31 December 2017

Shakespeare REMIX

[My friend Erin Woodward, who teaches theater in the New York City public schools, has been engaged in an after-school program called Shakespeare REMIX for several years.  I’ve seen a couple of the program’s performances from her school and I find it a fascinating and innovative effort in arts education—or rather, the use of the arts, in this case theater, as a teaching paradigm—not to teach theater precisely, but to teach . . . well, intellectual curiosity and inquiry.  I hope you’ll see what I mean by that somewhat cryptic characterization.  In any case, when I saw the first REMIX performance last year, I knew I had to blog on the program.  Now, here’s my effort to that end.]

In 2001, a group of theater professionals, some teaching artists, others working theater pros (including actors, directors, managers, and playwrights), launched the Epic Theatre Center.  (In 2007, the company changed its name to Epic Theatre Ensemble to “reflect Epic’s identity as a collective of actors, writers, directors, educators and activists who share a passion for utilizing the theatre to empower voices, foster dialogue, inspire self-exploration and spur social change.”  Neither name seems to be related to the Brechtian concept of Epic Theater, however.)  Among this founding collective were some of the company’s current leaders: Executive Director Ron Russell, a director, and Artistic Director Melissa Friedman and Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, both actors.  Their thrust from the start was to forge links between schools and students on the one side and performing artists and the professional stage on the other.  The company focused its efforts on integrating youth development, the training of citizen-artists, and the production of politically-oriented plays (both new and from the classic repertoire).  In 2005, Epic Theatre was instrumental in founding the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts (BHSWCA), a New York City public school on the Evander Childs Educational Campus on East Gun Hill Road in Williamsbridge with a unique writing curriculum into which the arts are integrated.  

That same year, Epic commissioned No Child . . . from Nilaja Sun, an actor and teacher in the New York City system since 1998.  No Chid . . . is based on Sun’s experiences teaching theater over eight years in New York City public schools, composited into the fictional Malcolm X High School in the play.  A one-actor play with a title derived from the controversial George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, No Child . . ., described by in the New York Times as “a lightning-paced, multi-character solo play in the style of John Leguizamo,” was presented in 2006 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with Nijala as a version of herself (named Miss Sun).  The play received good reviews and won the 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, the Outer Critics’ John Gassner Playwriting Award, the Theatre World Award, the Obie Award for Performance, and a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.  In essence, No Child . . ., though based on Sun’s experiences teaching and directing theater in the schools predating Epic’s founding, is a portrait of the troupe’s philosophy and practices, especially the program it calls Shakespeare REMIX.

In its first half dozen years, Epic Theatre launched such programs as the yearly young people’s Summer Intensive which evolved into the Epic NEXT Arts Leadership Program, the Shakespeare REMIX after-school program, and the five-week Youth Theatre Festival (Epic YTF) which presents performances from Epic NEXT, Heather Raffo’s Places of Pilgrimage residencies, and Shakespeare REMIX.  In 2011, Russell became Executive Director of Epic, Friedman was named Artistic Director, and Wallert assumed his role as Associate Artistic Director.  The company’s mission, in their own words, “is to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.”  This they accomplish by encouraging students to be “creative and engaged citizens,” putting forward powerful ideas that challenge people’s thinking, and fostering collaborations among artists, students, and opinion-makers to produce plays about important issues of our time, such as their 2010 New York première of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play.  “Because theatre has a JOB in this world,” insists Russell of the troupe’s purpose.  “It is not an entertainment.  It is an incredibly powerful tool for social change.  For awakening, particularly in young people, a thirst for rigor, and self-expression, and courage, the courage of speaking with truth and clarity in front of an audience . . . .” 

One student in an Epic program declared, “Epic pushes us to be citizen artists rather than just artists—artists that have something to say about their country, their community.”  Another, now a college student, said that “the most important thing I took away from the program was political awareness,” and added,

I’m 99 percent sure that if Epic had not come to my school I would not have been anywhere near as involved in any of the social or political issues that I am now.  I definitely would not be at a liberal arts college.  I wouldn’t be here.

Other student performers spoke of increased self-confidence born of the work with Epic, the ability to be self-assertive, particularly when confronted with teasing or bullying over perceived differences. 

In 2003, Epic launched its after-school youth-development program Shakespeare REMIX at Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in lower Manhattan (just west of SoHo).  Epic co-founder Melissa Friedman, a teaching artist with Theatre for a New Audience and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had been working at Chelsea with Robert Mitchell, veteran English Language Arts (ELA) teacher and Coordinator of Student Activities at the school.  Mitchell, now the vice principal of Chelsea CTE, expressed interest in doing an after-school Shakespeare program. (Chelsea CTE is where Erin Woodward teaches theater.  She’s contributed to Rick On Theater—Erin’s the author of “The Cheapening of the Standing O,” posted on 8 February 2015—and her father, Kirk, is a frequent guest-blogger on ROT, including “Thoughts On Rehearsals,” his last contribution on 26 December.) 

REMIX grew to include three New York City public high schools in Lower Manhattan (Chelsea CTE), Harlem (Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts), and the Bronx (BHSWCA). (The program briefly expanded to four city schools with the addition of the Frances Perkins Academy at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, but currently operates in only the original three.)  The program takes its name from the recording industry where a “remix” is a piece of music which has been changed from its original form by adding, removing, or altering elements—or any combination of these processes—to create something new.  Any work of art—a song, a painting, a book, a video, or a photograph, say—can be remixed.  

In Epic’s Shakespeare REMIX, teams of actor-mentors work with the students (about 200 in all Epic partner schools) for four afternoons a week over a three-month period.  They discuss the chosen play’s social and political issues fully, analyze Shakespeare’s text, and then intertwine their own writing into Shakespeare’s original dialogue.  In the words of an Epic promotion statement, “Students remix the meaning of an original Shakespeare piece with the help of a professional artistic mentor to push their thoughts far beyond measures they have imagined.  A bridge is created in between the time of the plays and their time once they’re able to recreate an original piece and make it their own. At the festival each borough presents their remixed piece which provides the youth with a captivating experience that can encourage them to get deeper in touch with their theatrical side.”

The final remixed scripts, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., an Epic actor who’s appeared in several REMIX productions, estimates, usually contain about 10 to 20% student writing, leaving the rest as Shakespeare composed it.  “The students are using rigorous research and text analysis, combined with their native earnestness, empathy, thoughtfulness, and insightfulness . . .,” Epic Executive Director Russell declares, “to sculpt a truly original vision of theatre that will be impactful on their community.”  The program culminates in fully produced plays with students performing alongside professional theater artists.

“The rhythm of Shakespeare’s text is the hook,” says Friedman, Epic’s Director of Education, “and the students connect it with some of the kinds of poetry that they like, like rap and spoken word.  It’s the way into his plays, and they really respond to it.”  As if to illustrate Friedman’s assertion, a 16-year-old REMIX student actor, who’d never encountered Shakespeare’s plays before he worked on Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, confessed, “It just blew my mind.  You go through and find the metaphors and entendres.  Reading it was pretty cool, but when we started to stage it, you saw how much he wrote for actors.  There was just so much freedom.”

Student actor Kayla Bennett of the Bronx agrees: “I like it because it’s not easy.  It’s not regular words.  You have to look inside the text and really understand it and break it down.  Once you know what he’s saying, you know what to do onstage.  Because it’s a challenge to do so, that’s why I like it so much.”  Actor Simmons explains, echoing Friedman’s words:

Epic feels that working with young people on Shakespeare, parsing out the language, understanding the language and using that language within the context of their own lives is very important to understanding themselves—understanding the world while at the same time broadening their experience, broadening their vocabulary, being able to take the words that somebody else has written in heightened language and be able to speak that in front of people, we feel is crucial to their development as young people.

Then he adds: “Once they begin to understand what's happening in the play and what the story is, they begin to understand what's actually being said on the page.  They begin to broaden their vocabulary and they begin to be able to talk about how what's going on in Verona in the 15th century affects them right now.”  Simmons continues: “Teaching artists who are in the play come in and work with the students, help them learn the language, teach them the backstory and then they come in and see the play.  They have a different experience.  They have the backstory. Experiential learning is the way to go with Shakespeare.”  This is the educational rationale of Shakespeare REMIX; it validates both the students’ experiences and perceptions and the universality and impact of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old observations and depictions.

Working with theater designers, the student actor-playwrights also learn about lighting, costuming, and sound as they rehearse their remixed plays for performance before audiences of peers, parents, and the public at an Off-Broadway theater.  Finally, working with Epic artists (and sometimes school faculty as well) as mentors and castmates and directed by a member of the Epic company, the students present this entirely new piece of theater, speaking Shakespeare’s words and their own to connect these classic plays to their time and their world through the interconnected texts of five centuries ago and today.  Friedman insists that the socio-political points in the remixed text come totally from the students themselves, not some ambitious director.  For example, for Harlem’s Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts’ Taming of the Shrew, directed by Friedman in 2016, the students wrote new scenes focusing on the play’s subjugation of women and turned the play into a call for justice.  The new play was presented as a live taping for TV of the diegetic Crystal Sly Show for the ruling tyrant of a patriarchal society in which women have no right to vote and are required to submit to arranged marriages.  As for what the young playmakers want adults in their audiences to take away from their efforts, an actor playing Petruchio demanded, “I want to not only show the problem but put them metaphorically in the driver’s seat and say, ‘You can fix this.’  I want the audience personally to feel like, ‘Yes, there’s a problem.  How do we fix it?’”

In the remix of Richard III by Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in 2008, the student co-authors added this warning:

Look out for “Richards.”  Don’t look for the curved back or misformed shape, ’cause you gotta look inside a man to witness his face.

After the political campaign year of 2016, that sounds mighty perceptive and astute—except that this Richard III  was created seven full years before a certain presumptive presidential nominee rose to political prominence and the Oval Office.  So, prophetic as well, then.  (In the 2016 remix of Macbeth in last year’s YTF, one of the potential successors to Macbeth’s throne is a buffoonish, Trump-like corporate mogul named Paul.  Who says kids today are oblivious to current events and politics?)

In 2009, Shakespeare REMIX won the Coming Up Taller Award (now known as the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award), a recognition of exemplary community arts and humanities programs made jointly by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. (At the 4 November White House award ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama, Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee, proclaimed of the recipients, ”You ask our young people to dream and you give them the tools to fulfill those dreams.  You affirm that their contributions are valuable and that their success matters to all of us.”) 

In a review of the 2010 REMIX production of Othello by students of BHSWCA, Nicholas Job wrote on New York Theatre Review:

Ron Russell [Epic’s Executive Director and the director of Othello] . . . has done a wonderful thing with these students and this piece.  By challenging his student actors to create an entirely new piece from the fabric of Othello, he’s empowered them with a unique understanding of Shakespeare’s words and meaning.  In addition, by giving them an opportunity to make their acting debuts with Shakespearian verse, in what many would consider a challenging play even to professionals, he’s instilled in them the confidence to handle classical text at an early age.  It’s exciting, inspiring, and at times, incredibly entertaining.  But don’t think just because his cast has only two professional actors Mr. Russell is interested in playing it safe.  He makes the bold choice to employ cross-gender casting for the cunning soldier at the center of the play . . . .

(BHSWCA’s Othello, which Job described as “a bit more of a mash-up and less a Remix,” was moved to the present day, with Desdemona the head of an entertainment law firm who’s “eventually s[u]nk by an untimely death, an affair, and rampant mistrust amongst her employees.”)

On Monday evening, 21 March 2016, I went up to Harlem’s National Black Theatre at 5th Avenue and 125th Street/Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to see Shakespeare REMIX: Henry 4, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble’s Youth Theatre Festival.  It was my first exposure to the work of this program, but as I’m a firm supporter of theater and arts programs in schools, and because the cast of Henry 4 were Erin’s students at Chelsea, I knew I had to be there to see what it was all about as well as to show my support for Erin and her ensemble.  (In 2017, I went up to Harlem again to see CTE’s Much Ado  About Nothing remix on Saturday evening, 18 March.)  Epic YTF ran at NBT from 4 March to 5 April, with Henry 4 in performance on 19, 21 (two shows), and 22 March.  (The other plays, presented by different schools, in 2016’s YTF were Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; 10467, a play, named for a Bronx ZIP code, about the inequities of New York City schools funding created by participants in Epic NEXT; Noura, a work in progress by Heather Raffo, with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.)  I was so taken with the concept, not to mention the work demonstrated by the student performers and writers, that I immediately began thinking about learning more about Shakespeare REMIX and almost certainly writing a blog post on the program and its process.

Chelsea CTE’s Henry 4 was moved all the way to 2042, an election year in which President Henry Bollingbroke is running for his second term.  The country is under siege by foreign powers, civil rights militants, the news media, and the National Rifle Association.  (Erin played one of the TV news crew and an NRA minion, as well as serving as a co-producer.)  The NRA is backing the president’s opponent, Hotspur Percy, while Bollingbroke is trying to groom his son, Harrison, to succeed him (though it’s daughter Henrietta who’s the more activist).  As the program put it, “Part family drama, part barroom comedy”—and I’d add political intrigue—“Henry 4 gives us a glimpse of America on the brink.”  In its cynical view of contemporary American politics during the 2016 extreme campaign season, the team of four student writers and co-directors Asher Gill, a student with Epic NEXT and an actress and model who’s a member of the 10467 ensemble, and James Wallert, an Epic founder and Associate Artistic Director of the company, have given us plenty of skullduggery, corruption, betrayal, a helluva lot of gunplay, and, to paraphrase the line in Irma La Douce, everything, in fact, that makes politics worth doing.  But, my God!  If our politics gets half as nasty in the next 25 years as the cynical creators of Henry 4 predict—I doubt we’ll make it that far!  (This isn’t a complaint, just a horrified observation.  I mean, satire is one thing . . . but, wow!  Thank goodness, I probably won’t be around to see it.)

