2019 Report – Lost Voices

There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.” 

-Sarah Ruhl, introduction to 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write


In 2017 Parents in Chicago Theatre published a report titled Barriers to Work for Parents in Chicago Theatre, which investigated the effect of parenthood on the careers of a wide variety of Chicago theatre artists. Low pay, scheduling, the high cost of childcare and the storefront theatre culture all contribute to stalled careers and stagnant incomes for parents. A follow-up report attempts to capture a group of parents whose experiences weren’t captured: the ones who had left the industry altogether. A second survey reached out to the parents for whom the barriers were insurmountable, and what the Chicago theatre industry has lost in terms of education and experience.

The 2018 survey asked people who took an extended break or stopped working in the Chicago theatre industry after becoming parents about their experiences. Most of them (85%) still have at least one child below school age, which is the time where the childcare responsibilities are usually the greatest. All but one of them are female.

Who are the Lost Voices of Chicago Theatre?

This survey captured a snapshot of the careers of a group of parents who took a break from their work in theatre as actors, directors, writers, designers, technicians and administrators. About half are currently taking a break from working in theatre, either to be a full-time parent or to work in a different industry. The other half returned to working in theatre after taking a break with their child(ren), but none are working full-time in theatre. Some of those also work a day job.

Current Positions Pie Chart

Of the approximately ⅓ of respondents who are working outside theatre, almost all are working full-time. The two reasons cited the most often were higher pay was more and a schedule more compatible with parenting young children. This is consistent with the findings in last year’s report that scheduling, low pay and the cost of childcare are the greatest barriers for parents working in theatre.

Education and Experience

Education Pie ChartThe education level of most respondents is very high. Almost all have at least one degree in theatre, and about a third have a masters degree in theatre. This is the same for those who left the industry and those who are currently taking a break and intend to return. Education doesn’t seem to be a factor in whether someone will leave the theatre industry after becoming a parent. A significant number of people in Chicago theatre have made a huge investment in their education, yet are finding it impossible to maintain a career in their chosen profession since becoming a parent. This also means that there is a wealth of knowledge and expertise that the industry is missing out on by not supporting parents. 

“I’ve given up trying to get a job in theatre and view my “day job” as a career.”
– Theatre admin and dramaturg with an MFA and 6-10 years of experience, mother of a two-year-old

Experience Pie Chart

Most of the parents surveyed also had a significant level of experience – an average of 13 years. More than half of respondents have over 15 years of experience. There is of course some attrition in the theatre industry of people who study and “pay their dues” working in theatre, but find it an unsustainable long-term career. However, the parents questioned in this survey pointed to clear factors related to becoming parents that are keeping them from returning to working in theatre, even though they want to. 

“I just needed to get on stage. It’s been four years. I’m bleeding for stage time.”
– Actor with over 15 years of experience, mother of two young children

To Return or Not to Return?

Respondents took breaks for anywhere from eight weeks to eight years after the birth of a child. The average break for parents was 1.5 years. Those with more than one child may have gone back to work after their first child, but found it more difficult with two children. Many elements factored into these decisions, but there were four that were reported most often: The incompatibility of freelancing and theatre schedules with parenting, the high cost of childcare – especially relative to the low pay in theatre – and the desire to be the child’s primary caregiver.

Screenshot 2019-03-28 at 11.05.11 amAll of these factors other than the last one can be mitigated by theatre employers. When asked what the theatre industry could do to make returning to work more achievable for parents, respondents had a lot to say. Overwhelmingly, the accommodation respondents most craved was childcare. There are many forms this can take depending on the size and budget of the theatre and the needs of the parent artist. Some popular ideas were child-friendly auditions, on-site childcare or additional stipends for childcare during technical rehearsals. Respondents also said that more predictable schedules, higher pay and a culture that is more understanding of the needs of parents would go a long way to making returning to work possible.

It’s like trying to get back on a moving bus. Especially when my first child was born, I saw lots of my peers making great career strides and it was quite frustrating. It felt like a career leap backward.”
– Technician with over 20 years of experience, parent of two

Other elements factored in to parent artists choosing to work outside of theatre beyond higher pay and better hours: Health benefits and parental leave. Only about 15% of respondents received health insurance through their theatre employer or union while they were expecting a child. About half were covered by their partner’s insurance and the rest through a day job or the Affordable Care Act. Only one respondent received any kind of paid parental leave from a theatre employer, and that was through short-term disability insurance. Parent artists have less incentive to return to work in an industry that can’t or doesn’t provide these essential benefits. As freelancers, many theatre workers don’t even qualify for unpaid FMLA leave, as that requires one to work for at least a year for one company that has 50 or more employees. This excludes almost every theatre company in Chicago.

