At the massive inaugural meeting of the Waking the Feminists movement at the Abbey Theatre last November, theatre director Tara Derrington stood aloof from the rest of the crowd brandishing a placard emblazoned with a question that encapsulated the struggles of her own career since she became a parent 14 years ago. "Where are the disappeared women of the arts?" it read. "At the school gates . . . now."
Derrington almost didn’t make the meeting. The early afternoon slot conflicted with pick-up time for her children but, more significantly, she felt she wasn’t entitled to be there.
“If you aren’t able to work, if you aren’t making any money from the arts,” she asked herself, “are you entitled to call yourself an artist anymore?”
The gathering was organised after the director of the Abbey Theatre Fiach Mac Chonghail made a series of indiscreet remarks about women in defence of the male bias of the theatre’s 1916 centenary programme. It marked a watershed for women in the arts in Ireland, starting a campaign for gender equality in a sector where women are absent from the top tier of jobs, are paid significantly less than men and from a creative point of view, find it much more difficult to get their work put on.
Derrington believes the problems are even more devastating when you have children.
“Once you become a parent,” she says, “you put on what I call the invisibility cloak. People don’t see you as an actor or director anymore. You are classed as ‘not available’.”
Women from all sectors of the workforce face certain struggles when they start a family, however, in the theatre motherhood poses a series of specific challenges. For an actress, maternity leave is often forced upon them the moment their pregnancy begins to change their body. For the mother of a young child, the night-time demands of theatre work are incompatible with a young family in general and with breastfeeding specifically. The irregular working hours and freelance life, meanwhile, makes securing regular childcare problematic.
Indeed, “the logistics of reality”, as Derrington describes them, conspire to make “working at all very difficult. There is this expectation that because it is more difficult for you, you aren’t available, and all of a sudden you’re not put forward anymore, you’re not considered, and your confidence is just drip, drip, dripping away until you end up believing you’re just not capable.”
Derrington has no dramatic stories about her early years trying to juggle work and family life.
“I wish I had some colourful anecdote,” she says wryly, “because that’s how you imagine it: that you’ll be standing heroically on a ladder putting up lights with a baby strapped to you or breastfeeding in the wings; that you’ll be there doing what it takes to make [a creative life] compatible with the demands of parenting, but the reality is you just aren’t working anymore and the chances of getting back to work are so difficult that you become very isolated and there seems to be no way back in.”
Actor Melanie Clarke Pullen agrees. Coming from a job that is based around working with the other people, she says, "the isolation is one of the worst parts. Also, theatre is all about being visible, about networking, not just when you are working, but maybe even more when you're not. It's a relational business, and when you have kids you can't get to openings or to the pub after where a lot of the important conversations take place and collaborations begin."
Although Clarke Pullen has channelled her creativity into writing over the last few years, she says “writing is a solitary thing. It’s the collaboration that I miss the most.”
Actor Fiona Browne, along with Derrington, is one of the key women involved in Mothers Artists Makers (MAM), a networking and activist group that has grown out of Waking the Feminists.
“Once Tara started talking about her experiences,” she explains, “people started sharing similar stories about how their career was affected by having children.” Within weeks, hundreds of artist-parents from around the country – men and women – were in touch, eager to contribute wisdom and encouragement to others struggling to find a balance between their theatrical and domestic lives.
For Browne, the demands of early parenthood shaped a decision to take a step back from her career as an actor and writer. She says she knew how hard it would be to balance family commitments and a career in the arts.
Her own mother was an actor, as well as a mother of five children, and “she didn’t make a song and dance about it, because she knew it would be held against her professionally, so she just juggled and did what she had to do to make it work.”
After he first child was born Browne says she "felt this subsidence of ambition and I was almost relieved: 'oh thank god that's gone! I thought, 'this is my new role, I'll pour all my passion into being a mother,' and Mother Nature gave a me a break. It fed me for a while, but as the children got older I realised, actually that part of me is still there, and then you realise how difficult it is to start working again or to find work that will accommodate the needs of your family."