As you’ve seen from the few examples I’ve cited already, remixes recontextualize Shakespeare’s plots, often moving the time up a few centuries, though not all are reset in our era.  The students at UASPA, for example, transposed 2016’s Macbeth up to the 1890s in a South American dictatorship ruled by a military junta.  A 2011 remix of Romeo and Juliet was reset to 1938 in southern Germany following Kristallnacht.  The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family has fallen in love with the son of a neighboring family who’re flirting with National Socialism. (CTE’s Much Ado was reset in contemporary times, but took place in Messina High School, a New York City school where “gossip fills the hallways, classrooms, and bathrooms.”  Yes, that’s right—there were scenes set in the school johns, complete with stalls!)  Erin, who’s worked with Shakespeare REMIX since her second year at Chelsea CTE—she’s also involved at various levels with Epic’s in-class projects as well—identified three REMIX techniques that the students have used: building new writing and scenes within the established concept of the play (2004’s Romeo and Juliet, ’05’s Much Ado About Nothing, ’06’s Hamlet, ’08’s Richard III, ’08’s Winter’s Tale, ’12’s Henry VI), a modern retelling that runs parallel to the original text (’09’s Macbeth, ’11’s Measure for Measure), and, as applied to Henry 4, a combination of existing Shakespearean text and new student writing within a specific, original concept and setting (’07’s Othello, ’12’s Hamlet, ’13’s Twelfth Night, ’14’s Romeo and Juliet, ’16’s Henry IV.

Epic formally recruits participants for REMIX by visiting every ELA class at the partner schools before auditions and interviews.  Each school’s faculty also informally identifies students to work with REMIX, recruiting when they see students they think should be involved.  “I try to pull kids in if I know them,” explains Erin, “or I  observe behavior that suggests that REMIX would be a good fit.”  The application and selection of student participants occurs in the first semester of the year, so Erin and other faculty don’t have much chance to get to know new students vey well.

Many of the students are failing classes or exhibiting discipline problems.  According to Friedman, however, “As participants learn to master Shakespeare’s challenging text, their school attendance and grades improve, and their confidence rises.”  A report earlier this year on the Daily Beast, the on-line journal of reporting and opinion, says that through Shakespeare REMIX, Epic has “greatly impacted their students’ academic performance and empowered a new generation of artist-activists.”  Friedman adds, “On average, 95 percent of Shakespeare REMIX participants finish high school, and 90 percent of graduates go to college.”  In the 2015-16 school year, Epic reports, “92 percent of Remix seniors applied to at least eight colleges and received acceptances to at least four.”  (In the schools where Epic works, the average for college attendance is 50%.  Epic NEXT, the company’s three-year mentoring program, maintains a college-attendance rate of 100%, the theater reports.) 

All students are welcome, but they must fill out a simple application and then, depending on whether their interest is in onstage or backstage work, do an audition or interview.  Every student who expresses an interest in the program may participate; the average ensemble is about two dozen.  There’s no limit to the size of the ensemble “as long as everyone involved has a task and feels useful and excited,” explains Erin.  She declared, “We want more rather than less,” and repeaters are common.  Most REMIX participants do at least two projects during their time at the partner school.  During the workshop period, Shakespearean and student writing is read and performed until it becomes familiar, and students all have a chance to act bits of the play in front of the ensemble.  Specific casting doesn’t occur until the play has been remixed, however, typically well into the rehearsal process. 

The project’s director selects the play on which each REMIX session will work (though Erin says that she provides input—as I imagine the faculty at the other partner schools do as well—and now, as the program has become part of the school’s milieu, the students also make requests). The texts students start with are pre-cut by the director—though, of course, changes are made as the project develops.  Typically, the REMIX project is based on a single Shakespeare play; the histories have been the only exceptions at Chelsea (Henry 6 incorporated all parts of Henry VI and Richard III; Henry 4 used Henry IV, parts 1 and 2).  The director pre-cuts the texts with which students start; in the case of the histories, for example, the initial text the students see could be a small bit of one play and the majority of another. 

According to Erin, the choice of play affects the way a process unfolds.  “The only really consistent effect that I see in the process,” says Erin, “is that some plays inspire characters to be created, while others inspire characters already in existence to be further fleshed out.”  The development process, says Erin,  has evolved and changed over the years, but the overall arc of the process is pretty much the same from project to project.

While the prime goal of Epic’s REMIX program isn’t  to train theater artists, NYTR’s Nicholas Job remarked that “Shakespeare newcomer Brianna Del Rio does a nice job with her portrayal of the ruthless Iago.  I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her and her fellow Remixers in the future on the New York stage . . . .”  Working closely with teaching artists (defined by Marit Ulvund as “a professional artist working in and through the arts in an educational or community setting” in her essay “In the age of the teaching artist: What teaching artists are and do”) has had an aspirational impact on some students and, over the years now, REMIX has fielded National Champions and New York City runners-up in the English Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition.  

[I was able to get some input for this article from Erin Woodward but her work schedule precluded much follow-up.  Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, a founder of the Epic Theatre Ensemble, was willing to submit to an interview, but ultimately his schedule also made him unavailable.  The result has been that I’ve composed this article based mostly on secondary-source research, from which I was unable to answer all my questions.  Nonetheless, I believe the REMIX program is well worth covering on Rick On Theater and so I have gone ahead with posting this profile even in its incomplete state. 

[Epic’s office and mailing address is 55 West 39th Street, Suite 302, New York, New York 10018; e-mail:  epic@epictheatreensemble.org  phone: 212-239-1770.]

26 December 2017

Thoughts On Rehearsals

by Kirk Woodward

[Having started out this month with a contribution to Rick On Theater by my friend Kirk Woodward (“Bob And Ringo,” about rockers Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr  in performance, posted on 1 December), I’m all but closing out the month with a revisit from Kirk.  As the title of this article, “Thoughts On Rehearsals,” indicates, Kirk’s contemplating the theatrical exercise of rehearsing.  But he’s not writing about the techniques and practices of rehearsing, a subject on which he’s more than capable of expounding (see Kirk’s four-part series “Reflections On Directing,” 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013, along with several other posts about productions which he directed).  He’s ruminating on why he enjoys the work of rehearsals so much.

