by Rachel Spencer Hewitt
One of the dominating obstacles for parents who are artists in the theatre is the sense of isolation that arises as they increasingly tackle caregiving responsibilities. In addition to external hindrances, many parents face internal shifts in their priorities, questions about their passion, new self-doubt, low resources, and other factors. In spite of these experiences, however, parent artists should be perceived by others and take liberty to perceive themselves as both vessels for inspiration and workers capable of creation. Any life event can trigger an internal assessment. In fact, it’s this sensitivity to change that often propels artists to doubt, feel, create, and so on.
For the parent artist tackling these internal shifts, engaging with a community of fellow parent artists becomes essential. Increasingly, social media is providing instrumental platforms for parents to not only share logistical questions but also provide mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical support. The posts shared in private forums are met with a rush and wealth of experience. Commenters often range from new mothers to seasoned, positive to skeptical, but almost always supportive. The positive results of the instant connection often show up right away – expressions of gratitude, choruses of “I’m going to try that,” “so glad I asked,” pop up after generous comments offering help and solidarity.
For the parent artist, connecting with others who have the same external obstacles as well as the same internal struggle helps obliterate isolation and provides solutions and opportunities from a highly empathetic and accommodating community.
So, why not stop there?
Why not allow social media initiatives to create the accommodations that parents need to make the work they want in the theatre? To be clear, parent artists should continue to form community and seek immediate support and guidance from specialized groups at every opportunity. Social media should continue to create accommodations as much as possible. However:
When a professional environment founded on the human experience cannot adjust for the human experience, that environment is toxic and compromised, restrictive and reductive.
By relying solely on methods outside theatre institutions, the isolation within professional community remains, and discrimination and exclusion become the potential devastating results. When women have to hide their pregnancies, mothers their small children, fathers their caregiver schedule, etc., because they fear the realities of their lives become an employment liability, our responsibility, as a professional, inclusive artistic community, is to assess what must change within institutions and policy in order to create a culture where parent artists may interview, work, and produce without self-erasure or fear. When a professional environment founded on the human experience cannot adjust for the human experience, that environment is toxic and compromised. When a professional environment is accommodating to the human experience of caregiving as a lifestyle, that support should be public. Numerous human dignities, including autonomy, value of the individual, mercurial nature of identity, and so on, lead us to argue that a parent artist’s contribution should not be stifled, ignored, or resisted even in the midst of transition or choosing time away. At the very least, parent artists by their nature maintain much of the performing artist’s spirit by nature of caregiving. Performing artists and parents are creatures of connection in the business of the human experience whose mode of execution is communal.
Allowing parent artists to visibly integrate their lifestyle with their passion does not detract from the mission of theatre as a cultural institution, it amplifies it.
Acknowledging and accommodating parent need becomes an asset to the theatre through increasing the talent pool, diversifying the stories, expanding the institution’s core community, and creating adjustments for efficiency and accessibility that could positively affect employees across the board. In addition to economic benefits, in terms of ethical practice, visible integration and support of working parent artists at all levels of theatrical production is key to identifying discrimination within theatre work culture, the ultimate goal of which is to eliminate acts of discrimination against the parent-artist, reduce fear in employment, and make fair work more possible.
Community is essential. Integration is key.