15 Stories: Pregnancy and Discrimination in Theatre | PAAL

The 15 first-hand accounts of discrimination below are an excerpt of the forward to our upcoming PREGNANCY HANDBOOKS and present various scenarios, from being fired for even attempting a pregnancy to being told publicly that a pregnant artist’s career is over. Pregnant women in the theatre have undergone shockingly shortsighted, misogynistic, and exclusionary treatment for some time – and for the most part have endured in silence, left to find resources for survival on their own. Here’s why we feel it necessary to uncover and prevent discrimination by creating a nationally accessible handbook to promote community resources, protocol, advice, legal information, and creative solutions:


DISCRIMINATION IS IMMORAL AND CAREER-ALTERING.


One of PAAL’s larger projects in production are parent HANDBOOKS that provide for all aspects of parent life in the theatre, beginning with motherhood. The handbooks, specifically, will provide advice, solutions, and resources directly to parents in all disciplines and showcase what aspects make the challenges of the parent artists’ work more possible. For the first round, the handbooks focus on pregnancy and postpartum theatre work.

Our first handbook, PREGNANCY HANDBOOK FOR ACTORS AND STAGE MANAGERS, is under way and collecting submissions in collaboration with members of the Parent Committee at Actors’ Equity Association (AEA). To read about the beginnings of this handbook, you can read the first article posted here.

We are still collecting stories and experiences and are now launching the forms collecting advice, resources, and creative solutions for motherhood in all disciplines. If you wish to contribute your own advice, resources, and creative solutions, feel free to find the best link below. All submissions are recorded anonymously.

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As a prologue and means to set the context, we’ve also collected stories of discrimination. Below, for the purposes of illustrating a touch of the importance of these handbooks as resources, we have selected 15 real stories of discrimination, the category they fall under, and a brief comment on how they hinder employment, create a toxic work environment, and hinder gender parity.

If you have experienced parent discrimination in the workplace and would like to share you story for our record and handbook creation, you may do so here. All stories are collected anonymously.

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15 STORIES OF PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION IN THE THEATRE WORKPLACE

An Excerpt of the Forward to
PREGNANCY HANDBOOK FOR ACTORS AND STAGE MANAGERS


1..PROJECTED OR EXPECTED DISAPPEARANCE/PROFESSIONAL FAILURE

“While pregnant with my son, I was working on a Broadway show and ran into another costume designer while visiting costume shops. This designer had been my professor, my mentor and my friend. When she began rubbing my belly, she leaned in to me mysteriously and whispered softly in my ear ‘there goes your career.'”
Valerie Marcus Ramshur

These comments, even in jest, are insensitive at best, misogynistic in most cases, and in actuality contribute toward ensuring the disappearance of pregnant artists. Prescribing failure or disappearance is bigoted and unhelpful when seeking to make the theatre environment inclusive. The psychological, emotional, and professional harm to the pregnant is immeasurable. It leads to compounded fear of a constantly evolving physical state, communicates the message that the future of theatre excludes the artist due to the family lifestyle choices made, and blames the pregnant artist for bringing the doom on themself when it is in fact this very kind toxic behavior that contributes to the tenuous nature of her future prospects. Each pregnant person deserves individual, professional courtesy, and respect for how they ultimately choose to continue their professional path, pause it, or detour for good. Whether or not a pregnant person chooses before, during, or after their pregnancy to continue working right away, take some time, or never return is completely off-limits for anyone else’s projection.


2. LACK OF EDUCATION ON BEHALF OF DECISION-MAKERS, RESULTING IN LOSS OF WORK

“I was cast as [leading lady in a Shakespeare production.] Great director, super excited. Things happened and it turned out I went through a round of in vitro right before rehearsals began. It failed and I geared up for another. I don’t remember why I told the director – I think it was because I knew I’d be giving myself a shot in the ass on the break during the longer rehearsals and thought it respectful to let him know, lest there be rumors about me and a big needle. He fired me and replaced me on the spot. Didn’t offer an understudy, though there was at least one other actor who had one on the show. He said something like, ‘I fully support becoming a parent, but I don’t know what happens to women when they’re pregnant. I can’t take a chance.'”
– Anonymous

It is important to briefly note the self-deception on the part of those who consider themselves “fully supportive,” yet engage in illegal hiring/firing practices out of their own sense of fear. The director admitted that the firing happened because he didn’t “know what happens.” Most acts of discrimination come from fear, and refusing to work with pregnant artists applies to this principle as well. This director made a career-altering decision by firing a pregnant actor, from a leading role, no less, due to his own deficiency in education. The pregnant artist paid the price for the employers’ fear. PAAL is committed to creating resources on how to work well with pregnant artists, and in the meantime also enforce the reality that to a certain extent, self-education is necessary. This is not the only example of pregnant actors fired from jobs for being pregnant that we have heard or received. The time will come when theatres are legally held accountable for these repulsive illegal hiring/firing practices that treat pregnant artists as though they are damaged and replaceable. Our handbooks are filling with stories of capable pregnant artists who contribute in extraordinary ways to the theatre. This re-education and exposure to capable artists is necessary. We hope to reach as many institutions as possible with re-education to create healthy and secure work environments for both employer and artist.


3. ILLEGAL QUESTIONING IN INTERVIEWS

“Today I had an interview for a really great part-time ongoing Stage Manager gig (like the dream “I’m between shows” gig). I wore a baggy yet professional sweater to hide the bump. Also – even though I’m almost in my 3rd trimester I’ve only gained a little over 10 pounds, and if you didn’t know me, you’d just think I had some pasta for lunch not that I’m preggers. Anyway, the PM, who in all fairness I really liked and had a great interview with, asked if I was planning on starting a family anytime soon. My first thought was “Fuck you that’s an illegal question,” my second thought was “Shit, am I showing more than I thought?” but what I said after an awkward pause was “Yes, actually I’m due in May.” He seemed shocked I was pregnant and even made a joke about how he’s not supposed to ask that. He assured me it was a non-issue. I’m pissed he asked at all but still want the job. I wonder if it’s actually a non-issue or a deal breaker. I wonder if they go with someone else, I’ll never know if it’s because I wasn’t the right choice or because I’m going to have a baby.” – Anonymous

Again, an illegal and unhealthy practice in a recorded discrimination experience. The law itself is in place to prevent discriminatory hiring or passing of work opportunities. Even with the “assurance” of the person on the other side of the table, the unnecessary investigation does its damage almost immediately through doubt, potentially weakening the resolve and expectation of the pregnant artist in terms of equal value to the potential employer. Even if done in an attempt at humor, the inquiry is toxic and contributes to the reduction of the professional being interviewed, which connects directly to pay gaps and still-small numbers of women hires.


4. WITHHOLDING WORK OPPORTUNITY

“I was told by two different companies that they wouldn’t interview me while I was evidently pregnant. Because what if the baby comes early or there are complications? I mean really. What if I were hit by a bus. For Pete’s sake.”
– Erin Koster

Refusing interviews directly impacts work opportunity for pregnant artists. When artists put in the effort to find work and make the work possible, the least employers can do is meet them in that initiative. The employer presents this dilemma as risk assessment based on logic, but in reality, they are engaging in discrimination, a refusal based on hyperbolic hypotheses that allows fear fantasy and laziness to directly hinder acquiring work and puncturing holes into the gender equity pipeline.


5. TOXIC WORK CULTURE AND LANGUAGE COSTING WORK

“When considering an offer to ASM an Off Broadway show. I would have been 7-8 months pregnant once the show was running. The male director had the gall to actually say to the PSM, ‘what if she’s too big to move around backstage?’ which the PSM decided to tell me. Needless to say I didn’t take that gig. I didn’t need to be around that kind of energy while pregnant with my first child.” – Anonymous

Reductive language about the physical state of pregnancy at work – whether as a joke or in earnest – is discriminatory and offensive. This instance resulted in the pregnant artist again leaving the work because the director already set a tone of disrespect. Allowing harmful language chases out artists capable of positive contribution.


 

6. PROJECTED/EXPECTED PROFESSIONAL DEFICIENCY

“There is too much made out of “baby brain” regarding pregnant women. I haven’t had many problems at all with memory bumps or confusion, but many non-pregnant people expect that from me and it undermines my authority as a stage manager.” – Jenna Woods

Language that describes the professional pregnant artist as incompetent reduces the pregnant artist and, as well articulated in this interview, undermines authority. If the attempt is for empathy, the right call is to show more respect for the pregnant artist, not less.


