For Parent Artists in Theater, Rachel Spencer Hewitt Is a PAAL

PAAL crosses the country. Photo: Facebook

I became a parent at the same time I started working in live theater. It was an interesting experience as very few of the rest of my colleagues had young children: they either were child-free or their kids were older. We were lucky to have two sets of (grand) parents and lots of friends who liked kids to help with childcare when I worked a show and my retail-manager husband worked the closing shift at his store. While we’ve never worked traditional banker’s hours, adding a child to the mix logarithmically complicated our schedules.

Not that the parents in our theater weren’t incredibly kind and helpful or that my volunteers and season ticket-holders didn’t dote on my child as they watched her learn to crawl, then walk, then dance across the stage. It was always special when another parent brought their kid with them to production meetings or before rehearsal. So many of those other parents, however, were fathers. Most of the mothers I knew, once they had young kids, opted out of nighttime-only, extended rehearsals and performance schedules — mainly volunteer theater. I’d have given anything for the Parent-Artist Advocacy League (PAAL), a new organization spearheaded by actor Rachel Spencer Hewitt, back then.

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Hewitt wrote an essay, “Where are the disappeared women of theater?,” for Howlround on work in the UK by organizations of mothers in the theater there. She realized, as a mom herself, that the US needed the same kind of network and advocacy group. Seven months later, PAAL is making quiet strides into the regional theater scene.

Working for a culture where children are welcomed.

Most recently, Hewitt met with fellow PAAL organizers in three Northeastern cities (after a quick stop into the family-friendly Theater Communications Guild conference in Portland, OR) — Philadelphia; Montclair, NJ; and NYC — convening forums with actors, managers and crew interested in “Breaking the Silence” about being a parent in theater. Not everyone was currently working, not everyone was a mother, but all had a story to share and a desire to make theater as an industry more accessible to parents.

“We want to appeal to [theater leadership’s] humanity,” Hewitt said by phone, when I caught up with her after her whirlwind week of travel. “We understand that collaboration goes both ways, so we’re looking for ideas that work.” Conversations at the forums ranged from the effect of becoming a new parent early in one’s career, both onstage and off, to how parents are sometimes perceived as a liability to productions — and how Actors’ Equity and other theatrical unions need to be part of finding workable solutions for every size theater budget.

Hewitt traveled with her two kids in tow and set up childcare at all the forums; I remarked “bless your heart” when she confirmed this. She replied, “I understand that there are times and places when it isn’t appropriate to have kids in the theater…but, when it is, we are working for a culture where children are welcomed.”

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PAAL has a three-pronged approach to their advocacy: organize, network, create. The forums are part of the networking. On the PAAL website, there are a slew of ways to organize child-friendly spaces, from in-theater childcare to forming a network of kid-sitting volunteers. They are putting together a Motherhood Reading Series: mother/actors, mother/directors and mother/designers will come together for a reading of a work, both published and devised. “We want to validate motherhood as a topic, too,” Hewitt said. “How this is a dynamic period between the ingénue and the old woman.”

As my daughter grew, my theater friends started to have kids, too. I can’t count the number of times they would say to me, “I watched you do it, so I knew I could, too.” PAAL aims to replicate that for parents in the theater coast to coast.