Let’s hear it for the mums. And the dads. We certainly did at The Stage Debut Awards last month, when winner after winner paid tribute to their mums and, of course, dads.
These tributes were perhaps hardly surprising because the winners are all near the start of their careers, but several of the presenters – all established names – also paid homage to their parents. This wasn’t sentiment: it reflects the fact that parents often play a crucial role in their children’s theatre careers.
I’ve been thinking about it this week as my own dad has been in hospital. One of the things I love about The Stage Debut Awards is that it feels such a family affair. Sitting at the same table as me, Jac Yarrow, the breakout star of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was accompanied by his parents and his sister. It was lovely to see him win the Joe Allen Best West End Debut Award surrounded by his family.
Mothers tend to have a doubtful reputation in theatre lore, often portrayed as pushy monsters like Mama Rose in Gypsy. We’ve all watched ‘Dance Moms’ with our jaws hitting the floor. But those stereotypes do a disservice, because as The Stage Debut Awards remind us, parental support can make all the difference to those wishing to pursue a career in theatre, all the way through to higher education. Only students whose parents earn below £25,000 a year receive the full maintenance loan, otherwise families are expected to chip in to support their offspring while at university or drama school.
One of the truly sad things about the English Baccalaureate is the way that it increasingly encourages parents to push their children away from studying arts subjects – particularly when the government narratives lead them to believe the sciences will stand their children in better stead. They may end up earning more over a lifetime, but will they be happier? In an uncertain jobs market, where even previously safe jobs like accountancy are under threat, theatre no longer looks like a silly option. The skills shortage in theatre means that those who train in technical roles are likely to have excellent employment prospects.
Just as drama teachers can play a crucial role in setting children on a path that will lead to a future career in the arts, it is a wise parent and an even luckier child who is nudged towards taking those subjects for which they have real passion. I was, and The Stage Debut Awards are a yearly reminder that others still are too. Very few on the shortlists would have been up on stage collecting an award or on the shortlists despite their parents. In most cases, they are there because of mums and dads and the sacrifices they made. Most know that they owe a considerable debt to them.
I know I do. My 92-year-old dad still has the handwritten receipt for the first drama session I ever attended after I unexpectedly expressed an interest – unlikely, because I was shy as a crocus in the rain. But my parents did everything they could to encourage me.
It wasn’t just money. They invested time in ferrying me around to take part in speech and drama festivals and taking me to the theatre. I may have been the only nine-year-old in the country to have a subscription to Plays and Players rather than Bunty. I would not do the job I do without my parents’ support, a support that continued long into adulthood when they babysat my children for me while I went to review in the evenings.
At a showcase recently, I saw two sets of grandparents holding the grandkids while their daughters and sons put on work to an audience of producers and programmers. Parents often enable in every way they can, whether it is holding a grandchild or buying theatre tickets so their children can access theatre – even if they can ill afford it.
For some, any financial outlay is impossible. As The Stage reported a couple of weeks back, venues such as Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre are warning that children’s access to live theatre is declining because of the budgetary constraints on state schools. If trips are planned, parents are likely to be asked to contribute. Many would like to contribute, but it is more than they can manage, so then the burden falls on the school and further trips are cut. These parents would love their children to have an arts education, but they cannot afford to pay for it.
This situation is worrying. One of the great things about The Stage Debut Awards is that it reflects a shift in the industry and increasing diversity at entry level. That diversity includes socio-economic diversity. But for how much longer?
As the burden is getting ever greater, the gap between those who can and cannot access an arts education becomes ever wider. But the mums and the dads (and the grandparents) will continue to do their best to support their children. We should salute them.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner