Soapbox: Backstage Mom

No, not that kind….no Honey Boo Boo here.

Article by Laura Wilhelm

Wilhelm is Properties Master at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Artistic Director of Mad Munchkin Productions, Project Manager for Tech Tools, and a freelance designer. She knew a thing or two about balancing a busy schedule as a theater-maker even before the birth of her daughter only a short year ago. It's a challenge many women in the arts come face-to-face with, so we asked her to shed some light on her first year as a different kind of stage mom.

I’m a theater mom.  To be more clear- I am a mother working in the theater.  If you come to my prop shop there is a sign on the door that reads:

 Breastfeeding/Pumping Mama’s Lactation Station

 Please knock and/or Announce Yourself  

This is mostly to prevent others from embarrassment.  I’ve heard the gamut of timid “h-h-hello?” to “HEY, LAURA! CAN I COME IN?”  Everyone has been understanding.  Everyone has given me space. No one has seen more of the propsmaster than they bargained for. Considering that the technical theater world is still predominately male, I feel lucky that the arts world is so open and flexible compared to my perception of other fields.  That is not to say it is all easy.

When I found out I was pregnant, I hesitated telling the theater world at large.  I didn’t want to get passed up for any opportunities.  My own mother actually had to delete a Facebook post where she was accidentally letting the cat out of the bag before I was fully prepared to do so beyond family and close friends.  Becoming a parent is a completely different physical navigation as a woman working in the technical theater realm.  While it is true that I had to limit my climbing and carrying and be aware of toxins and fumes in the shop, on the whole I was able to do my job and worked all the way up to my daughter’s birth.  All of that was the easy part.  The hard part comes afterwards - now you have to go back to real life in the theater world with a baby.

I came back from maternity leave after six weeks straight into tech rehearsals for a show. The break had been as long as we could afford and I had no paid leave.  I was sleep deprived, had mommy brain fog (it’s a real thing), and was trying to figure out how to pump.  Details got dicey…that I can’t deny.  I had much less patience for the quirks of the cast and the needs of the production that I normally would have handled with a smile.  Nothing seems as important as the infant life you are supporting.  But the show opened and nobody died.

My husband is a technical director, so after that first show there have been many many more.  Both for our full time gigs and the extra gigs that we both pick up to make ends meet.  In addition, we run our own theater company (what the heck are you supposed to do when you are both supposed to be in at the same tech?). There are techs back to back, there is solo parenting for weeks on end, we do trade outs and hand offs, and baby juggling, and sheepish pleas for babysitters who do not charge. Oh, and sometimes we like to take a night off…and go out together…without our bundle of joy.  It is hard to ask for help. You want to think you can do it all, but the old saying “it takes a village” is no joke. 

Our kiddo turns one in mid July; I can’t believe how fast it has gone. Last week she got a tour of the Rarig Center as Tech Tools prepped for classes.  She came with me for stint at the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival in Omaha, where I negotiated housing with a full kitchen and time off of rehearsal to take her to the zoo.  Mad Munchkin Productions, our other baby, produced a show this spring with great success with us at the helm as parents for the first time.  It’s true, mommy brain still rears its ugly head every once in awhile. I completely blanked on our moderator’s name while making introductions for a Tech Tools panel discussion, but remembered just in time to save myself (Leah Cooper!). And the baby seems to have survived my dropping a roll of gaff tape on her head at 7 weeks old.  A full roll.  Oops.  But the bottom line is this - she has a village of brilliant theater people surrounding her (and her parents), and this backstage mom wouldn’t have it any other way.