Established just two years ago, Parents in Performing Arts has launched a charter and toolkit to help theatres become inclusive and accessible to parents and carers. Jo Caird reports
Actors Romola Garai, Noma Dumezweni, Kate Fleetwood and Rosalie Craig have all spoken out about challenges facing parents and carers in performing arts during the past few years, and called for a wholesale change in the industry.
They may well have been among the many parents and carers in theatre who have been forced to turn down work because of a conflict with their caring responsibilities.
This was found to be a significant issue in recent research conducted by campaigning organisation Parents in Performing Arts and it is a problem not just for the individuals concerned, but for the industry as a whole, according to the organisation’s co-founder Cassie Raine.
“Supporting carers and parents is another facet of diversity,” she says. “Not only is supporting those with caring responsibilities crucial to achieving gender equality, but our research identified the extent to which people with caring responsibilities rely upon social advantages to mitigate those responsibilities.” Basically, calling on friends and relatives, or a spouse with a flexible job or large salary, to step in.
Raine adds: “If caring responsibilities represent a challenge to the relatively privileged, they are likely to represent an insurmountable barrier to those facing other social exclusions.”
Thanks largely to the efforts of PIPA and its strategic and research partners, the theatre industry is finally waking up to these issues.
In November, the lobby group launched its best-practice charter – a set of guiding principles to help organisations become as inclusive and accessible to parents and carers as possible – following a year-long research project involving 15 theatres and companies.
The charter, and a ‘toolkit’ to support organisations working towards it, started trials by 25 partners this month and will run to October 2018, after which point PIPA aims to roll it out for free across the industry.
Having surveyed 966 theatre workers, the organisation identified three major challenges for those with caring responsibilities. These are: failures in communication between employers and employees, gaps in provision for parents and carers, and structural ways in which the performing arts exclude those with caring responsibilities.
More than half of those surveyed reported that they had never been asked about their needs as a parent or carer by the organisation for which they work.
In most cases therefore, the onus is on the individual to advocate for themselves. This is not something everyone is comfortable doing, particularly those in freelance roles who might be nervous about making themselves appear difficult or less employable.
Partner theatres working with PIPA adopted several practical measures to ensure that employees and freelancers with caring responsibilities felt able to discuss their needs.
Birmingham Rep, for example, is developing a family-friendly digs list, while Northern Stage will be adding a ‘family-friendly employer’ statement to all new job adverts on its website.
Several theatres are also appointing a ‘PIPA champion’ whose role it might be (details to be finalised) to make sure that policies are in place to support those with caring responsibilities, and to act as a first point of contact when discussing specific issues.
It’s important, says Trina Jones, general manager at Birmingham Rep, that a culture of approachability exists throughout the organisation. “We would want to have that channel of communication open from the audition process onwards.”
Unsurprisingly, childcare is one of the biggest areas of need for working parents in the industry, and PIPA’s partner theatre trialled a host of solutions, many of which focused on providing short-term and ad hoc childcare to reflect the unpredictability and project-based nature of the theatre world.
They ranged from opening rehearsals up to freelance workers’ children (the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Becoming, for example, staged last year) to providing a creche for auditions or networking events (Mercury Theatre Colchester attracted so much positive press when it offered attendees of its biennial open auditions access to a creche that it plans to do it again in two years’ time) to referring performers to the Actors’ Children’s Trust, which funded £200,000 worth of childcare in 2017.
Not every organisation will be able to provide or fund childcare for its employees, but staff with caring responsibilities can be supported in other ways, enabling them to work around existing childcare commitments. Several PIPA partner theatres have started advertising their willingness to offer job shares, and London’s Royal Court trialled a stage management job share on a youth theatre production.
Bonnie Morris, one of the stage managers sharing that role, “had almost given up hope” of going back to work after her daughter was born, given the long hours associated with full-time stage management positions. But then a company stage manager colleague introduced her to Jules Richardson, another stage manager with a new baby, and they began applying for jobs as a pair.
“We’re making it up as we go along,” says Morris, explaining that she and Richardson go into each new project with as flexible an approach as possible.
Job shares are just one of the ways PIPA is proposing that theatres could begin to address the industry’s systemic exclusion of people with caring responsibilities.
Other suggestions range from the fairly straightforward – extending the time allowed for freelances to consider job offers, giving them time to weigh up their childcare options – to those requiring a total rethink of established traditions and working practices, such as cutting down on overtime during production weeks to enable staff to work more regular hours.
The last proposal was implemented by Dundee Rep outside of the PIPA trial. It proved popular with staff, but meant press nights took place later in the week, on evenings less convenient for press and VIP attendees. Clearly there will be winners and losers with any major change.
But it’s not just structural challenges within the theatre industry that make things tough for working parents. They are also more likely to be affected by an inherent bias in favour of employed people within the government’s system of parental pay – a much higher proportion of those working in the performing arts are self-employed compared with the general population: 46% to 15%.
All employed workers are entitled to shared parental pay, which allows parents to split leave and pay between them, taking their leave in blocks and returning to work in-between if they wish. Self-employed mothers must take statutory maternity allowance in one fell swoop, however, and cannot go back on to it after doing some work – taking a job on a show, for example. Self-employed fathers, meanwhile, have no access to parental leave or pay whatsoever.
For couples like Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder and Adam Quayle, joint artistic directors and co-founders of Manchester-based Box of Tricks Theatre, the inequalities of this system created several stresses when their daughter was born three years ago.
“If Adam had been able to take time off he wouldn’t have been carrying the entire weight of the company,” recalls Tyrrell-Pinder. He regretted not being able to spend much time with their daughter too. For Tyrrell-Pinder herself, the jump back into running the company was much more challenging than it might have been had she been able to go back for several short periods without losing her maternity allowance.
The Parental Pay Equality campaign is seeking a change in the law to extend shared parental pay to self-employed parents. Late last year, it published an open letter to the prime minister signed by 30 MPs, cultural figures including the theatre and film composer Stephen Warbeck, and PIPA co-founders Raine and Anna Ehnold-Danailov.
For Raine, who is one half of a self-employed couple, the issue is personal as well as political. “With no shared parental leave for the self-employed, the message about who is responsible for childcare is clear,” she says. “This sets a precedent that has a significant impact on career development for both partners. While one career necessarily takes priority, the other stagnates.”
There’s a long way still to go, but what PIPA has accomplished in just over two years – the number of big-hitting strategic partners, the ambition and imagination of the measures being trialled – is impressive. The zeal for major change is palpable. Watch this space.