Browne’s youngest child is now four and she says she “can feel my life opening up again”. Once the children enter the education system, she says, there is at least a short period where she can work without having to consider childcare.
Playwright and performer Pom Boyd offers a perspective from the other end of the spectrum. In her experience a creative life was made more problematic when her children started school.
“The norm I’ve observed for women in theatre,” she says, “is visibility when pregnant, a few appearances when the baby is small and then complete disappearance once the children start school. The demands placed on parents once children start primary school means one parent has to take on that role. In a way, being in the arts was easier and more flexible than other jobs but there is a more subtle idea that being a mother instantly renders you as less of a thinker, less ambitious, less available, less interesting. I had a writing agent instantly lose interest in me as soon as he saw I was pregnant with my first child. And though I kept writing all the way through my child-rearing years I internalised that rejection and was secretly thinking ‘sure wasn’t he right?’ It’s that internal dialogue with ourselves that so often holds us back and so our exclusion becomes self-perpetuating.”
Boyd’s children are 18 and 14, and she feels herself “moving into a new phase. It’s really great but I am working hard to make up ground and definitely have been affected financially.”
MAM was established not just to provide a forum for expressing frustration and fear, however. Derrington and her fellow artist-mothers are keen that there should be concrete results to the time they are investing in it.
Like Waking the Feminists, it has a series of goals. It has established a research committee to collate information about working conditions and supports for theatrical mums, bi-monthly coffee mornings allow an opportunity for networking and resource sharing, and Derrington and Browne piloted a family-friendly rehearsal schedule for a show they performed on Bloomsday. “We had a morning-only rehearsal schedule,” Derrington explains. “And children could be brought to rehearsal in case of emergencies.”
Meanwhile, on their Facebook page, mothers are continuing to sharing their experiences and knowledge about the resources available to women with children in the performing arts.
For Kareen Pennefather motherhood marked a defining shift in her work as a theatre director. She founded Monkeyshine Theatre, which produces high quality performances for children, in 1999. However, having children herself gave her “a focus and real drive”.
“My understanding of child development has increased massively and that has fed into every level of our work.” Indeed the past seven years have been the company’s most successful. Based in Kilkenny, they have been touring several shows simultaneously on the national and international circuit.
Monkeyshine Theatre is a family affair. Pennefather’s husband Jim Jobson co-directs the company and between them they write, direct, perform, make costumes, puppets, props, co-design and do a lot of administration. Their three children, who are six, three and six-months-old, are creative collaborators too.
“The kids love to get involved and have a role in the process, however small,” Pennefather says. “And they have been there every step of the way, often in rehearsals, on tour, and at conferences and networking events. It’s not always easy and sometimes it’s been really really hard but we are modelling joy and passion in our work and I think that’s a good thing.”
The company will be taking its production Losha to the World Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences, this summer in Birmingham, and the children will be there in the wings.
Dads do it too : Mark Wale on fatherhood
Mark Wale is a playwright and father to seven- and nine-year old girls. He and his partner, a musician, both work on a freelance basis and so they have always “shared the parenting work.”
Fatherhood has affected Wale’s creative output in much the same way as his female peers. While he uses his mornings and evenings to write, when the children are in school or in bed, “the administrative side of things – making phone calls, meeting producers, getting a few hours to sit down and talk about ideas – is a lot more difficult.
“If you are involved in the practicalities of child-rearing on a daily basis, some of the demands and deadlines wouldn’t reflect the reality [ of the time you have to work].”
Wale has also been struck over the years by widespread attitudes to child-rearing as woman’s work.
“People still think fathers do or should do the ‘money-earning work’,” he says, relating a variety of comments from people over the years, praising him for “doing a bit of childminding”. These attitudes have affected his own confidence as a parent, though not his creative work. “People don’t take you seriously as a carer,” he says.