“Theatre operates on the assumption that someone else will bear the financial burden of our lives.”
-Actor and AEA member, mother of two young children 

Career Satisfaction for Parents

Despite many of them having found careers outside of the theatre industry that pay more or have a more flexible schedule, 77% of those taking a break from theatre plan to go back at some point. 

When asked about career satisfaction, respondents had mixed feelings. Many said that they have to choose their projects more carefully or that they wish they could work more in theatre, but find balancing work and parenting difficult. Only 15% of respondents who have left theatre report being happy in their career trajectory. Those who have a positive view of their current trajectory often noted that it was because their expectations had changed. Without a viable pathway back into the industry, these decades of experience will be lost to Chicago’s theatre industry

“I enjoy working and providing for my family, and I love being with my family. When the time is right, I know I will jump back in because art is what I love.”
-Director with master’s degree, mother of two

Industry Change

Our partners at the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) are compiling a Best Practices Handbook full of interviews, case studies and resources for theatre organizations who want to be inclusive of parent artists in their organization or bring in parent artists who may have taken a break.

I also wrote a case study of a parent-friendly production at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble that I wrote for HowlRound titled Radical Inclusion of Parent Artists.

Why Do We Need Parent Artists?

The final question I asked is, how has becoming a parent made you a better artist, employee or collaborator? Here are the replies:

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Barriers to Work for Parents in Chicago Theatre – Survey Results

In the fall of 2016, Parents in Chicago Theatre surveyed a sampling of parents in a wide variety of theatre jobs – actors, directors, designers, educators and administrators – to determine the effect that having caring responsibilities has on careers. Below is the first report of our findings, an overview that includes some of the challenges artists face and the resources that are currently available, as well as ideas for how working conditions could be improved. 

91% of parents have turned down theatre work because of scheduling or the cost of childcare.

Anyone who works in theatre knows that it’s not easy. The hours are long, often late in the evenings, and unpredictable. It seems like there is never enough pay, if you’re getting paid at all. Getting a paycheck to do what you love feels like a privilege, a bonus. So you work a day job and rehearse in the evenings, find flexible work that gives you time off for auditions, take that internship or apprenticeship and eat ramen for six months to make rent. We’ve all been there. It’s part of the charm and tradition of the theatre: hard graft, long hours, and lots of collaboration and inspiration.

But what happens when there is another mouth to feed? The desire to raise children doesn’t discriminate against artists. At some point your time is no longer free, and no longer your own. When you have a child to care for, every hour you or another co-parent isn’t with that child, someone has to be. Every hour you work, you have to pay someone else to take care of your child. If your agent calls with a last-minute audition, what do you do? If rehearsal runs late and your babysitter can’t stay, who do you call? The day care charges for every 15 minutes you’re late picking up. You may not want to work 40 hours a week at a day job, plus spend another 20 in rehearsal, performing every weekend. Usually when people have children, they want to spend at least some time with those small new people they went to so much trouble to acquire. All parents know the pull to be home for bedtime is strong. Sweet-smelling freshly bathed children in cute pajamas snuggling up for a story? How can any professional storyteller resist?

The answer is we make it work. Or we don’t. We involve children in the process, we work split schedules with spouses to cut down on childcare costs, we rely on free childcare from family members, or work out reciprocal arrangements with other parents. I personally have done all of these things at one point in the last six years to make it work. But also, sometimes we don’t. Theatre artists, especially women, are in danger of falling off their career track when they have children. And we make it work or don’t. Very few theatre organizations have policies in place to help the parents who work for them, so it’s up to the individual.

Last year I set up a Facebook group of parents who work in Chicago theatre. I wanted to find other theatre artists who could share experiences, strategies, maybe even childcare. I found that parents are hungry for this type of connection. Parenthood is isolating in any context, but working in an industry where parents are a minority can be even more so. It can feel like you’re the only one trying to maintain a career – much less advance one – while caring for a tiny person or two.

In May, 2016 we held a panel discussion on the topic at the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Lake FX conference. The crowd was small, but the discussion was inspiring. Out of that discussion, I circulated a survey to theatre parents in Chicago and have spent some time looking at what they had to say.

Survey Results

The Parents in Chicago Theatre (PICT) survey asked a cross-section of theatre workers who are also parents – mothers and fathers – whether being a parent was a barrier to getting work in the first place. Nearly all (91%) said that they had turned down work because either the schedule was incompatible with being a parent or because of the prohibitive cost of childcare.

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Many jobs in the theatre require working long days and evening hours, and the pay is notoriously low, if there is any pay at all. This means that a job as a stage manager, for example, that doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of a babysitter in the evenings (there is no day care in the evening), is going to someone potentially less qualified who doesn’t have caring responsibilities. The stage manager parent is then in danger of falling back in his or her career, it becomes more and more difficult to get the job that pays enough, and the less experienced stage manager without caring responsibilities moves ahead.