7. EXCLUSION FROM CONSIDERATION

“As someone who also teaches acting at the university level this discrimination exists there too. My pregnancy basically excluded me from adjunct or guest teaching/directing gigs and now in motherhood I am feeling the same exclusion. In myself I also struggle with a total lack of balance with a new baby paired with the freelance mentality of hustle hustle hustle to get the next job.” – Anonymous

Another artist called this “falling off the list.” At our NYC forum on Motherhood: Breaking the Silence, Margo Hunter described going to bat for pregnant actresses. She described intervening when casting labeled an actor “unavailable” because of a pregnancy, a label the pregnant actor did not request but was assumed. From academic to artistic to administrative, the gender equity pool for upward mobility consideration suffers when hiring bodies assume unavailability on the pregnant or parent artist without their consideration.


8. QUESTIONING ARTIST ABILITY, CHALLENGING STATED GOALS

“’Yeah, but could you do it?’…the aged director furrowed his eyebrows like shut curtains shading his confusion. I had to ask, ‘Do….what?’ – ‘The show. But could you do the show?’…I did quick math. Two months. ‘I’d have two months to recover,’ I found myself saying…’Yeah,’ he drawled, ‘But will you want to.’ – ‘I believe I would–’… The NY casting director couldn’t throw her hands up fast enough. She turned to face me and assign to me the leading pronoun, ‘SHE’ll be fine.’ The vote of confidence was punctuated by genuine pride, and the local casting director erupted in unflinching agreement: ‘Yes!’ End of discussion. The director tried to mutter ‘You don’t know until you know,’ but I think he sounded foolish to himself even at that point, so allowed his voice to trail off and went back to what he knew: I was asked to do the next scene.” – Auditioning Mom, Woman Behind the Table

Once a pregnant artist has expressed interest in the job, stated their plan of action, and expressed confidence in that plan, common decency alone should make the artist’s professional agency end of story. For a prospective employer to insist on interrogating the ability or desire the artist will have in the future does nothing for the security of the production or individuals in the room. This barrage of questions and negative behavior will only serve to instill doubt, fear, or at least confusion. This story’s inclusion of women behind the table who expressed their lack of intimidation for the pregnant artist is an example of the necessity of allies and advocates for pregnant artists in the hiring process.


9. PREVENTING THE ARTIST’S MEDICAL AND PHYSICAL AGENCY ON THE JOB SITE

“Later today, I was at another theatre I work at between shows. I was going over my upcoming availability with the PM when she said ‘I’m not sure if you should do this-certain-type-of-event anymore because sometimes they can be strenuous.’ I reassured her that in the past 4 years with this theatre I’ve done about 20 that-type-of-event and I was very confident in my ability as a pregnant woman to do my job on par with pre-pregnancy. She said she didn’t know if she would schedule me for them or other similar types of events because it ‘wasn’t fair to the other people working if you can’t lift things or do the same job as them’ and that she was just ‘looking out for other employees and for the theatre in case you get hurt.’ I called our boss after tonight’s gig, and he was super awesome and reassured me I would not lose work because I was pregnant and that he would have a big talk with the PM tomorrow. Mostly, I just felt hurt she didn’t trust me enough to make decisions for myself and my own ability of what I can and cannot do as a pregnant woman. If I think the gig is too much, I will turn it down – but don’t make assumptions of what I can and can not do and then not offer me work on those days because of your assumptions.” – Anonymous

Strenuous physical activity is an especially sensitive issue. Employers feel liable and artists feel responsible. Education, communication, and provision are key important factors to prevent assumptive discrimination. A pregnant artist and the artist’s doctor should be making the decisions on physical capability. For a superior to assume inability and reduce work removes agency from the artist and takes control away from the artist in terms of their professional and physical agency.


