HowlRound: Re-Defining Motherhood and Advocating for the Parent Artist

This piece, “Re-Defining Motherhood and Advocating for the Parent Artist” by Rachel Spencer Hewitt was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on December 10, 2017.

Just under a year ago, I attended a Women in Theatre forum in Chicago. I had gone with the intention of hosting a breakout session for them on “Motherhood in Theatre,” hoping to find some like-minded artists at the forum. On the sign up sheet set up for my session, there were only two names—but beneath, someone had drawn an arrow through the many empty spaces and written, “This is why we need this.” The opportunity to curate a series for HowlRound comes a month shy of the one-year anniversary of that sign up, and nothing could be more true than the message in that note. In the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion, creating platforms that give voice to the nuanced experience of all parents will identify how the theatre culture at large can act to make better pathways back in for those left out of the discussion, thus directly affecting the pipeline, content, and population of our craft. The motherhood session we hosted was attended by fifteen mothers in Chicago and was the preliminary meeting of Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL), a national resource hub and all-parent, all-discipline league advocating for a national standard of best practices for parents in the performing arts. This HowlRound series builds on the work of PAAL and will cover challenges faced by parent artists and offer some solutions and advice.—​Rachel Spencer Hewitt, series curator

He silenced me. I had been telling him of my successes, and yet: “I wouldn’t share that, if I were you.” He hushed, hands in pockets. His comment, I would later learn, belonged to a legacy of silence: “There goes your career,” she told her at an industry party. They wouldn’t schedule interviews for work—because they didn’t know “what could happen” if she were pregnant. “Children aren’t allowed in the apartments,” so they found someone else. “Don’t tell anyone” was the advice she received from her union. “If you choose to have children, you take the consequences” the first commenter and theatre contributor wrote. “She took the maternity leave, but while she was gone, the resentment was evident,” she recalled.

In these moments, in the performing arts industry across the country, mothers are being silenced. Mothers are getting fired. Mothers are afraid. Mothers are falling away. Mothers and fathers are leaving the arts to make equitable partnership possible. Parents, caregivers—those who have the audacity or obligation to care for someone else—are cut off from the theatre due to archaic structures and inflexibility. The artists among us who expand their lifestyle to include caring for others are searching for community support. Many feel isolated, professionally disempowered, unheard, and, in almost all cases, drowning in the undertow of financial demands beyond the artist’s usual and persistent challenges. The tasks required become impossible when combined with inflexibility of structure, invisibility of support, and unpredictability of work culture. This potent cocktail of disenfranchisement can force unnatural splits in artists’ career trajectories, driving competent, diverse groups of theatre professionals away from the profession. We are losing artists.

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