This is an issue that affects fathers as well as mothers, but it affects women disproportionately. It has been ingrained in the theatre culture that mothers are a liability. When I was applying for jobs after my oldest son was born, a well-meaning friend who is an actress with grown children advised me not to tell potential employers that I had a baby. She even went so far as to suggest I not put him in my profile picture on social media. In the survey, nearly half of women said they felt like they didn’t get a job because they were mothers, and 38% had hidden the fact that they were pregnant in a job interview.


Chicago is not unique in that income from theatre tends to be low. 53% of people surveyed earned less than $20,000/year from their work in theatre. However, after becoming a parent, incomes stagnate at best. 70% said their income had gone down or remained the same since becoming a parent. 40% said their income had in fact gone down.

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Arguably more important than income is career trajectory. Taking a break from theatre to have a baby can interrupt any momentum that your career may have. About 20% of respondents said their career trajectory had not changed since becoming parents, but about the same percentage said that they had taken or were currently taking a break. A larger percentage (26%) said that they were still working in theatre, but worked less. These people all responded to a survey about working in theatre and parenting, so it doesn’t reflect people who have completely left the theatre workforce after having children.

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Only 36% of respondents reported working only daytime hours. This is no surprise to anyone who works in theatre, but this aspect of the industry does present some challenges that are unique to parents, especially parents of young children. When asked an open question about the challenges they face, the most common answers had to do with scheduling and pay. These include working evenings and weekends, schedules that change unexpectedly and maintaining a work/life balance with a demanding and time-intensive theatre job. Many respondents cited low pay as a challenge, with fees for theatre work sometimes being less than the cost of childcare.

Hand in hand with scheduling and pay challenges is childcare. A full-time day care spot for an infant in Chicago costs on average of about $1000/month and require a long-term commitment. There are a few childcare facilities that provide drop-in service, but those are more expensive per hour, and it can be difficult to leave your child in a new environment. Theatre artists can get creative about childcare. Many reported sharing caregiving duties with a partner, which often means working at different times and sacrificing family time. More than half said that they had brought their children to work with them, but for most people that’s only an occasional solution, not a full-time arrangement. Most theatres don’t actively encourage bringing babies into the rehearsal room, but it can be done (I’ve done it myself). Theatre artists tend to have long lists of babysitters, who are often younger actors, and many trade off looking after each other’s children.

For most of the survey, responses from men and women were similar. When asked about challenges, however, more men reported their biggest challenge as work/life balance and time spent away from their families. For women, this came third to schedule/pay and childcare. There could be several reasons for this disparity. It may be that women fall into the role of coordinating childcare, or their theatre career takes a backseat to a partner’s career and therefore must be juggled with childcare. It could also be that fathers working in theatre face fewer challenges related to low pay and schedules, or that they have partners who are the primary caregivers.

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When asked what resources had been the most useful for them, most people said some sort of network. This may be their family and friends, or finding other theatre parents to share experiences with. A much smaller number of people said that their employer or union had been a valuable resource to them. In fact, more people said that they had no resources than that they had had help from an employer. One respondent said they just wanted empathy and understanding from their employer. Empathy is something we are supposed to be good at in the theatre. If we can’t even provide empathy to new parents, how can we hope to hold on to the wealth of knowledge and experience that they have to contribute?

When asked what the biggest resource is that would help them continue theatre work, 75% said childcare would be the most helpful. There are a lot of forms that can take. I’ve heard parents imagining childcare in many forms. Some have suggested a bump in pay to cover childcare or writing it into a grant proposal. Larger institutions that are headquartered in a centralised area could pool together to provide a daycare facility that could be available to their employees and guest artists during short-term contracts or at unsociable hours. Something as simple as a public database of trusted babysitters that can be shared among artists, which is already in the works, is immensely useful.


Inclusion is a major topic of discussion in the theatre right now, – and rightfully so. I propose that parents should be included in inclusion policies that theatres already have in place or are crafting. It is common knowledge that women are underrepresented in the top jobs at theatres nationwide. Motherhood is among the reasons for this. Taking time away from the theatre when caring for young children, having to turn down work that may advance a career but doesn’t pay for childcare, and a lack of support from the industry all contribute to keeping women from advancing to the top of their field.

Men and women reported experiencing fairly equal effects on income and career and had similar childcare concerns, but men did not report perceived discrimination because of their family status. Nearly half of women, however, say that they feel like they didn’t get a job because they are parents. This is one area where women have it much harder than men. It is a statistic that cannot be ignored any longer.

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In the coming months I plan to speak with theatre artists and organizations about finding ways to make the theatre industry a more inclusive environment for parents. If you would like to be interviewed, or have resources to share, please get in touch!

View the full infographic here! Infographics designed using Venngage.