10. BETRAYING THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY 

“The director of the show knew and was wonderfully supportive and great about it. I knew he had my back, and I also had another person in the room that I had confided in who could help me when I needed it. For some reason, there were several people working on the show including a stage manager who decided that they needed to know if I was pregnant when I was nauseous in rehearsal, but instead of coming to me to check in and say “are you okay/ I’m concerned about you/ do you need anything?”, they went behind my back to someone on the theatre’s production staff and demanded to know if I was pregnant which set off a chain of events that was completely beyond my control, and I lost the ability to decide who I was going to tell. I felt so violated. I called Equity, and they said I had every right to keep it a secret. I hadn’t even told my mother. It was the single most upsetting incident while I was pregnant. I had the situation under control, and I felt that I had told the people who needed to know for the time being. I wish those people who demanded to know would have trusted me to handle my pregnancy in the way that was best for me.  My body. My business…There needs to be awareness that pregnancy info is private medical information that should be treated as confidential.”
– Anonymous

Again, because of the physical reality of pregnancy, many take the initiative to demand knowing when an artist is pregnant. While we will be covering recommended “chain of communication” on who we recommend to tell when, the information of a pregnancy shouldn’t be seen as a medical disease, but absolutely as private medical information. For the pregnant artist’s safety, the handbooks will articulate some recommended communication, but along with that recommendation for the pregnant artists, there must also be education of those receiving the information on how to keep it private, keep the artist safe, and preserve artist authority in communication.


11. PERPETUATING SILENCE THROUGH FEAR

“…due to past issues I encountered, I was silent. It felt awful and wrong, but I was scared of losing a job I desperately needed at the time. It was a point of severe anxiety for me. [To be honest] – safety is a real concern. However, it is my honest opinion that if you are not yet out of the “safety zone,” it is your right to keep it to yourself if that is what makes you feel more comfortable.” – Anonymous

While a pregnant artist has the right to maintaining privacy, an environment that perpetuates silence through fear the theatre has made unfortunately common. Discrimination through inaction and ignorance creates a bubble where pregnant artists must risk employment speaking or anxiously hide in harmful silence. By following basic principles such as the “employer initiates conversation” recommendation and other principles in our developing best standard practices, employers can alleviate the worry by preparing, communicating, and supporting.


12. UNWAVERING DEMANDS ON PROVING ABILITY

“I auditioned for a production at a small professional company…the producer called to offer me a role in the ensemble, at which time I disclosed that I was pregnant, and would be in my second trimester at the time of rehearsals and performances, but probably wouldn’t be showing noticeably…The producer congratulated me on my pregnancy, said that she didn’t think it would be a problem, and would get back to me definitively ASAP. Shortly thereafter, I got a voicemail from the same producer saying that she had spoken with the director (another woman), and that the director was not comfortable casting me because she anticipated the role would be ‘very physically demanding,’ so she thanked me for my audition but rescinded the casting offer…I assured [the director] I could still perform acrobatic activities even though I was pregnant. She gave me the role back and welcomed me to the production. At our first on-our-feet rehearsal, it became very clear that we were dealing with an ensemble who was not universally physically capable of the exertion she had described to me. We had two cast members who were well over 60, and who had difficulty sometimes even walking up the couple of platforms of our set. However, on that first day, the director called on me. ‘Your resume said you do cartwheels,’ she said, with not unsubtle challenge in her eyes. ‘Absolutely,’ I said, determined to prove to her that I was not going to be the weak link in this production. I cartwheeled for her, at 14 weeks pregnant. ‘Great. It’s in the show.’ I will note that no one else was asked to actually do anything athletic or acrobatic for the entire remainder of the production. My cartwheel remained the only remnant of her grand scheme for an acrobatic ensemble, even though there were female and male cast members younger and more able than I. I feel like I was publicly challenged because I had dared to defend my rights as a pregnant actor. I had dared to speak up and say, ‘I am a full person, even now.’ And even after I negotiated my way back into the production, instead of making the commitment to include me as a part of the ensemble and work with me in a respectful and safe manner, our director chose to put my life and my child’s life in danger by coercing me into an unnecessary stunt. It was more important to finish the argument than to make sure that my baby and I were safe…what has remained with me most of all was the betrayal of that director, a woman who I felt should have held more empathy and grace, regardless of whether or not she herself was a mother (she is not). This experience shook me, and made me re-evaluate whether I wanted to be a part of this industry. I have since gone back to school, and am studying to be a court reporter, which will allow me the flexible hours, decent pay, and legal rights that I need to be a working mother. My hope is that one day I will be able to take advantage of those same benefits to make space in my life for professional theater again.” – Anonymous

This full submission includes powerful mentions of community and company support in spite of the director’s oversight. In the handbook, we include the full submission. Let us clarify that we can recognize the pregnant artist agreed to the physical activity, before receiving the job and accepted the activity before the job and when called upon in the room. The oversight happens when accommodations are made for the rest of the company but neglected for the actor who had to pay for the job with the ability to move beyond what was eventually required. Again, a standard of communication and protection for the pregnant artist in the company to receive equal adjustments can help prevent these cases of discrimination due to inflexibility.