[That’s a sentiment with which I suspect most stage actors would agree.  I certainly did, as I told Kirk.  One major aspect of rehearsing—at least for me—that Kirk touches on here, one of the principal reasons I loved rehearsing, is that that’s where the creativity happens.  That’s where the art of acting is exercised—not just the skill or the craft.  By performance, the art work is done and technique largely takes over; but in rehearsal, the actor is called upon to create.  It’s why Aaron Frankel taught a class at HB Studio called How to Do Homework—which I took twice and went on myself to teach because I found it so useful and inspiring.  (See my post “An Actor’s Homework,” 19, 22, 25, and 28 April 2010.)  It’s also the impetus for both Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting and Konstantin Stanislavsky’s whole system.  For me,  performance was the reward for the creative work of rehearsing.

[Along the same lines,  Kirk also discusses the teamwork and the collegiality—the group of artists all coming together to make something, the collaboration.  With only rare exceptions, a theater production can’t happen without all the participants working together, and I found that exhilarating.  (It was also something I stressed when I taught or directed middle and high school students.)]  

Recently I participated in a concert presentation of the musical Candide (Wikipedia calls it an operetta), with music by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and lyrics by as many as eight contributors, particularly by the poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017). The presentation I took part in was a joint endeavor by the Society of Musical Arts (SOMA) of Maplewood, New Jersey; the State Opera Company (SOC) of New Jersey; and Columbia High School, also in Maplewood.

Dita Delman is the Artistic Director of the SOC; Steve Culbertson is Musical Director and Conductor for SOMA and he conducted the orchestra and singers.  Jamie Bunce, the Director of Choral Activities for Columbia High School, trained the 150 member student chorus. The three shared directorial activities among themselves.

For the Candide I’m describing, there was only one performance, on October 28, 2017, in the Columbia High School auditorium. The lead singers were Jeremy Blossy, Samantha Dango, Halley Gilbert, David Murray, Charles Schneider, and Katy Sumrow.

Candide is perhaps the best known today of the many works of Voltaire (the pen name for François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), the brilliant novelist, dramatist, and satirist. Voltaire wrote in Candide, a picaresque novel, a series of episodes connected mostly by the fact that they all involve or affect the central character, and by not much else – certainly not by a rigorous plot. The episodic structure of the novel makes it difficult to adapt it to dramatic form.

The musical Candide tried, though. It was first performed in New York in 1956, with a book by the playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984). Its score was widely admired, but its book – probably because of the loose structure of the original novel – was not, and the show had only a short run. In 1974 a version directed by Harold Prince (b. 1928), with a new book by Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987), opened on Broadway to considerable success.

The musical has been revived frequently since them, sometimes in full productions, sometimes as a concert piece, for which several different revisions of the libretto have been used. Among the best known revivals of the piece is a partially staged concert version in 2004 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring, among others, Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone, released as a DVD and broadcast on public television.

There are no rules for how concert presentations of operas, operettas, and musicals (as well as other musical forms like cantatas and oratorios) are staged. Typically they use little or no set, and fewer movements by the leading singers (the soloists) than you’d find in a full production – sometimes no movement at all.

In concert productions the orchestra, chorus, and any soloists are both ordinarily on stage, as they would be in a concert of classical music. Since a concert performance may not include all the music written for a theatrical piece, a narration may be used to provide continuity.

At the request of the conductor, Steve Culbertson, I wrote a narration – continuity between songs – tailored to the specific song selections of the concert version I participated in, and what’s more, my efforts were approved by the Bernstein estate. In writing a new narrative I joined a group of writers that would fill a small room – I count at least seven authorized narrations for Candide, and there may be others.

Why do I mention this experience? Because I was able to attend several rehearsals for the project, and – here’s my point ­– I love rehearsals! In the case of Candide, I was actually able to participate in the rehearsals a little, occasionally reading the narration (a fine performer, Dan Landon, did the reading at the concert) and offering the odd suggestion on staging – nothing significant; I just tried to be helpful.

But rehearsals themselves – there’s nothing like them. They are, for me, wonderful experiences. I can think of few places I’d rather be. They don’t have to be my rehearsals – they can be for projects I have nothing to do with. It doesn’t matter. They are always interesting and fun.

Why do I like the rehearsal atmosphere so much? One reason, I believe, is that work itself is always fascinating – any kind of work. Whenever I’ve asked anyone what their everyday job entails, I’ve always found their answers to be illuminating. So much detail, so many things that need to be accomplished in even the simplest task! Steve Martin captures this hilariously in a routine from his standup comedy days:

Ok, I don’t like to gear my material to the audience but I’d like to make an exception because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in San Francisco this week – I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight – so before I came out I worked up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren’t plumbers probably won’t get this and won’t think it’s funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this…

This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ gangly wrench. Just then, this little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘You can’t work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ wrench.’ Well, this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, ‘The Langstrom 7″ wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.’ Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘It says sprocket, not socket!’

The joke within the joke – Martin is very skilled – is that a plumber’s work is interesting, once you get down to the details, and so is any other kind of work. If further proof is needed, try describing a simple action as if to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it. Describe everything. Even for something as simple as, say, putting on a pair of glasses, the steps involved will turn out to becomplex.

How complex, then, are the processes that go into putting on a performance! That’s one reason I find rehearsals so thrilling. So many things are in play.

For examples,rehearsals focus on a task – getting the performance together. That’s the goal. This main task will have multiple subtasks. The stronger the focus on the main task and its offshoots, the more likely a rehearsal will be to accomplish its goals.

This principle of focus has wide application. In my opinion it’s definitely the secret of effective acting. A performer who focuses strongly on the appropriate thing in a play – almost always, on what the performer’s character wants – is going to give a successful performance.

Even if the actor focuses on the wrong thing – if she or he has an idea about a character at odds with the intention of the script – that actor will still hold the audience’s attention, as long as the performer’s focus stays strong.

This principle can be easily verified by attending an elementary school or middle school play or musical. Often you’ll see one child, in the middle of all that confusion, who seems to have been born for the stage. You can’t take your eyes off that one. When that happens, it’s almost certainly a matter of focus – that young performer has been given the gift of concentration on what’s happening in the play. Sometimes that performer’s gift lasts her or him for a lifetime.

Rehearsals, of course, are also an area for creativity – or they should be, unless the director happens to be a tyrant, in which case creativity is likely to happen surreptitiously at best. Usually, though, once one starts to look for creativity in a rehearsal, one usually sees it everywhere.

Even in a relatively structured rehearsal environment like that of our Candide, I could spot the inventive ways that Jamie Bunce, the chorus director, found of getting the sounds she needed from the 150 singers. Steve Culbertson, the conductor, is adept at finding solutions for the largest or most minute musical questions at a moment’s notice. And the soloists helped each other out with suggestions about staging that began with phrases like “What about . . .” or “Maybe we could . . . .”

