There is a current discussion being had over at the Guardian website, Twitter and various personal blogs, fueled by Phyllida Lloyd’s current all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, about gender equality in the theatre industry. We all know there are fewer female roles for actors, fewer female playwrights being produced, especially at major theatres, fewer female directors and even fewer female artistic directors. Theatre is still a very male-dominated industry, and white middle-class males at that. There is an aspect of this debate I know something about and feel the need to comment on. There is a big reason why women in the theatre industry (and most other industries) start off in equal numbers and standing to their male counterparts when they start working in their 20s, and then seem to fall behind as they move through their 30s and 40s. Children. I can only speak from a director’s perspective here, but writers, actors, designers, stage managers and women from all aspects of the industry obviously share the same issue. Whether we like to talk about it or not, ladies have babies. It happens. It used to be a taboo subject for female directors trying to rise through the ranks. Even recently,I had a friend who is a few years older than I am advise me to not mention that I’m a mother when I’m looking for work.
I was fresh out of an MFA programme when my son Elliot was born. He and my paper degree were delivered within weeks of each other. I had directed a couple of fringe shows in London, including the first show I directed at Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstowe, but I didn’t have much of a plan of how to marry my career and being a parent. I was lucky to get an interview at a major theatre company when I was pregnant, and as those meetings are difficult to get and even more difficult to schedule, I ended up going in there nine months pregnant. Neither the producer I was meeting nor I discussed my pregnancy in in the 30-minute meeting where we discussed every aspect of my career. That meeting didn’t lead to a job, but it did lead to some excellent opportunities and I’m glad I went. When Elliot was a few months old, I came to press night at Ye Olde Rose and Crown for their production of Godspell. Aaron Clingham, the venue’s Director, approached me about directing their next show, a musical called Girlfriends by some chap called Howard Goodall (if I’d only know how well we’d get to know his work!). I reminded him that I was now responsible for a small wriggly person, and blithely threw out the idea that I just bring him along. Aaron agreed without batting an eyelash.
Let’s dissect that moment. Here’s an artistic director of a fringe theatre company in London that has its own space and can do whatever they want with whomever they choose. He is male, doesn’t have children of his own or any particular reason to make his theatre company child-friendly. We had worked together several times by that point, but he obviously knew other directors as well. He’s good at building relationships with directors and performers and likes to work with people he likes. The only reason I can think of (and I haven’t asked him) is that he liked me and wanted me to direct the next show. He thought it was my sort of thing (it was). It was as simple as that.
(above, Lydia with Elliot) So on 9 May, 2011, at the tender age of just over six months, Rehearsal Baby entered his first rehearsal room.
By the first rehearsal, we’d already done two workshops, a round of auditions and several meetings with him in the room. I was almost used to having him around. I had tried to keep him in the next room during auditions, but he ended up sitting at the table, as he’s done at several auditions since then, much to the surprise of the actors auditioning. The first few days were stressful, but the actors loved him and babies at that age are so portable. We quickly got into a rhythm. He used to nap behind the piano or in the sling while I yelled out marching orders for the military exercise-style number in Act I.
Since then Elliot has played Rehearsal Baby on two more shows at Ye Olde Rose and Crown. The show I’m currently directing there, One Touch of Venus will be his fourth. It’s just not a big deal any more. He doesn’t get in the way, he makes the work more focussed and the rehearsal process more fun. It makes my relationship with actors more intimate. They know me as a person, not just as a director. They spend their breaks playing with cars and having dance-offs with a toddler. It’s not something that’s mentioned in the press release, or talked about by anyone outside of the process. No reviewer coming to see it has any idea that the show they’re watching was influenced by a baby. No audience member is thinking about how that bit was rehearsed with the toy trains of the toddler in the room. Nor should they.
I happen to be involved with a group of directors and designers who are parents, run as an arm of the Young Vic Directors Programme. We get together, share strategies about working in the industry, sometimes swap childcare so we can go see plays, that sort of thing. Currently we’re doing a study of director parents working in the industry and the challenges we face. We had a discussion last week where one of the main themes was simply awareness. Making people aware that even when they are extremely committed to their directing career, people (women and men) have children. And we make it work however we can.
So here goes. My name is Lydia and I’m a theatre director. And a mama.
Is that the new headline on my CV? No. Will I continue to explore ways to address the issues of women and parents in the theatre industry to hopefully remedy the gender inequality that exists? Yes. Aaron and the producer, Andy, had no idea they were being so pioneering when they agreed to allow a Rehearsal Baby into the rehearsal room. They really are, and I am eternally grateful. It’s also worth noting that All Star Productions employ at least 50% female directors. In 2011 all four musicals in the season were directed by two women. What other fringe venue can say that?
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