Feature – Working Artists Far Away from Family: How Do You Start a Family of Your Own?

Lyn Gardner is calling for childcare reform in the theatre industry. In an article in The Guardian, she points out the need for childcare in the evenings to enable those working in theatre to do their jobs. As a parent herself, she states she, “would probably have dropped out too if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have willing parents nearby who could help out.” Natasha Tripney wrote a response in The Stage, interviewing two women working in theatre. The first quickly gives all the credit to her parents. The second, who co-runs a theatre company with her husband, also has childcare support from her parents. What also helps is that both women are established enough to be able to afford nannies and a couple of days at nursery. Parenting whilst working in the arts is clearly a possibility, particularly if you have family willing to share the responsibility of childcare and you are established in your. But what about those that do not have local familial support and do not have consistent work and income?

I am chatting with David, a box office assistant at a West End theatre, about the challenges of being a parent who works in theatre. Though he does not have the added complication of freelance work, shift work and late nights make childcare a micro-managed challenge. He says that as part of a small team, it can be tough to leave a shift even ten minutes early, but so far, he has not needed to make any major or last-minute demands. When I asked if parenting would be impossible without the routine of his partner’s nine-to-five, he replied, “Yes! Absolutely. Without the stability of one parent’s timetable to work around, it would be impossible for the children to manage all the changes shift work requires.”

David and his partner do not have a network of family to call on for childcare support. They rely on a good income and regular hours from one of them to enable the other to work in the arts. But what about the rest of us? Where are the freelancing couples that don’t earn enough to pay for childcare or have immediate family close by? This is a question I contemplate regularly as a thirty-something half of an arts working couple that would like to start a family, not one day, but soon. Sometimes I wonder if I’m fretting over nothing and if I should take the advice of well-intentioned friends and, “just go for it because it will all work out in the end.” Then I remember that my partner and I can’t even afford to rent a one-bedroom flat, let alone one large enough for raising a child. I cannot imagine my housemates would be pleased to share with a newborn.

Surely there must be others out there in similar situations. After a twitter and facebook callout, several responses reassured me that I wasn’t alone and reiterated a need for a cheap or free, flexible solution that those of us without family nearby can use without having to compromise our careers. I spoke to Laura, an actor in London and Sarah, an actor and artistic director of a company she recently founded in Manchester. Neither of them have children, but are in committed, long term relationships and hope to start families within a few years.

When asked what they would need to enable them to have children, Sarah immediately stated, “Access to free childcare! Regular free, or at least cheap, childcare!” Laura looks at the unreliability of her own income. She requires “a huge boost in notoriety…which would enable me to have a larger and more stable regular income or I’d have to give up my career for a family.” Money is clearly the problem. Cheap isn’t good enough, particularly in London with costs of living rising so steeply in comparison to wages. There isn’t much government support for self-employed people either, so financial support during maternity leave and early years is minimal.

What about taking a child to work with you? After all, the arts have the benefit of flexibility. Laura works a range of jobs to keep money coming in, including being “a massage therapist, science teacher, children’s entertainer, cabaret performer, corporate and events actor” in between acting roles. Looking at the responsibilities of these jobs, it’s clear that the majority of these roles would not suit having an infant or small child present. Of course, actors with financial stability and no need to day-job would be less affected by this. Sarah has her own company, but “I work from home…but I’m working, I can’t look after a child at the same time. I can’t be writing an Arts Council application whilst my 2 year old is downstairs putting their finger in a plug socket.” Something has to give, and it’s either work productivity or a level of attentiveness required from a parent.

Cameron’s government wants to increase the availability of childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds. Whilst I question the sustainability of this in practice due to an already-stretched child workforce, this still doesn’t help aspiring theatre parents of children younger than three. What if you need someone to look after your infant whilst you pop to an audition for a few hours, but you can’t afford a babysitter, your partner’s working and your parents aren’t local? We may like to think we can rely on friends, but considering my own friends’ lives, they will most likely be working, busy or expect some sort of payment that I wouldn’t be able to afford.