It strikes me that a rehearsal of an established work is in many ways a re-creation – not an imitation of something that’s already been done, but a new creative process applied to an already existing piece of material. No doubt the same thing happens throughout life – as the old proverb goes, you can’t step in the same river twice; but in rehearsal we see the process in compressed form.

On a less exalted level, another factor that makes rehearsals an interesting and pleasurable experience for me is that performers as a group are wonderful people to be around. Obviously there are glaring exceptions, but I stand behind this statement as a general principle, despite the famous bit of dialogue in the producers:

LEO BLOOM: Actors are not animals! They’re human beings!
MAX BIALYSTOCK: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

Performers have many qualities as performers that in themselves make them enjoyable as a group. They are as up to date as anybody with what’s going on in the world of art, and sometimes – not always, but frequently – in the world itself.

Eric Bentley, I believe, says someplace (I can’t find it) that at a panel discussion of theater people he attended, the actors were the only ones who talked about theater as an art – everyone else was dealing with issues of success. I’m certain Bentley’s observation (if it’s his) doesn’t apply everywhere, but it does point to the fact that actors really do care, not just about making money in the theater (sometimes they don’t), but about the theater as a place where worthwhile things can happen.

What’s more, performers don’t expect the world or themselves to be perfect, either. That’s why they rehearse – because it takes work to get a project into shape. Performers know that, and it doesn’t throw them . . . .

Well, not always. I remember going through a period where I took every comment a director made as a personal insult – I would seethe at the most innocuous suggestion, to the point where friends noticed it and warned me that I had to cut it out. I did, and as far as I can remember this period of hostility wasn’t long lasting, but it helped me understand that all people don’t behave in one way all the time, and that sometimes it’s not easy to uncover why people behave the way they do.

Still, on the whole, I’ll take a group of actors, to name one kind of performer, over just about any group of people from other professions. If exceptions to this statement come to mind, please let me know. It would be fun to meet a group of equally entertaining people. Even in my Hostile Period, I’m sure my barely suppressed fury (which limited its expression to stares and the occasional snarl) provided entertainment for a few colleagues, at the least. (I hope so.)

One more factor I’ll mention about the charm of rehearsal is actually not so charming – it’s the fact that something is on the line for performers, and that something is the good opinion of a substantial group of people. Where that performance is live (rather than taped or filmed), the audience’s verdict can be immediate – it may or may not laugh in a comedy, it may or may not demand an encore in a concert. Performers run quite an ego risk.

The writer George Plimpton (1927-2003), who as a journalist was famous for writing about his efforts to participate in various sports teams and other organizations, wrote that nothing beat the level of tension he felt among classical musicians, because in performance they could not fail – they had to play perfectly. (Plimpton played the triangle with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and muffed his one note.)

So there is a determination among performers to succeed. Presumably we all want to succeed – but they need to succeed within a certain period of time, in a definite way. This situation adds an edge to rehearsals, and it also adds interest.

On the other hand, a rehearsal, unless it’s by oneself alone in a room, is always a group activity of some sort, so there’s support available. I noticed small but important bits of praise the soloists offered each other, sometimes just a touch, or a muttered “Nice job.” Those things are recognitions that “we’re all in it together, and we’ll all get through it somehow.” Add them all up, and they’re invigorating.

So for me rehearsals are always interesting. I attended three rehearsals of Candide – one in Ms. Delman’s living room, one in a choir room at a church, and one at the high school auditorium where the performance would be held. (Because of a conflict, I wasn’t able to see the performance itself.)

The Candide rehearsals had the extra attraction for me of belonging to a kind of performance – opera – I haven’t had any experience with. The lead performers were singers. I’m not just saying they sing – I’m saying they sing the roof off. Their voices have confidence, range, and power, all vital for opera. To sit within feet of six big, trained voices and have the sound they produce flow over you, is a memorable experience.

They must have warmed up their voices too, but if I heard that happening, it didn’t register. Surely they needed to? Might they have warmed up at home, or in the car on the way?

In a concert production one of the most important decisions is always how much movement to incorporate into the performance. Do the singers just stand there and sing? Do they add more than minimal gestures? Do they move around in relation to each other?

In this concert Candide the performers moved around a fair amount, a situation made more interesting because they weren’t sure how much space would be available on the Columbia High stage once the full orchestra was seated.  The actors were patient and willing to be flexible. I wonder just how opera singers feel about directors. Their major training is in music, yet opera is character-based and these days an opera singer is also expected to act.

Perhaps my curiosity is misplaced. Opera direction is, with a few exceptions, a Twentieth-Century invention. (Stage direction as a whole was in its infancy until the 1900s as well.) Today it is difficult to imagine a major opera production that has no director. So the performers must be used to it. At the same time, learning an opera’s music is a daunting task; how much energy is left for acting?

I didn’t have a chance to pose that question to the soloists I observed, but they seemed eager to receive direction, so I suppose that’s one stereotype about opera shot down. Another stereotype is that opera singers have the reputation for being temperamental, in part because if they don’t take good physical care of themselves, the result will be apparent to an audience of hundreds or thousands of people.

There was some maneuvering among the singers to keep their throats warm (scarves and sweaters), sit away from air flows, and so on, but these six could not have been more cooperative.

Did I learn anything from these rehearsals? Only how much I enjoy them. But that in itself is worth something. We live in a world of confrontation today. By contrast, rehearsals – almost always – involve people working together, allowing themselves and each other to be individuals yet also being a part of something greater.

The jazz composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis makes the same point in his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2009), using jazz improvisation as a model. Actors in the kind of production I’m describing aren’t ordinarily improvising the material they’re performing, but they are improvising, in a sense, their relationships with other performers, from show to show.

Such mutual cooperation, Marsalis says, is a good model for families, for governments, for societies, and I heartily second that.

[I saw the 1974 Hal Prince revival of Candide on Broadway; it was one of the first things I saw after coming to New York City (along with Equus and Raisin, all running when I got here).  I also saw a later revival, using the Hugh Wheeler book again, at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2010 and posted a report on ROT on 13 January 2011.  I enjoyed the ’74 production (I saw it in ’75 apparently) very much, largely for the performances. and Prince’s all-over staging—but I never wrote anything on it.  (I mention some of the same remarks Kirk makes about the book and the play’s structure in my 2011 report.)  I also watched the PBS broadcast of the NYPO concert version with Chenoweth and LuPone in 2005.]

