Balancing a life in theatre with fatherhood
“We need to find a way of focusing on parents working within the arts,” David Mercatali insists. Having separate conversations about the needs of mothers and fathers isn’t hugely helpful, he continues, and if the culture is to change there needs to be a shift in the way people talk and think about working in the arts as a parent.
I recently wrote an article for The Stage (April 2, page 6) about mothers who make theatre and how they balance the demands of their career and their family. There seems to be a real appetite for having these conversations at the moment. Social media is playing a considerable role in this. New Facebook groups for theatremakers who are also parents are springing up all the time.
At the Cutting Edge conference on British Theatre in Hard Times, which took place on April 25, Samuel West, in his keynote speech, discussed how his engagement with theatre had changed since becoming a father and, at the same event, Erica Whyman urged that questions about how to cope with parenthood should be posed to men more often, something with which Mercatali clearly agrees. A father of two, the oldest soon to start primary school, he’s had a fairly full-on year so far, directing Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin at Soho Theatre and Alice Birch’s exquisite, fist-like Little Light at the Orange Tree.
“Obviously there are intrinsic differences,” he says, following a brief conversational detour about breastfeeding, “but my feeling is that the emphasis here should be on parenting. There are a lot of initiatives that are out there for mothers, but I don’t think that’s helpful in the long term. It puts the emphasis on mothers as the chief carers, which is a pretty old-fashioned idea particularly if you’re in an artistic relationship as I am” – Mercatali’s partner is the writer Tess Berry-Hart – “where we’re both making work and both have things we’re trying to juggle and neither of our work should take a back seat to the other’s. We have equal responsibilities. Fathers shouldn’t feel secondary in this conversation.”
The language we choose, he explains, is a vital part of this, the way we frame these discussions. “We should be trying to build a parent-orientated support network, one which makes mothers feel that they’re not alone and fathers feel as if they’re not excluded from this conversation, which puts everyone on an equal footing – then we’d be in a much better place.”
One of the things he related to from the original article, Mercatali says, “was the observation that if you work in the arts, there’s a big social aspect and the reality is you can’t do that as much as a parent and you can start to feel excluded from the idea of the arts being something you live as well as something you do”.
“You always feel like you’re compromising one thing or another,” he tells me, over coffee in a Queen’s Park cafe which, appropriately enough, is filled with children. “I constantly feel like I’m being distracted from my work by my family and distracted from my family by my work. It’s really difficult. But while there’s nothing you can do to change that conflict, if you know that a venue or the people you’re working with are sensitive to that, that they understand your needs as parents – perhaps asking what they can do to make things easier – well, that’s a start.
“But if we want bigger, more practical solutions we need to be talking about greater governmental support. The problem at the moment, of course, is that everything costs and people have less and less money. An environment from a production perspective that allowed for some kind of childcare would be incredible.
“Often when I’m rehearsing I get to spend such little time with my children and that’s really hard. There are periods when I hardly get to see them, and that’s not what anyone wants.”
Mercatali thinks more could be done to find practical solutions. “We’re very lucky to have artistic directors at major venues, like Vicky Featherstone, who are sympathetic, who understand. But could we not find a way of creating a childcare system within buildings, within organisations?”
Producer Milan Govedarica, a father of three – including twins – describes similar feelings of being pulled in different directions. “If you have two freelance professionals raising a family, it can be a right stretch at times,” he says. “I feel children need to have a sense of stability and to be protected from stress as much as possible. So, there’s a collision – travelling when you know you should be home or having to go see shows at times you should be putting your kids to bed.”
He continues: “If one is lucky enough to have a longer-term gig at least part-time, then that brings a financial certainty. If you are running your own project mostly and have to take risks, then you can find yourself working around the clock. I’ve experienced both. At the end of the day, we all owe our success to our wider community – partners, family, relatives, friends, neighbours, without whose help things would be much harder.”
Simon Startin, actor, theatremaker, activist and father – who most recently appeared in Islands, Caroline Horton’s divisive show about tax havens, at the Bush Theatre – concurs. “Bearing in mind I became a father 17 years ago,” he says, “there have been many phases to my working life versus my role as a father. The initial phase was trying to continue to be an actor, whilst being a father and a partner to their mother.”
He adds: “Because my work was the most flexible, I became primary career for the first year. Then we swapped, and I earned my living reasonably successfully as an actor, but this meant weeks away from home. The expectation from my non-actor partner was that I should give up and be happy about it. I did give up but became depressed and the relationship broke down. I then became a Saturday dad, which fits well with being an actor,” he concludes. This was the “end of phase one”.
“A few years later,” Startin adds, “I took custody of my children and became a single dad. This drove a freight train through my acting career and I gave up for six years, but managed to plough a furrow as a playwright. This job sat very well with being a single parent as I could work from home and be there for my children and remain satisfied creatively. Now my children are in their teens, I have some freedom to take up acting and directing away from home in small doses, and I have no wish for anything more than that, being more interested in more strategic roles and activism.”
Throughout all this, the phrases that keep recurring, in all the conversations I have – with mothers and fathers alike – are those of support and community. That’s the place to which things keep coming back, for everyone.
“There should be more ways of uniting parents,” Mercatali says firmly, underscoring this, tapping his hand urgently upon the table, “so that you don’t feel as if you’re the odd one out. Because when you realise you’re not the only one in this situation, when you realise you’re not alone, well, that’s amazing.”