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Director Caroline Wilkes: It’s time to change theatre’s working practices to support carers

Caring responsibilities represent a challenge to the relatively privileged, so they are likely to represent an insurmountable barrier to those facing other social exclusions, says PIPA co-founder Cassie Raine. Photo: Abby Warren
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Theatre’s working patterns make it almost impossible for carers to participate in a meaningful way. Caroline Wilkes argues that the industry would benefit from enabling directors and creatives to job-share


I am a theatre director and a carer. The relationship between these two roles is fraught with complexities and the seemingly incompatible demands of each can leave you feeling helpless. It’s time for a conversation within theatres and companies about how to change working practices to help artists who are also carers get more involved in making work.

In all likelihood, each of us will at some point in our working lives have caring demands placed upon us that may have a significant impact on our ability to work: elderly parents, siblings, partners or children. This may involve crisis periods and periods of caring stretched over years.

As a theatre director, I have directed productions at the Door theatre at Birmingham Rep, and was an assistant director in the main house for The Mother. I was also assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company for #WeAreArrested. I have curated and directed festivals of new writing in pub theatres and productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

That was until one of my children was diagnosed with a life-limiting genetic condition. I spent the next eight years in a hospital and a hospice rather than a rehearsal room. I was outside operating theatres rather than inside a theatre building.

For me, the role of carer took a dramatic and completely unexpected turn when my other child was diagnosed with a severe psychiatric illness, leading to an 11-month stay in hospital and ongoing, long-term, complex problems.

All through these periods of being a carer, I have known that working creatively is vital to my own sanity, although often I have found the tension between being a director and a carer just too complicated.

Theatre’s current working patterns do not allow a carer to participate in a meaningful way. Even so, I have in recent years tentatively returned to work.

The unpredictable demands of caring mean I need to find new ways of working. I can no longer always work full-time on projects and I am often restricted by multiple appointments and crisis phone calls. Who wants a theatre director like that?

Yet carers have an extraordinary amount to contribute to this industry: we just need to shift our approach to find new ways of working so we can get involved. Carers often have a depth of understanding and insight born out of managing endless, complicated situations.

Such understanding can bring significant human insight and fresh perspectives into the rehearsal room. From a pragmatic perspective, being a carer equips someone with skills that are relevant to the theatre. Whether juggling multiple demands simultaneously, the patience needed, the privilege of experiencing the world from a very different perspective or fighting for provision, caring provides huge insight into human nature at its most raw.

Then there is the tact and diplomacy needed, being able to keep your eye on the many small details as well as the larger ones, the endless problem solving, thinking on your feet, dealing with conflict, being strong at both written and verbal communication (and the importance of being a strong listener) and sheer dogged resilience. It also gives us a deep sense of perspective about life with all its fragilities.

Rather than eroding my passion and drive for making theatre, spending significant periods in hospital as a carer has deepened my conviction about the power of stories and the shared experience of theatre being vital to making sense of the complexities of our lives. Being a carer has created a real urgency for me to make theatre.

There is, of course, excellent and transformative progress being made that enables parents to return to work. Yet the role of a carer has an intensity and unpredictability that does not fit well even within the work pattern of being available for school hours.

Job-sharing in the theatre to enable creatives to work part-time is a hugely positive step. Job-sharing a production from a director’s perspective is a much more complicated proposition. On smaller-scale productions, I have been able to direct with a number of strong assistant directors, which has enabled me to leave the room (or the building) when needed.

42nd Street performer becomes first in West End history to job-share

I have also worked as an assistant director, which is counter-intuitive at this point in my working life. Yet being able to actively contribute to the artistic process in a significant, meaningful way without having the responsibility of always leading the room was the only way I could work at that time. I have often only been able to consider short-term projects near home.

There is a plea in all of this for employers: carers may have an eclectic curriculum vitae when applying for a job, including lengthy gaps for caring in crisis periods and a career trajectory that looks like it is in decline.

Yet rather than this being detrimental to their skills in theatre, perhaps carers can bring something very rich, diverse and unique. Unconventional routes often provide the deepest learning experiences.

Are we a liability? Given current working practices in theatres, perhaps some might feel that way. But if we can craft some innovative working practices that allow carers to contribute, despite our restrictions, the positives could significantly outweigh the negatives.

We are a country that is utterly dependent on our carers: we would grind to a halt without them and the already overloaded systems within the NHS and social services would be devastated. My experience is that without those pockets of air to work, feel human, connect with others, be creative and be part of a team, I cannot survive. Caring is such an extraordinarily lonely role.

Carers are under-represented in theatres and we can do something creative about that. Maybe more opportunities such as resident director posts, emerging director schemes and trainee director programmes should be offered. Theatres and companies could broaden their parameters and perhaps develop new posts that allow carers to be considered: for example, a resident director post that is more of a smorgasbord of projects spread out over a longer period of time to allow for gaps in between each project.

Carers carry a wealth of diverse experience that is not well-represented in theatre

I have worked with a smaller company where I have been able to direct in the mornings only and have the assistant director work in the afternoon with clear guidance. I have occasionally worked in a tag-team fashion as a director where, with very strong communication and trust built in, I have directed the first half of a week and my colleague directed the second half.

So let’s begin a rigorous conversation about how we shape new ways of working that allow carers to play their role in the artistic process. Carers carry a wealth of diverse experience that is not well-represented in theatre. Artistic directors should create time to meet carers who are creative and start a dialogue as a priority. It is the only way things can start changing.

Far from being distracted in the workplace because of the wider demands of caring, their hunger and passion to be part of the creative process means they bring a tenacity, depth of understanding about humanity, commitment and sheer drive that should be sought after. We would be a richer industry with them.

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