A childcare revolution

Thanks to Lyn Gardner for another great provocation around the thorny issues of families and the arts, and calling for a childcare revolution. I am a Theatre Director and my husband is a Theatre Designer and I’ve written before about our (perhaps unique) solution of crowd-sourcing our childcare on Facebook but things have changed significantly since having our second child so here are some tips and anecdotes on how we manage our juggle! Hopefully this will be useful for other free-lancers beyond the arts sector too…

When we had our first son we started posting on facebook to see if fellow artsy freelance folk could babysit him here and there for an hour at a time, for free, while we had meetings, short rehearsals etc. This ended up saving us literally thousands of pounds in paid childcare. So when you’ve just got one child embrace the joy of crowd-sourcing your child-care on Facebook – so many childless friends are happy and eager to help for free. Yes it requires a certain level of trust but start small with your closest friends and/or family and expand from there. The other joy of this if you struggle with asking for things/asking for help is that people will only respond if they want to so you needn’t feel any guilt about being a burden to anyone. This approach saw us through the first two years of our son’s life at a point where as two still young-ish, emerging-ish freelancers – a director and designer – we point blank couldn’t afford paid childcare, and more to the point most of the models didn’t work for us because they require regularity. This model is particularly useful for one off meetings, or a short burst of rehearsal. And start asking while your baby is still tiny tiny – that’s when it’s easiest (provided it’s just an hour or so) as they just sleep, and it’s also when people are most interested in your children. And then you build up your loyal network of childcare from there and then they stay committed even when your children start walking and talking and generally being more of a handful.

When you’ve got more than one child there are rafts of other freelance artists who part-time nanny on an ad hoc basis and understand our funny working hours. We now have a small network of actors/directors we use at quite short notice either for a few hours to get some admin work/meetings done or then for longer blocks when I’m in rehearsals. We pay £10 an hour. Again you can use Facebook to find such people, but also websites like Sitters.co.uk offers the same service, I just prefer to be giving my hard-earned cash away to fellow artists especially as the ad-hoc short-term nature of it suits them as well as it suits us, as they have their other projects to fit in too. I think if you aim to have between 5 and 10 people you can call on for this then if someone suddenly gets a last minute job/audition or you get a last minute meeting you should always be able to get someone to cover. For us this method was the only way we could manage – nurseries aren’t great value anyway once you have more than one child but crucially they’re only day-time and they demand regularity. And most child-minders want regularity too, plus you have to take your children to them which can eat into your work time.

On a small level as either a maker in control of your own work, or as a responsible employer of others who have children you can try to find rehearsal space close to your (or the relevant artist’s) home. We’ve found a rehearsal space 5 minutes walk from our flat – this saves me 2 hours a day in commuting (that’s £20 a day saved in childcare costs) and also allowed me to go home for lunch to breastfeed my second baby when I did a week of re-rehearsal for one of our tours when he was only 7 weeks old. Yes, I’ve definitely got that life-work balance cracked, that’s for sure.

In terms of getting out in the evenings to see work try and find other theatre parents close enough to you to do babysitting swaps. Or have a partner who isn’t in the arts at all and they can do all the bedtimes… though in that instance they might also have a proper/well-paid job so being creative with childcare might be less of a necessity.

Also while they’re little take them with you. I have taken both the boys to countless meetings, conferences, even rehearsals when they were small enough not to require any attention other than the occasional feed. Not only do you save yourself childcare but more importantly you demonstrate to the rest of the arts sector that it’s an ok thing, and that some artist-parents don’t just disappear when they have children. I think anyone who knows will say we are strongly flying the flag for visible parent-artists everywhere.

And finally if you run your own company/are responsible for fundraising for your work then build childcare costs into your ACE applications as an access need – we haven’t yet done this but I know several companies who have and I’m going to try and get the official line on this from the Arts Council ASAP so I’ll keep you posted.

Lyn is right that we self-exploit in the arts, and especially theatre sector so that is something we can all change in small or large ways – as a Director running my own theatre company (not an NPO so I’m still effectively a free-lancer) I had been paying myself around the ITC minimum mark of £2500 to direct a show – I now budget £5000 to pay myself to direct a show.

That’s quite a leap but the great thing about now having to pay for our childcare is it forces you to work out the cost of everything. This year so far I have spent over £2000 on childcare and I have as yet earned nothing because I don’t go into rehearsals for a show until April. Essentially this is just a demonstration of the hours – in this case 200 hours that we put into preparation for shows (not to mention the work I do while the children are asleep, or over the dinner table – now there’s an advantage of being married to your co-artistic director and designer). The newly formed Stage Directors UK have been doing brilliant work in this area with their pay survey – making the shocking discovery that the average salary for a Theatre Director is £10,759. Yep, that’s pretty much what I have earned for the last four or five years, and I’m regarded by many of peers as pretty successful! They’re also lobbying for Director’s fees to be increased and to try and account for the hours of prep that we spend before we get in the rehearsal room. Next year will be better with my new self-imposed fee-hike, though both this year and next I’ll also be spending about £10,000 in childcare. Minimum.

Of course not everyone is responsible for setting their own fees but you can make it clear when offered a job – at whatever pay scale – the true cost of the time that job will take you. As an anecdote I was recently asked to direct a show at a studio venue for £1500. With 4 weeks rehearsal, a week of tech and even conservatively two weeks of prep, meetings and auditions – those 7 weeks of work would have cost me £3500 in childcare.

Personally I also need to get better at paying myself for all the work I do in running the company and that’s always a struggle because as we’re not an NPO, or core-funded, everything we fund-raise is tied to specific projects and as I’ve said before if you truly reflect the administrative and producing costs of putting on shows into a project budget that proportion makes it unfundable (most funders will accept a proportion of around 15%). But we’re getting better at it – it becomes a lot easier to prioritise paying yourself properly when you have two small mouths to feed. And it’s that same imperative that has seen my fundraising abilities grow exponentially since having children (over £300,000 raised in grant funding since 2012).

One final thought on childcare and tax – from autumn 2015 the system of childcare vouchers is changing so that (I think, I hope, I’ve got this right) – we’ll be able (as self-employed freelancers) to buy childcare vouchers which will mean we’re at least not paying tax on what we then pay out in childcare costs. The downside is you have to use Ofsted-ed people but I’m hopeful I can convince at least some of our platoon of artist-nannies that this will be worthwhile for them.

I set out to write a little blog about this but looking at the essay I’ve written I could easily write a whole book on the subject, in the evenings when my children are asleep presumably. There is of course a whole chapter in that on the joy that is a life-work balance. I think about theatre 24 hours a day, when I’m reading my children stories (especially the ones I know by heart when my mind is often simultaneously grappling with a dramaturgical problem), when I’m pushing them on the swings, when I’m changing a nappy, always when I’m breastfeeding. Equally I only direct two or three shows a year since having children so I’m with them a lot of the time (even with all the prep and meetings). I think I’m a pretty good mother and if I’m honest (and not falsely modest) I think I’m an even better artist. I put my heart and soul into both (and little else… sorry friends) and both feed into each-other – a lot of my work now explores motherhood or is made for family audiences. And they get a wildly creative and artistic upbringing. It’s unbelievably hard work and probably only sustainable in the short term (hey it’s only a few years til they’re in school and til I’m running a building with a proper salary for a regular nanny?) But the arts, and our theatre company Metta Theatre (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year) was our baby way before our actual children came along so we’ve always made the choice to keep both those balls in the air. And we manage it, almost all of the time.

(And for those of you wondering how it is that I will actually survive with an income of about 10k and now childcare costs of about 10k thankfully theatre designers are paid much better than directors, or at least more appropriately for their time, so we’ll survive off Will’s thankfully ever increasing earnings and, as has so often been the case in both of our careers, the lavish fees of the opera sector.)