘BUT HOW WILL ANYONE EVER EMPLOY ME AGAINNNNNNN?’
**this is not as irresponsible as it sounds. The NYMT model is a week of rehearsal at Easter, followed by 4 months off, and then full production rehearsals in the summer. Often the Easter week is spent learning music.
*** he’s resolutely anti social media and pro online anonymity. I’m not being disparaging.