Stage Moms (and Dads): Making Art in a World that Doesn't Want You

Article by Stephanie Richards

Stephanie Richards is a skilled lighting designer and the Lead Programmer at the Guthrie Theater. Stephanie has always been extremely competent and able to step into a wide variety of roles with great facility and consideration. She reads extremely widely and while we don’t talk as much as we used to (theatre schedules means we rarely see each other), I always appreciate her sharp, intelligent opinion and insight, built on a strong foundation of experience and study. -Wu Chen

When I agreed to write this essay, I had it in mind that I would paint a picture of the special kind of chaos that rules a two-stagehand family. I would find some eloquent way to rhapsodize about the magic of a perfectly-synced shared iCal, the craziness that is meeting your spouse halfway between your work venues in rush-hour traffic to swap a hungry toddler from one car seat to another, or the joy of asking someone to babysit without being able to tell them either a start or an end time. 

Many other parents have written about the joy and the challenge of raising kids in the theatre. Those of us who have chosen this path have all figured out ways to make it work. I work a full-time show schedule at the Guthrie; this gives me a lot of flexibility during the day to spend time and energy parenting. My husband Ryan freelances, mainly off the IATSE call list. He can take calls with an eye to my schedule; he's less likely to say yes to that all-day Target Center load-in when I'm in the middle of tech. We have an amazing nanny who has been with us since our daughter was four months old; she is often the rock that our little family teeters on and without her we would be in serious trouble. And then we have our larger community - friends, coworkers, family members, sitters - all of whom help us get up each day and get the things done that we need to do. 

This business is, by its nature, hostile to families. The long hours put into a design and build, or during tech by stagehands, are punishing to the parents of small children - especially breastfeeding or pumping mothers. The schedules are completely opposite from the school days of older children, leaving parents to choose between missing recitals, sports games, birthday parties, and even family dinners, or finding a new line of work. And at our job sites, both managers and coworkers without children can be unwilling or unable to help mitigate the impact that the fluid nature of the work can have on our families. Before I was a mom, it was nothing to work through a dinner break if the designer needed more time. Now, I'm heading home for an hour so Ryan can get to his show call on time and our nanny can commute from her day job to our house. Yet when I say no, I can't stay when you've decided at the last minute that you need yet another hour of programming time, I'm the bad guy. And I am lucky, because my bosses have kids and they're willing to stick up for me, and I can say no to that kind of request without worrying if I'm going to lose my job.

And this is where I come back to the difference between what I thought I was going to talk about, and what's become clear to me that I NEED to talk about. What Ryan and I are doing? It's hard. Parenting is hard. Working in the arts is hard. Managing the logistics of schedules in a business where the expectation is that you are on-call 24/7 is hard. Navigating childcare with a non-traditional schedule is hard, and paying for it on an artist's salary is really hard, even when that salary is good. Compromising your art so you can be a good parent is hard - and compromising your parenting to make someone else's art is hardest of all. 

But as difficult as some days are, this is what I signed up for. We spend a lot of time taking turns raising our daughter, but at the end of a sixteen hour day, the other one is there to hold us up, lend a hand, or make the fourth run to the grocery store this week because we're out of milk again. We struggle to pay the bills, but we know that if something catastrophic happens, we have insurance, family, and friends who will jump in and lend a hand. We feel safe with the people we trust with our daughter when we're both working. And we are proud of the work we do, proud of what art can do in a community, and grateful to be a part of it. 

It's become clear to me that, with all these benefits and advantages we have, making this life work is STILL this hard. And so it follows that for someone without these privileges, raising a child has got to be exponentially harder. As tired as I am; as frazzled and disorganized as I feel most days, it is this thought that lights a fire under me. If we, as an arts community, seriously mean to include a plurality of voices in a meaningful way, we need to make an effort to include parents and families. Not just families who can manage within the traditional structure of play-making, but by making plays in a way that can accommodate the needs of the people in those families.

As artists, we face an unwelcoming world. With the current administration in Washington threatening to do away with the NEA and the NEH, with the fragmentation of our national identity, and with the despair that I have heard from friends and co-workers in the last few months, what we do is more important than ever. We have the right and the responsibility to say true things, to ask hard questions and explore messy answers. We can tell stories that can give hope, change hearts, and bolster spirits. But if we do not make space for the voices of everyone who wants to participate, we fail to rise above the charge of elitism that we are so often branded with.

I don't know what the answer is. Childcare is not only cost-prohibitive for families, but for many theatre organizations as well - companies like mine who pay a living wage, but don't necessarily have the margin to run a daycare operation too. Yet if we do not find creative ways to support artists caring for children or other family members, we limit the pool of participants to the same people we always hear from; people who don't have to surmount the barriers of income, availability, and outside responsibility. If we want to remain relevant in an increasingly unfair world, we have to do better.