Sarah imagines a formalized, local network of parents who work in the arts. When joining, you commit to exchanging free childcare services on an as-needed basis and sharing your contact details with everyone else. “For example, if you have a job last minute you could contact people on the list and see if they could mind your child for free whilst you took the work, then you would return the favour with their child.” There could be meetups, socials and so forth to add an element beneficial to the members’ creative work rather than just focusing on childcare. This model isn’t flawless in practice, however. Such a network would need to be large enough to make the chance of not finding anyone available incredibly slim. Parents would need to have contact details pre-programmed in their phones so they could send one text out to everyone, otherwise it could take up precious time needed to get ready and get to that crucial audition/interview/meeting. The network would need to cover a fairly small geographic area, otherwise the total travel time would become unworkable.

These issues return us to the root causes of this problem: the gap between the cost of living and childcare, and the generally low income of jobbing artists is widening. Government subsidies for the self-employed are not enough, either in quantity or flexibility. Artists who live near their families or earn enough to pay for childcare may not be in the minority of creative parents, but there is an invisible demographic of the arts world that want to start a family but their current circumstances make it impossible to do so without compromising their career aspirations. None of the artists I spoke to had any concrete solutions that would enable them to become a parent whilst maintaining a career in the arts, and neither do I. Meanwhile, I feel like my time to become a parent is rapidly diminishing in a world of ever-increasing financial instability. I therefore need to open the question outwards: what do we do about low-income artists that want to start a family and don’t have family able to assist with childcare?

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So It Goes, Greenwich Theatre


Hannah used to love running with her dad. When she was 17, her dad died and Hannah kept on running, silently and alone. She refused to speak about his death with anyone, including her family. So she decided rather than to navigate the burden of speech, she would create a silent play that tells her dad’s story and her process of dealing with his death. So It Goes is a sweet two-hander that manages to avoid over-sentimentality by focusing on the honest, deeply individual story of navigating life after the death of a parent.

Other than the last line, there is absolutely no speech in this play. All text is written on small whiteboards worn around the actors’ necks or on pre-made signs. This keeps written communication basic; it is rather like watching a comic book or graphic novel being written. This could occasionally feel slow and it was often easy to predict what was coming next on the whiteboard within a scene, but not overly so and not often. The set and props are also simple, with signage and symbolic items representing other characters and jumps in time and place. Most props are drawn outlines of objects, adding humour and a sense of youthful play to the story. The physical performance style matches- it is exaggerated but simplified, physical theatre but not ornate, embellished or for the sole purpose of showing the actors’ physical prowess. So It Goes wants to tell Hannah’s story as clearly and simply as possible, focusing on truthfulness and emotional honesty. The look of the play would certainly appeal to children, but accessing adults’ inner child makes the experience of losing a parent a journey that ends with positive reflection rather than the bitterness of loss.

The performances are equally lovely. Hannah Moss plays herself, and has “help” telling the story from David Ralfe, who plays her Dad and Mum. Ralfe in drag has an initial hit of comedy, but he taps into Mum’s outward expression of hopelessness that soon makes the audience forget that it’s a bloke in a dress. The two actors embody an exaggeration familiar to children’s theatre that is also in keeping with the cartoon aesthetic of the production, but is not crude. If they did not employ the exaggeration or humour in their physical comedy, it would make audiences want to slit their wrists. Instead, there was a lot of sniffling and nose blowing mixed in with laughter.

This is the third play I have seen about death in recent weeks. Each production used a dramatically different approach to convey the same message. Hannah spelled it out for us by writing that her dad “didn’t just die, he lived.” There’s an overabundance of factors in the world that can easily depress us and forget to look for the little moments of daily joy in our own lives, but So It Goes provides a celebratory reminder to do so through a pared down, visual-textual hybrid of physical theatre. Though the tour has now finished of their debut production, On the Run Theatre is certainly a company to watch.