21 December 2017

Life upon the Wicked Stage – With a Family

[I frequently try to post informative articles on Rick On Theater about the workings of theater that audiences don’t usually see or hear about.  Most often, that turns out to be pieces on some of the different jobs and responsibilities of theater professionals on whom the spotlights seldom shine but whose work is vital to making productions possible.  This time, however, it’s a collection of articles from Equity News (the Autumn 2017 issue), the  publication of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage actors’ union, that focuses on a part of the life of a working actor that most people who aren’t in the business don’t even think about, I imagine: how actors with families manage in the often peripatetic and unpredictable world of professional theater.  As you’ll read below, the union tries to make that life easier and other actors have become activists for performing spouses and parents, but it’s often up to the ingenuity and imagination of the actors themselves to make marriages and parenthood work while maintaining careers on the stage.]

by David Levy

Balancing a career and family is challenging for working people everywhere; working in theatre brings specific challenges, from how work is scheduled to the lack of covers for many roles to the grind of constantly auditioning or applying for your next job. But there are also unique joys to be found in the support of your “show families,” the relative flexibility of your day and the pride in sharing your art with those you love.

Every family is unique, and different family situations bring different perspectives to the discussion of making a career in theatre while caring for others, be they your children, your partner or your parents. If there’s one common thread in the narratives Equity members shared with us for this story, it’s that there is often an unspoken understanding not to discuss our outside obligations for fear it will affect hiring decisions.

“We were doing Equity business when I announced it to the company,” said Stage Manager Amanda Spooner. ”We were re-voting on the dinner break or something – and as they were going back and forth, I jumped in and said, ‘Guys, I’m just gonna say, I don’t care how long the break is, I’m going to take a nap anyway because I'm pregnant!’”

Spooner’s son Jack was conceived just as she started working on the first production of Indecent. She gave birth as a subsequent production of the show entered pre-pro. She made her Broadway debut with the show months after becoming a first-time parent. Although she was nervous about work disappearing due to bias against pregnant women and working mothers, she decided, “I’m just going to be really vocal about it. I just said, this is happening and it’s all going to be okay.”

Her pregnancy and parenthood were embraced by the Indecent company – a company, it’s worth noting, led by women in the roles of lead producer, director and playwright. Spooner knew it would be reasonable for the stage manager who took over for her in the previous production to continue with the transfer, but she hoped she would have the chance to go to Broadway with the show. “Whatever people made that decision decided they wanted me to go with it,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a fluke. I think it’s proof that you can have a baby at a totally inconvenient time.”

Not everyone’s experience has been as positive. Michael A. Newcomer, a member in New Orleans, spent most of his early adulthood assuming marriage and family would be out of his reach. “With some hard decisions and major life changes, I find myself living in New Orleans with a beautiful wife, incredible son and a life that is very different than even my actor imagination could have scripted,” he said.

“We make a lot of sacrifices to work in the theatre, but now that I am father, I find myself saying ‘no’ a lot more (which is a good thing). I can’t work for the sake of another credit on my resume. In New Orleans, all theatre is done at night and on weekends, and with a family, that only doubles the time away from home. It is too important to me as a father to be a constant presence in my son’s life, and because of that, I don’t work nearly as much as I used to. My situation is such that I have to choose between a life in the theatre and having a family. I fear that is the same for a lot of us out there.”


Many of the members we spoke to for this article reported encountering a culture of silence in the theatre when it comes to family obligations. This silence can lead to isolation – it’s hard to get support and share resources if no one knows who else is in the same position. Rachel Spencer Hewitt, a Chicago-based actor with two children, has made it her mission to help break through the silence through the Parent-Artist Advocacy League ([PAAL;] see “Advocating for Parent-Artists,” [below]). Based on research about obstacles to female leadership from Wellesley Centers for Women, Spencer Hewett set a goal: “At the very minimum, we recommend that employers have an annual conversation with their employees about what is available to them, how they would like to engage with them around these issues, so it’s something the company initiates” rather than the burden falling on the workers.

“I learned that mystery breeds fear,” said Spooner. “As a stage manager, I previously didn’t have a lot of patience for people who said things like ‘I can't come to rehearsal because it’s my child’s costume parade at preschool’ or whatever. I would think, ‘are you for real? I have to be here, why aren’t you here?’ Now that I’m on the flip side of it, I feel a great responsibility to keep talking about it and keep saying things out loud and trying to suck even more mystery out of it. The people who are going to listen are going to listen.”


As is often the case these days, social media has proved to be an important tool in fighting working parents’ isolation. “I have found so much support and so much genius in Theatre Moms Facebook pages,” Spencer Hewitt said. “There are Facebook pages for Chicago parents, for Minneapolis parents ... they become forums for conversation where people who have never crossed paths before can exchange stories and in doing so find commonality.”

Kristen Beth Williams, an Eastern Principal Councilor and co-chair of the recently resurrected Parents Committee, agrees. “There’s a great community out there,” she said, noting the group NYC Auditioning Moms, where parents who will be at the same calls at similar times connect in advance to watch each other’s kids while they are in the room, is particularly helpful.

Of course, it’s not only moms facing these challenges. Actor Jay Paranada is home with his daughter Lily while his husband is at work as a schoolteacher. “At this point, we haven’t done full-time daycare yet, so she’s being ‘thrown around’ to other fellow actors, some of my very close friends, who are able to watch her,” he said, sharing a story of the presentation day of a recent 29-hour reading he took part in. “She went with one of my friends from 10 to 2, got dropped off with me during my lunchtime, and then she went with someone different – all within the arts community, but it’s a stress.”

When you’re part of a two-actor family, as Williams is, occasionally the audition pass-off works in your favor. “My husband, Jimmy [Ludwig, Eastern Chorus Councilor], and I got called in for the same show. They must have known and scheduled us accordingly. His appointment was a half hour before mine, so we went as a family, and he held the baby while I sang, and I fed the baby while he was in there singing, and we made it work.”

For others, the best-laid childcare plans don’t always pan out. New York-based actor Raymond J. Lee’s daughter Ella arrived (via adoption) just as Lee was preparing to open a new show on Broadway. “My husband works for a PR agency, he's got a 9 to 5. Once Ella came home, he left his job to be a stay-at-home daddy,” he said. “I was getting ready to do Honeymoon in Vegas, and I thought it was going to be running for years.”

When it didn’t, Lee and his husband quickly regrouped. “The moment we closed that show, it was like, okay you gotta go find a job now,” he said. “There was a time when I thought once I had kids I’d have to quit the business and get a 9 to 5 job that has benefits, but luckily my husband helps pay the bills and is more stable, so I’m able to still go out to auditions.”

The privilege of having a spouse with a stable income and regular hours was noted by many others as a key component to their ability to remain in the business. Byron Nilsson, chair of the Greater Albany Liaison Committee, was an occasional actor making a living as a freelance writer when his daughter Lily was born. “Here I was, a brand-new dad at 40,” he said. “‘I should get a job,’ I complained to my wife. ‘I need you to take care of Lily,’ she said. She, after all, had the full-time job. With benefits.”

