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.’”

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