Parent and Performer: How Local Theater Companies Bridge the Roles

Twin Cities theater companies are making room in their rehearsal spaces for actors busy raising their kids off (and on) the stage

Emily Gunyou Halaas had a predicament. The good news was that she was called into an audition at the Jungle Theater. The bad news? She had no time to find someone to watch her 6-week-old baby.

The character Gunyou Halaas was auditioning for was an off-stage voice, so she thought maybe she could simply hold the baby for her audition. Auditions are notoriously tricky for parents because actors often don’t know how long they will be asked to stay.

She emailed the stage manager to see if she could audition with her daughter in tow. The response? An enthusiastic “Yes.”

Still, Gunyou Halaas wasn’t sure she could perform her best while holding a child. When she showed up sans baby, director Lauren Keating and associate producer Sheena Janson Kelley were bummed. “They were disappointed because they wanted to meet the baby, and because it would be this great moment of living a truth about artists who are parents,” Gunyou Halaas says. “For me to say to a group of women, ‘I am a woman. I am a mother. I am an actor—it’s not possible for me to separate those things,’ and for them to say enthusiastically, ‘Yes, we want you in the room,’ was astonishing.”

With long rehearsals, unpredictable hours, and pay that often isn’t lucrative, the arts—especially the performing arts—pose a challenge for parents working in the field.

Minnesota theaters, dance companies, and arts organizations are coming up with solutions: by offering child care during rehearsals, providing babysitting stipends, letting parents bring their kids to the theater, and keeping communication open with moms and dads so they know they have support.

 

Child Care at the Theater

One group leading the charge is Collide Theatrical, a performing arts company that pairs jazz singers with dancers in charming stage productions. (From November 9-18, they put on a modern re-telling of The Great Gatsby at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.) When artistic director Regina Peluso had her first child in 2016, she was shocked by the cost of child care, and noticed a handful of moms auditioning for the company, who all had children under age 5.

For their annual gala, Peluso floated the idea of providing child care during rehearsals, to see if they could raise money for a program. “Our donors and our audience base really responded to it,” she says. The company secured grant funding for child care during dance classes, as well.

“I am so busy running the company, but when I get done with class, I get to hang out with [the kids] before we go do our next thing,” Peluso says. “They know the rule is that at the last five minutes they can watch the rehearsal. We just turn the music on and dance.”

Chelsea Rose, a dancer with the company, has found it useful, especially as a single parent. When she first had her son, she didn’t know if she’d be able to keep performing. “I can still be involved in my craft and continue to work, and not give up on what I love,” she says.

Pillsbury House and Theatre, in Minneapolis, also has a child care option on site for artists. Mike Hoyt, the organization’s creative community liaison, used the Pillsbury Early Education Center, which has a sliding-scale fee, when his kids, now 7 and 9, were little. Now that Hoyt’s two kids are older, they’re both enrolled in the center’s after-school programs. “Normally I have to tear them away from activities,” he says.

Hoyt’s colleague Molly Van Avery touts the organization’s lactation room, where she and other mothers  can use breastfeeding pumps in peace. “We feel so lucky to be supported,” she says. “In fact, they are cheering us on.”

 

Stipends for Babysitters

Onsite child care isn’t practical for every company. For Minneapolis’ Sandbox Theatre, it made more sense to give parents a stipend to hire a babysitter. “The reason it was implemented as a stipend rather than day care is down to our rehearsal schedules,” says ensemble and board member Matthew Glover. “We rehearse evenings and weekends, and in most situations, younger children are in bed a couple of hours before we’re done on a given night.”

Megan Lagas, an ensemble member with Sandbox, has used the stipend when her partner couldn’t take over child-care duties during a show.

“When I’m in a show, I’m not doing as much, and he’s picking up all the slack,” she says. That imbalance can create tension. “It’s nice to have that option to hire a babysitter, rather than relying on friends or family always helping you.”

 

An Open-Door Policy

Supporting parents can also mean allowing kids in a rehearsal room or a production meeting. That’s the route Lisa Channer has taken as artistic director of Theatre Novi Most in Minneapolis.

Channer has cast her own children in shows and has even made her son an assistant director. “That only works if you have a cast and team that is comfortable with that,” she says, “and is going to be okay with the fact that there is a child in the room that is mine and I have to tend to sometimes.”

At Minneapolis’ In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, kids of all ages are often on site, whether at a rehearsal or in meetings. Leading up to the theater’s annual MayDay Parade, artist Malia Burkhart coordinated the build of a giant float while having her newborn with her. “There was a lot of community there that loved to hang out with him,” she says. “It’s a community filled with people that I’ve known a long time and I trust.”

Alison Heimstead, In the Heart of the Beast’s director of performance programs, sometimes holds rehearsals and meetings in her home, in part because it’s better for her 10-year-old son who has autism. “I always feel like my contribution isn’t diminished at all, and my capacity is not thought less of because I have children, which is such a miracle,” she says.

Even when it’s not possible to have child care on site, or even to allow kids in the rehearsal room, the important thing is to make parents feel supported, according to Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of the Jungle Theatre. “We want to make a culture where people feel safe to talk about their needs,” she says. “No one knows what that is better than the actual parent.”


A Note on Parenting in the Arts

By Sarah Rasmussen, Artistic Director of Jungle Theater

Parenthood is tough in the arts, and motherhood has specific challenges. 

As women, we already face biases and are under-represented (around 12 percent of artistic directors at theaters the Jungle’s size or larger are women—the larger the institution, the less likely it’s run by a woman, and even less likely that woman has children).

Personally, my work got better after I had kids, and big new opportunities came my way. While it was challenging, it also helped to focus me. I’d always been a perfectionist, and I no longer had as much time to obsess over things. My work deepened through the experience of making humans, birthing them and caring for them. My art got better.

As a director, when an actor is trying to do a challenging scene, I give them a challenging activity. Somehow, focusing on the physical activity allows the acting to become more intuitive, more honest. I think the same happened to me.

I am trying to be an advocate for what I love about working with parent artists: They are able to manage a lot and get things done on time, they often have less ego wrapped up in the work, and they understand some deep life things. Local actor Sally Wingert always says that a room is better for having a child in it—that it makes the work better. (Sally is a hero of mine; I directed her at the Guthrie with a three-month infant, and she fiercely protected that space for me. We need more Sallys—women who empower other women and are allies in supporting them.)

More and more, I’m interested in staging plays that have parents and realistic portrayals of parenthood. Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite writers for this reason, and in my collaborations with Christina Baldwin on Ruhl’s work, it can be transformative to see a woman who has lived childbirth and parenting play those roles.

In her introduction to 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Ruhl talks about parenting and the life of an artist—and the constant intrusions: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

I try to be mindful of this in my leadership—that life is not an intrusion. I’m very aware that there is a lot of emotion and sensitivity around the choice to have children or not. I want to make a theater that not only helps parents but helps people and is compassionate of their needs as humans with whatever life choices they are balancing.

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