Nilsson ended up landing a job at New York State Theatre Institute, a company focused on introducing kids to theatre. “My one-year-old was welcome there,” he said, “and someone always was available to mind her when I had to be on stage. Lily grew up in the green room as I performed in a succession of shows over the next few years (and achieved my Equity membership along the way). As she neared the age of five, we looked at a number of area schools to find her a good ft. She complained after each such visit that the grown-ups invariably talked down to her. ‘The actors don’t do that,’ she added. ‘Nobody at the theater does.’”

Nilsson was able to homeschool his daughter in and around the theatre company for the next decade, before she entered a more traditional school setting – complete with school drama productions. “Lily is now a theater major at Barnard College,” Nilsson reports, “and soon will spend a term in London, studying at RADA {Royal Academy of Dramatic Art].”


One of the core values of PAAL is that being a parent-artist is an asset, not an obstacle, to creating great art. This resonated with all of the parents we spoke with for this story.

“Being an actor has taught me to go with the flow so much more,” said Lee. “As an actor, you don’t know where the next gig is or what to expect at an audition, and that’s just like raising a kid – you don’t know what to expect. It teaches you to improv. It makes you think quick on your feet. You’re able to make really important decisions really fast.”

Paranada picked up the other side of the equation: “In terms of the work, it’s always been honest portrayals, but now that there’s someone in this world who’s so much more important and precious, I take that into consideration in the art I do. I had the opportunity to work at Red House in Syracuse, playing the Baker in Into the Woods during the time we were pregnant with Lily [who was born via surrogacy]. That was so important and special – I could really put myself in those shoes because I was going through that process. It’s one of those moments where life really does imitate art.”

Eastern Principal Councilor Francis June noted that caring for – and losing – his parents had similar effects on his art. (See “Caring For Your Parents,” [below].) At the time his father passed, he was performing in The Great Wall, a rock musical about a father/son relationship. “After going through what I did with my folks and my family, all of my projects became about, in one way or another, introducing audiences to my parents,” he said. “Whether these characters were identifiable as my folks or not, there were aspects to them, like their sense of humor or this particular way of expressing affection or this particular sense of pride, that all had to do with my folks. In a lot of ways, I've been so grateful for them because the projects I’ve worked on have allowed me to stay in conversation with my folks after they passed.”

This effect isn’t limited to actors, either. Spooner has noticed how awareness of the scheduling needs of parents could benefit everyone involved in a production by encouraging more thoughtful scheduling of rehearsals. “For example, if you set the outside hours of the rehearsal in advance,” she said, “then I can engage a babysitter and not go into my savings to make that happen.” That same advanced scheduling practice would also make it easier for anyone to see the dentist, book auditions for future work or attend to any other aspects of their life that might require scheduling.


As Spooner hinted at above, the cost of childcare, coupled with the long and often unpredictable hours of a career in theatre, remains a major obstacle for parents working in the business.

Enter Equity members Jen Malenke and Vasthy Mompoint, the founders of Broadway Babysitters. Mompoint wanted to start a service that catered to parents of children with special needs; Jen wanted to help create jobs for actors in between their showbiz gigs. Mutual friends connected them, and their individual ideas merged to become something even bigger.

“As we started it, we said we should take care of people in our community,” said Mompoint. “As we get older, we’re seeing more of our friends having kids, and I saw them struggling with last-minute auditions or having to quit the business because they couldn’t afford childcare, so we said let’s offer a discount and try to help out our community. Now that part of the company is one of our biggest parts – the artists in our community.”

Beyond offering discounts to parents who work in theatre, they’ve tailored their services to meet the specific needs of actors. “It’s more than just about the auditions,” said Mompoint. “It’s about them being able to go to class; not feeling like a director’s not able to hire them because of their childcare responsibilities; when they book a show, how much money will go to having to provide childcare, will they have to move out of the city because they can’t afford to live here?”

All their sitters join the company through referral – they either know Jen or Vasthy personally, or have been vouched for by someone who does – and they are all trained, including specific training on caring for children with special needs. “The marriage of artists and special needs children is beautiful,” said Mompoint. “We are able to get that training free of charge. People volunteer to teach our sitters because they like what we’re doing, and they’re some of the best in the city who train them.”

This enables a tag-team approach to child care. Each family builds a relationship with multiple sitters, so if one sitter has an audition or class, or books a job, there’s a trusted alternate ready to jump in. Similarly, if a parent gets a last-minute audition, they have a variety of trained, trusted providers who can step up.

One of their biggest achievements was the establishment of an audition drop-off care center, which was located at Pearl Studios in Manhattan for a number of months, thanks in part to a grant from The Actors Fund’s Career Transitions for Dancers program. The idea seems like common sense on its face: create a place central to lots of audition locations where parents can drop off their kids while they go audition and then pick them right back up.

“We were only charging parents $25 for three hours,” said Malenke, “and we just didn't break even on that. We were renting the studio and paying two sitters to be on, so we have to come up with a different solution.” They are currently investigating partnerships and non-profit options for bringing back the service to a new space.


The babysitting challenge had also been on the agenda of the previous iteration of the Parents Committee, which according to Williams went silent in 2010. Her co-chair, 2nd VP Rebecca Kim Jordan, had been part of the committee then, and she related to Williams that adding committee meetings into the already challenging schedules of working parents had partially led to the committee’s demise. Williams is hopeful that with the advent of technologies like Zoom that enable committees to meet online, the new iteration of the Parents Committee will be more successful.

Although the new committee is just getting started, Williams has high hopes for what they can achieve: “I’d love to see us host a forum ‘Been There, Done That’ with parents in the business who have older kids to share what they’ve been through with newer parents like us who are facing the same problems now, to figure out what we can do.”

The Actors Fund also offers a number of services to assist families with a variety of challenges. Their Entertainment Assistance Program employs licensed social workers who can help on a confidential basis with short-term, one-on-on counseling and referrals to helpful resources on issues ranging from children’s special needs to grief, as well as family and marital conflicts that may arise. The Actors Fund also offers an extensive directory of online resources, with robust categories of services for Parents (including adoption, child care and special needs), Health and Human Services (including options for seniors and their caregivers) and Health Care and Health Insurance.

In addition to online resources for Health Insurance, the Actors Fund’s Artist Health Insurance Resource Center can help you identify coverage options and enroll in them. This program provides assistance nationally by phone (Western US: 855.491.3357, Eastern US: 917.281.5975), as well as offering in-person seminars in Los Angeles and New York. The Actors Fund also regularly offers groups for Pregnant Women and New Moms in the Entertainment Industry in Los Angeles.


