Earlier this week, a small group of Broadway professionals and community members gathered in the basement of the New Amsterdam Theatre to talk about parenting — a persistent backstage topic often tied to the dearth of women in key positions of power on Broadway.
The panel, which focused primarily on backstage practices, childcare and health insurance, marked the first in a Women of Broadway spotlight series borne out of Disney Theatrical’s Women’s Day on Broadway, an annual event created to bring together the Broadway community to discuss gender parity in the field. Now in its second year of existence, the 2019 event, held in March, featured speakers such as Heidi Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian (“What the Constitution Means to Me”), Anaïs Mitchell (“Hadestown”), Paula Wagner, Graciela Daniele and more.
“Just hearing somebody else’s story, because you can put it through your own prism of frame of reference, is hugely encouraging, interesting, empowering, motivating,” said Anne Quart, senior vice president of production and co-producer for Disney Theatrical Group, in an interview with ALL ARTS before the panel. “That’s really where it came from. It was just about the sense of community and women sharing stories. And I hoped that from that would come a conversation about, how do we support each other better; how do we raise up another generation of women? How do we advocate for ourselves?”
Though Women’s Day succeeded in its mission of bringing the community together, participants expressed a desire to break into smaller groups for a focused discussion on individual topics.
But where to start?
Parenting, Quart explained, quickly rose to the top of the list of potential subjects.
“I don’t think this childcare issue is just a female issue. It’s very much an issue for anyone trying to raise humans. It’s hard,” Quart said. “It came up over and over and over again.”
As a topic, parenthood is intertwined with a host of personal and work issues, including scheduling, pay and union insurance, all of which affect the potential for a working parent to succeed and thrive within the industry — particularly for women who must take time off for pregnancy and new mothers who must return to work in conditions not conducive to early-life care.
The panel event, an experiment meant to test out the smaller-scale format for the spotlight series, gave space to explore how these elements lace together and what might be done to help loosen knots in the system.
Actress Rachel Spencer Hewitt, who founded Parent Artist Advocacy League to provide resources to organizations looking to improve family-friendly practices, moderated the panel, which included Emily Simoness, executive director at Space at Ryder Farm; actor Kate O’Phalen, a member of Actors Equity Association Parents’ Council; special effects designer Jeremy Chernick; and stage manager Jimmie Lee Smith.
During the conversation, the panelists shared their struggles raising children within the industry and the tangible actions they have taken to help remove the often invisible burden of parenting from the individual — from providing artistic residencies at Ryder Farm for both parents and children to considering childcare limitations while scheduling rehearsals. Others, like O’Phalen (who spends hundreds of dollars a week on childcare when she has multiple auditions to attend), offered theoretical solutions, such as adjusting the audition process to make it the norm for parents to bring their children with them.
The talk also addressed concerns over how Broadway’s general lack of women in power positions — 19 percent of new plays and musicals that opened in the 2017-2018 season were directed by women (with only 16 percent going to female writers), according to a study by ProductionPro — exacerbates the problem.
“So many women start to slide off in their 30s and 40s, and we don’t really talk about how the industry doesn’t support women, so they leave,” said an audience member, who stated that she works as a producer and director. “So, the people who end up remaining in power as they move up in their career are men. And so then the people who are setting the policy are not the mothers or parents. And so that is part of the cycle that I think needs to be addressed.”
The panel might not have resulted in a cosmic shift in the industry toward addressing the concerns brought up by the participants, but it served as a successful proof of concept for the Women of Broadway spotlight series.
“So, are we going to solve parenting in the arts today?” said Quart, referencing the panel. “We are not. But we are going to put a bunch of people in a room and at the very least, what they’re going to hear is: You’re not alone.”
The Women of Broadway spotlight series is set to continue on May 20, with a panel titled “Women in Theatre Journalism,” presented in partnership with the Shubert Organization.
Top Image: Women's Day 2019. Photo: Jenny Anderson.