Intention: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Outcome: ☆ ☆ ☆

Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

This Is How We Die, Battersea Arts Centre

Chris Brett Bailey is a bard of thhqdefaulte modern age. Like Elizabethan theatre the audience went to hear rather than to see, This Is How We Die is a bombardment of the ears rather than the eyes. Using spoken word and beat poetry to tear open the world as we know it, Bailey forces us to confront the horrors and beauty of everyday existence. This piece of theatre moves away from the trend of visual theatre, taking the audience on a self-reflective ride of their lives.

At just over an hour, we are hurtled on a journey through Bailey’s rage against “-isms” and “-ists,” a brutal first meeting with his overly-literal girlfriend’s parents and a Hunter S. Thompson-like roadtrip through the American desert. His delivery is relentless, pausing only for comic effect or to take small sips of water from the glass that sits on his desk. Yes, a desk. He sits at a desk, with his script in front of him. This form rails against the increasingly visual culture we live in but it forces the audience to really and truly listen. He has a lot to say that he feels strongly about and you need to hear it.

Trying to describe what This Is How We Die is about is futile. Anything descriptive about plot or narrative arc will make this piece sound simplistic and trite. The feature that really makes this a must-see is Bailey’s visceral use of language. He savours it, relishes it and throws it away. A sea of sound washes over us, then pummels us, unarmed, in a back alley behind some dingy American bar. His imagery alternates between abstract and concrete, the highlight being his girlfriend’s neo-Nazi father left shaped like a swastika after a car accident.

The last ten minutes or so abandons speech, instead favouring live ambient music and harsh lighting. This is his Elizabethan jig, the audience’s catharsis after the emotional Sturm und Drang of the last hour. There was no point in fighting the journey of This Is How We Die so you may as well join him. Share in his rage, his joy and his passion. Relish the world you live in and the sounds of the words that pour so easily from his mouth. This isn’t about how we die, but how we should live.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

My Initial Response to “This Is How We Die”

Today I gaze at anticipatory faces. Chasing A-stars, they wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I struggle to face the mundane day lazily unwinding in front of me. The bullet train fever dream of last night’s memory rips at my periphery but I have piles of goddamn exam papers to hand out and count down the time for those little eyes lined up in front of me.

“You have seventy-five minutes to complete this exam paper. Raise your hand if you need anything. You must not speak.”

You must not speak.                         You must not speak.                     You must not speak.

The silence of rustling papers and scratching pens and scraping chairs deafens me. Fatigue caresses my face already propped up by tapping, restless fingers frustrated with marking the correctness of the explanation of hot seating and how its used in my year 9 Drama class.

The middle distance pops up, slides in.

I ruminate.

Never had I thought I’d find Shakespeare reincarnate, but he’s there, under the rioting hair of a Canadian paranoiac, raging at the space he faces of pairs of eyes lined up. He bombards, he bashes, he races. The world we know but ignore is exposed. The guts hang out, the greed, the hate. The racism, the fascism, all those “isms” and “ists” that stain and distend, that we block out to keep out tiny, insignificant spheres of existence perfect and quiet and numb.

This bard makes us see.

He stops.                                                                                                           He whispers.

Just him at a desk with a script and a glass and some lights.

And us. We face him. We hear him. We drink in his sounds, his words, his allegorical tales of love found and lost and open road desert adventure. This is confessional. This is a soul ripped open and we are going to ingest it, whether we want that screaming, raw mass inside us or not. Not through our mouths, but with our ears we catch his lightning, eventually blinded by words and light and music.

We are overcome.

We are left.

We are the catalysts of our own change.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

No Take Backs, everything theatre

“What do you do when you’ve lost your dad, your girlfriend dumps you and a stranger breaks into your new flat, handcuffing you to the radiator? Engage in a battle of wits for your freedom of course!

“…Emily (Lucy Litchfield) is handcuffed to a radiator whilst the Lara Croft-esque Megan (Rachel Eireann) lords over her…The pace is almost akin to Beckett, and there are a few moments when I wonder if the action is going to progress…

“During their conversation it emerges that both of these young women carry lots of issues and baggage. The dialogue is mostly rapid fire and both characters are highly intelligent, if emotionally damaged. Power shifts again when Emily’s brother (Daniel Farley) enters the scene and recognises Megan after she beats him up. Things spiral out of control, and after the boss (Sylvie England) has cleaned up the mess the truth behind the whole hostage situation is made amusingly clear…

“The writing is tight, though playwright Michael Eckett could have easily shaved fifteen minutes from the beginning to make it even more pacy. He has a great sense of comic timing and a great understanding of sound dramatic structure, even if the twist at the end felt slightly formulaic…No Take Backs is a strong one-act offering for this years’ Camden Fringe Festival, and shows that not all good theatre relocates to Edinburgh for the summer!”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Respawn, Hackney Attic

logosrespawnI really want to like Stars or Mars latest sci-fi offering, Respawn. Not because I like science fiction – quite the opposite. I really don’t enjoy the genre in any form, be it films, books or television. There isn’t much sci-fi theatre out there, though. The only sci-fi production I can ever recall seeing is Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light. Light has the distinction of being my first five-star review, and it had nothing to do with the genre. I want to continue bucking my own trend by liking science fiction theatre (if you can call loving one show “bucking a trend”), but it can’t happen with Respawn.

The primary issue with this play is the script, a combination of Pinteresque vagueness and Beckettian lack of action set in a technology-ridden future. I’m sure playwright Susan Gray has an idea in her head of what she wants to communicate to the audience, but it struggles to transfer from page to stage. Her script is set in a world where people become artificial intelligences (AIs) when they die, but no clear message came through the muddled story. Characters were not named, instead referred to with pronouns. This added to the confusion. The programme states that two actors played multiple characters, but not all of the characters were clearly distinguished. Gray herself is credited with playing three roles, but two were so similar they seemed to be the same person. Melanie Crossey had a much clearer performance, playing an AI as a voiceover that lives in a hotel and interacts with living people, and the AI “in person”. Another structural issue lies in this occurrence: if the AIs don’t have bodies, why are we seeing them wearing Phantom of the Opera masks and performed as otherwise completely naturalistic characters? Even if the storyline were to be a clear-cut narrative, there is no overriding theme other than the idea that the AIs want to be human again, but can’t be. It is an interesting idea, but one that can serve as a starting point rather than the crux of an entire play.

Crossey’s performance is a saving grace of this production. With a confident but relaxed stage presence, she holds this convoluted one-act together. She is obviously a skilled performer that deserves the challenge of meaty, contemporary characters. A sound designer is credited, but no director, lighting director or script advisor. These creative roles would be a wise addition to the company’s upcoming Camden Fringe productions.

The Hackney Attic is an unconventional venue, more of a cabaret or comedy venue that a theatre. At the top of a cinema, it is a long, white room with tables rather than rows of seats and a staffed bar in the room. The stage lights are either on or off, the dressing rooms can be seen through a curtain, and a paint job is needed in order to achieve blackout. The space needs some alterations to become suitable for a wider range of performance styles, but the location is great. There was also no signage warning audiences of the strobe light effect that occurred several times in the play.

Furthering the sci-fi theatre genre is certainly a noble pursuit, as it is a genre sorely neglected. LA has Sci-Fest, but London is only this year bringing a celebration of the genre to the fringe at Chelsea Theatre in October. There is huge potential to reach a brand new audience base who spend their weekends at comicons and cosplay events rather than at the theatre. I admire Gray’s aim of developing science fiction theatre, but first she needs to continue refining her own craft.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.