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West End stars call for job shares to support working parents

Gina Beck, Joanna Riding and Caroline Sheen are among performers supporting calls for more job shares in the West End to support working parents. Photos: Stephanie Methven (Joanna Riding), Ross Ferguson (Caroline Sheen)

Leading musical stars are calling on producers to implement job shares in the West End, claiming parents are currently being forced out of the industry.

The performers claim that an extension of the current ‘alternate’ system in the West End – whereby actors share a role that is particularly demanding – could allow two leads to be jointly cast in a role in a production, split equally over a week, and on a shared salary.

An online forum of more than 50 performers has been set up to discuss the issue, supported by actors including Gina Beck, Joanna Riding and Caroline Sheen.

Having two actors in the same role performing four shows a week would allow parents of children, and those with other caring duties, time to be with their families, they say.

Beck, currently starring in Matilda [1] in London, is the mother of a one-year-old baby girl.

She told The Stage: “The current situation just isn’t working for parents, so we’re hoping to open dialogue with the producers to see if there is any way this kind of thing could work.”

She added: “There is a whole bracket of people who have been forced out of the industry – not just mothers, but fathers as well. It just becomes unmanageable to pay for childcare and go back to work for eight shows a week. I’d like producers to keep an open mind and consider the options.”

Sheen, whose West End credits include Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, told The Stage that the industry was not currently “parent-friendly”.

The actor, who has a young daughter, said she felt she had “fallen off the planet” work-wise after she gave birth.

“I don’t think it’s as bad now, but there used to be a feeling that if you’d had a baby, you’d given up. In the last couple of years that has changed, thanks to people like Gina and Kerry Ellis showing it’s possible [to combine parenthood and a career],” she said.

But she added: “We shouldn’t have to choose between our fundamental human right of being able to have children and our career. It should not be an either/or situation.”

Sheen and Beck acknowledged that producers might have concerns about casting two people in a role, but Sheen said: “If a show is not driven by high-profile performers, does it matter if two people play one role? People will still see the same show.”

Annalene Beechey, who has previously appeared in musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, is a mother of two. She said she had to make a choice between acting and being a mother after having children.

“I knew I couldn’t do both as well as I would want to, so I did make a choice,” she told The Stage.

She added: “I am able to do concerts here and there but it was not an option to go back to work as I wanted to see the kids. This [job shares] would have made a very big difference to me – an option available to do four shows a week. It would be lovely to think that when you become a parent or carer it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.”

The idea of job shares has previously been raised by campaign group Parents in Performing Arts.

How Parents in Performing Arts is giving theatre a creche course in caring [2]

Cassie Raine, from PIPA, told The Stage the pleas were “further validation for the need to work towards long-term sustainable change across the industry”.

“The demand for practical solutions and alternative working practices is being addressed from many angles, all of which will ultimately bring about progress in how performance artists are able to work, as well as influencing how organisations think about what they do,” she said.

Meanwhile, producer Kenny Wax [3], who is also president of the Society of London Theatre, told The Stage job shares do take place on touring productions, claiming this worked because marketing by individual theatres “can be locally targeted so that the audience knows who they are getting”.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t happen in the West End, although it potentially opens up the production to criticism if a customer makes a booking specifically to see one of the leads and ends up seeing the other,” he said.

To make it practical for a producer, Wax added, the proposal needed to come from the artists themselves, with an agent making the demand once a job offer had been made, adding that it would be “even better” if the agent suggested who might share the role.

“That would give the producer scope to go to another agent with the offer and I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t work,” he said.

He added that producers always needed to have “one eye on the bottom line” and said performers would have to accept a salary that recognised the number of performances they did each week.