13. FAILED SUPPORT FROM UNIONS

“One week before heading off to play one of my dream roles, I found out I was pregnant. What should have been a happy and exciting time turned into one of the darkest periods of my life. I had so many questions, and no role models in my life to guide my way. I believed, however, that once I called my union, I would receive guidance on how to navigate this unexpected turn of events.

I dialed the number that I had called so many times, relieved to finally get connected to the business rep for my region. I told the rep my circumstances, and asked, ‘How should I proceed? What do I do? What’s the protocol?’ The answer that I got was ‘I don’t know.'” – Don’t Tell Anyone–A Call to Action for Work Life Balance, Adriana Gaviria

The story in this article continues to say that the union rep on the other line answered that there was no resources or support they knew of – most actors just kept it a secret, it was their right not to tell, as long as possible – with no provision of resources or policies. Since that experience, powerful changes have started to develop in AEA. The Parent Committee has resurrected (and the article includes a statement from Co-Chair Kristen Beth Williams on the proactive momentum AEA now takes with pregnancy and parenthood. They are, as stated, collaborating with PAAL on creating these handbooks. We now have a committed ally in AEA and look forward to collaborating with all unions on developing publicly accessible resources, policies, and standards that will prevent discriminating against parent members through neglect.


14. WHEN RELATIONSHIP ISN’T THERE TO KEEP BRIDGES INTACT

“I had to turn down a role that was heavy stage combat (I would have been 5 months pregnant) but I wasn’t telling people I was pregnant yet. Thankfully I knew the director so it was fine but if it was with a company I didn’t, I would have loved advice on how to do that without burning a bridge.” – Anonymous

This positive story echoes a common sentiment, often beginning with “thankfully,” or “luckily.” These stories of relationship creating security are wonderful. They indicate, however, that safety is not a guarantee in the circumstances where past relationship doesn’t exist to protect the pregnant artist. Success of parent artists asking for respect, professional security, and should not depend on the individual mercy of powerholders. The guess-work alone reduces the parent artist as a valid contributor. Punishing an artist for passing on a role should be a rarity easily identified and held to accountability – not a 50/50 chance that, in this case choosing to pass due to pregnancy, could “burn a bridge” in an artists career path.


15. DISCRIMINATORY ENVIRONMENTS THAT SHAME FUTURE PARENTS

“I once worked with an actress with a six-month old child, who was given grief by the costume designer because her body had changed and she couldn’t wear the costumes as designed.  I comforted and supported the actress as much as I could, but in all honesty, I secretly pitied her for making this career ‘mistake.’  I’ve seen, and been a part of, condolatory reactions to pregnancy announcements by theater makers. So, when I got pregnant, I felt as if I was committing this overtly rebellious, ground-breaking act by choosing to have children AND continuing my work.” – Carmelita Becnel

The fear that pregnant artists experience can stem from first-hand experiences as well as experiences with discrimination against other artists. A work culture that perpetuates body shaming, excludes parents without their involvement, removes agency, and fires pregnant artist cultivates an environment of fear and shame for those who witnessed discrimination and later find themselves potentially on the receiving end. Theatre culture must be intentional in eradicating discriminatory language, practices, expectations, and behaviors in its social and professional spheres. It affects the gender equity pipeline as well as the Theatre’s ability to recognize lifestyle shifts in the effort to create inclusive work environments.


Note on PAAL further reading:

We’ve begun writing articles on the topic of how to speak to a pregnant person and creating family friendly work environments. Earlier records of the childcare dilemma and discrimination of motherhood in the theatre laid the foundation for these conversations and submissions. In terms of gender parity and all-parent inclusion, we hope to provide community and support for pregnant artists as well as exposure and re-education for institutions in need of sensitivity training on this topic.

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