It’s cliché to say that no one knows what the future will bring, but that’s doubly true with both children and careers in the theatre.

With his daughter in college, Byron Nilsson has once again adjusted his life. “I’m back to scrambling for a living,” he said. “I still make money from writing, both journalism and plays, alongside editing, singing, sound design, photography, catering, and beekeeping. Acting jobs are few but, as chair of the Greater Albany Liaison Area, I’m working with my fellow actors to develop more opportunities for ourselves. And when, as I strongly suspect, my daughter’s career proves more glamorous than mine, I’ll be delighted to bask in the glow.”

Amanda Spooner recognizes that the balance she’s found while her son is still young may not last. “My love for Stage Management will never change, but my capacity to do it is going to fluctuate,” she said. “I just have to look to the left and look to the right and find people who are bobbing and weaving and figuring it out to see it's actually going to be fine.”

[David Levy is the editor of Equity News.]

*  *  *  *

When member Rachel Spencer Hewitt resumed auditioning after the birth of her first child, she kept a journal of her experiences juggling her actor day bag and her diaper bag. Soon she started sharing her observations on her blog, AuditioningMom.com. “I was telling a colleague of mine, a single male actor, how it was a positive experience and that I found a lot of support despite the logistical challenges, but I found it very doable because of the resources I had,” she said. He told her not to talk about her experiences, fearful that those without the resources to make it work would be hurt.

“That was shocking to me,” Spencer Hewitt said. “I think what shocked me is that it could hurt people to hear that it was working for me because it wasn't working for them. That made me realize that there must be a hole somewhere in the system.”

That conversation led her to reach out to other parents in the business to hear their stories. As she shared these stories on her blog, readers would look to her for resources, which she herself found difficult to locate.

“That's when I realized that our employers don't know how to take care of these women or make it possible for these women,” she said. “So the burden is falling completely on them, the obligation to bring up the conversation is falling completely on them.”

Soon, she connected with researchers at Wellesley Centers for Women who had recently completed a study of obstacles to female leadership in the arts. They found there was a silence around motherhood. Their recommendation was that employers initiate annual conversations with their employees to highlight options available to them and otherwise engage on the issues that arise. Beyond shifting the burden off the workers, Spencer Hewitt notes this would help identify “allies and advocates for parents” in the workplace.

But how to translate this into the gig-based world of actors and stage managers? “A lot of the women who are disappearing, being left off the grid, are freelance artists,” she noted. “[Asking myself,] what can we do to make their needs known? I said, why don't we just start our own conversations? So we launched an advocacy league.”

Their first official program was in April 2017, sponsoring a breakout session for mothers at a Women in Theatre Forum. “It gave me a prototype for the kinds of conversations we wanted to have,” Spencer Hewitt said. “Then we brought them to Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York in June. All of these forums are on the theme of breaking the silence. Because we are an independent organization, we are not risking any jobs, so we want to give you the platform to speak your minds, tell us about your needs and go public about the fact that it is a secret that mothers are holding on to.”

Plans for the future include forums focused on Fatherhood in Theatre and events looking at policy and best practices, as well as a handbook on pregnancy and postpartum for actors and stage managers. PAAL is also quickly becoming national. “I have also been pleasantly inundated with [requests from people in] cities like DC and Minneapolis and Boston,” Spencer Hewitt said.

“There are some cities that need a national effort to bring their regions together,” she explained. “There are some cities that have already started to lead the way. PAAL as a functioning body is a resource hub, which structurally works off of a Chief Rep and representatives in each city, whose basic requirement is to help put on the annual forum. There's a national steering committee that helps set priorities.”

Like theatre, PAAL’s work happens collaboratively. “There’s someone wanting you to move forward, someone there to help create the path back in when they want back in,” said Spencer Hewitt. “We’re not here to break down any doors, we’re here to knock until they open and then make something really great out of it.”

Learn more about PAAL at paaltheatre.com.

*  *  *  *

There’s a whole other population of Equity members with their own challenges balancing career and family: kids who work! Actors’ Equity is committed to the protection and welfare of young performers working in the theatre. Under most Equity agreements, there are special provisions for juvenile performers (under the age of 16) which provide for proper security, supervision and education while the young performer is rehearsing, performing or on tour in an Equity production.

The Actors Fund also has two programs specifically focused on the well-being of young performers in California. If you earned money in California as a young performer any time after 2000, you might have unclaimed wages held in trust through the Coogan Law, which set up trusts to protect a portion of professional children’s earnings. The Actors Fund can help you learn how to apply to retrieve them.

Additionally, the Actors Fund’s Looking Ahead program offers a suite of programs and services to support young performers between the ages of 9 and 18. More information about all Actors Fund programs can be found at actorsfund.org.

*  *  *  *

Parents aren’t the only Equity Members who struggle with making family obligations work with their careers. Eastern Principal Councilor Francis June points out, “Like with many other professions, there are sacrifices we are sometimes asked to make. I spent the majority of 2017 out of town. That meant in five months I got to see my fiancé twice, a couple of weekends when I could fly him out. That's something we’re fine with. We can negotiate, and I found someone who doesn’t put pressure on me to be home.”

“Whether you’re an actor or not, you make priorities in your life,” June continued. He was confronted with this reality a few years ago when he received a message from his sister during an Equity Plenary informing him that their mother’s thyroid cancer had become aggressive, prompting their mother to enroll in hospice.

“I had several gigs lined up,” he said. “I was about to go to Morocco for a gig. I had shows lined up in the summer. I had readings I was doing. I had Equity obligations. At that moment, I just had to decide what the priority was. Whether or not my mom needed me, I was going to be there. So I backed out of everything and I went home.”

In June’s case, he was grateful that his employers and his representation all understood his situation and supported him. Not knowing how much time his mother had left, he soon faced another crossroads: if he backed out of the job he had lined up for the autumn, he would fall short of his health insurance weeks and lose his own coverage. “I told my sisters that, and they decided I should take that job and then come back,” he said. “We were making all kinds of plans like that, and then my mom passed. Two weeks after she died, I was in rehearsal.”

Nancy Daly, an actress in Los Angeles, felt a similar pull when her mother in Washington, D.C., was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “Your career is always going to be there,” she said. “You have to put things in perspective. There will always be other work. But this is the one time your parents need you there present, fully, aware, loving, caring, kind, and focused. There’s only that much time when things begin to go downhill.”

As someone who lately works more in film and television than in theatre, Daly was able to plan her times in D.C. around the rhythms of Hollywood. “I know when pilot season is,” she said. “I know when the slow times are. My agents are angels, so I let them know ahead of time when I was going to be on the east coast for a period of time, and they said ‘Go, do what you need to do. We'll make it work out.’”