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How women in the theatre manage their careers and children

Metta Theatre's Poppy Burton-Morgan. Photo: Jane Hobson
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“This year is our 10-year anniversary so we thought, ‘lets do 10 shows’, which is obviously a very sensible thing to do with two small children.”

Poppy Burton-Morgan runs Metta Theatre along with her husband, the designer Will Reynolds. I’m sitting in her London flat, which also doubles as Metta’s headquarters. Her youngest, Finn, is asleep in the next room, while his brother Noah joins in the interview for a bit, after helping make coffee and telling me about his favourite tractors. An article by Lyn Gardner calling for a childcare revolution in the arts has just appeared in the Guardian and Burton-Morgan wants that conversation to continue.

But, as those who read her impassioned blog will know, she also feels that there are other vital conversations that need to be had – her post on breastfeeding while directing makes great reading. “I never really planned to stop working,” she tells me. “Metta Theatre is not a national portfolio organisation. Neither of us is on a salary. Rightly or wrongly, as a director, you feel that if you step out for too long you’ll be completely forgotten,” she continues. “But it’s also about proving to yourself that you can still do it and you do still want to do it.”

“When Noah was born, we were lucky because our parents were around a lot and would look after him one day a week. I also took Noah – and I still take Finn – to meetings. I think it’s quite important, politically, to make children visible.”

Like many parents in the arts community, they also used Facebook as a way to find people willing to look after Noah for a few hours here and there. “There are not enough parents who ask for help – particularly with childcare,” she says. Through Facebook, they rapidly crowdsourced a network of people willing to share childcare duty: “It became an extended kind of family. It’s comes back to the idea of the village raising the child.”

As a director; you feel that if you step out for too long you’ll be completely forgotten

This sense of people in the arts acting as a family is something Flavia Fraser-Canon, executive director of Mimetic Festival producers Finger in the Pie theatre, has also experienced. “The family we create in our working lives in theatre can be invaluable. In London, where we often don’t have large families nearby to help us along in the harder days – the theatre family has stepped up generously and without a second thought.”

As a producer with a young son, Ivo, she’s alert to the needs of artists with children of a similar age. “I’m managing the tour of Finger in the Pie’s Waiting for Stanley,” explains Fraser-Cannon. “Our actress has a son who is a month older than Ivo. I’m especially conscious of trying to book accommodation and travel that I would happily experience myself.”

This idea of mutual support, practical but also emotional and artistic, is behind groups such as Matilda Leyser’s Mothers Who Make, a peer support group for mothers who are artists. Theatre academic and contributor to The Stage Duska Radosavljevic has taken this a step further, creating work that includes her young son, Joakim. She co-created the Mums and Babies Ensemble with Annie Rigby and Lena Simic, a project that combines the format of a mothers and babies group with an element of performance to explore, and documents the changes in their lives now that they are mothers. It looks at their shifting values and perceptions, and about creating a performance template that other theatremaking mothers can use for their own work.

This sense of shifting priorities is something Fraser-Cannon echoes. “The value of my time has changed, both in terms of how much my time needs to be financially remunerated to cover childcare, and the value of my free time. “I can’t afford to lose an evening of family time to see a show I’m not working on – or stay in the bar talking about the current state of the industry until it closes,” she says.

But while she believes she feels differently – and even thinks differently, as a mother, this goes hand in hand with a feeling of greater confidence. “I feel like I have less to prove – being me is all I can offer and if that’s what a show or company needs then that’s grand.”

“My pre-planning on things is certainly improved by a country mile,” she adds. But having children has also made Burton-Morgan and Reynolds scarily efficient. “You wonder what you were doing with the rest of your time before you had children. You can get so much done when you put your mind to it.”

Metta has taken more of an interest in creating work aimed at younger audiences. “Before we had kids, we’d made one show for a younger audience but now it’s a much larger part of what we do as a company.” Metta’s circus and puppetry show, The King of Tiny Things, will be touring over the summer. Burton-Morgan says a knock-on effect of running a theatre company from the family home is that Noah knows a lot about gaffer tape.

Among all the heartening stories of venues and individuals, Ali Robertson at the Tobacco Factory and David Byrne at the New Diorama are singled out by Burton-Morgan and Fraser-Cannon respectively. They see them as people who are doing much to support those with children who want to carry on working in theatre – the financial question is one that has to be addressed.

“The cost of childcare adds up really quickly,” says Burton-Morgan. “People with conventional salaried jobs can put their children in nursery, but if you work in the arts, chances are you’re not going to be earning enough in a given week to do that. Also rehearsal hours, tech hours – they’re not 9am-5pm. As a director, that just didn’t work.” She says that while the Facebook approach to childcare can work if you have one child, with two children, it’s a bigger ask. Her solution was to start using nannies on a short-term, ad hoc basis. “People think nannies are expensive, but with two children it works out cheaper than nursery.”

Fraser-Cannon has a partner that works in the same industry, which she says helps. She was also able to find a reasonably priced nursery near her home. “Two days a week felt like the right balancing point between the time we need to work and the expense. But, she adds, none of it would be possible without the support of my parents. The simple financial risk of being able to work in theatre in the first place is down to them.” Fraser-Cannon is aware that she’s lucky in this regard. “I know this rather makes me the enemy in many eyes in the current climate, but I can only be honest about who I am. It’s a part of the conversation that shouldn’t be glossed over.”

But finances are only part of wider cultural questions about the tendency to self-exploit in the arts and about cultural and societal expectations placed on mothers.

“Working as a mother has proved bloody hard and tiring,” says Fraser-Cannon. “But regardless of that it’s great – kind of like working in the theatre itself.”

Finger in the Pie’ is touring throughout April; Metta Theatre’s Cosi Fan Tutte is at the New Theatre, Oxford, from May 1-3, then touring.

Read more at Poppy Burton-Morgan’s blog