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.)

10 things I have done while breastfeeding

Feeding Noah (at 11 months old) May 2013, Photograph Jane Hobson

Just read an appalling article about a woman told to cover up while breast-feeding in Claridges. It’s enough to make me boycott Claridges, though I have only been there once in my life so I don’t think it’d have much of an impact. On the other hand I could stage a sit-in and breast-feed ostentatiously, perhaps a bunch of us could do it en masse – who’s with me?

Anyway, it was a good provocation to blog again because I’ve been mulling over the problems women face while breast-feeding in public for a while so I thought I’d share 10 things I’ve done while breast-feeding. This isn’t meant as trumpet-blowing or as a yardstick by which other mothers should compare themselves, but rather (I hope) a small shout of solidarity to other women who come up against obstacles both physical and psychological to feeding in public. My main advice is brazen it out – I’ve only ever been asked to cover up once (shockingly by a major theatre who were employing me to direct a project for them but that storm-in-a-D-cup is a whole other story and can wait for another blog). So…

Feeding Finn (at 3 hours old) August 2014


1. Asked a question at a pre-show Q&A of the incoming Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris. In the almost full 1160 seat Olivier Theatre. He was cool, didn’t make a fuss (though some of the audience around me looked like they might), just answered my question. (Something else to add to my long list of why I heart Rufus Norris).

2. Hosted a post-show discussion for my own show in front of an audience of 100 16-18 year olds. The cast were shocked (you know who you are!) the young people not so much.

3. Walked down the street. Never managed this with Finn but when he was tiny we used to put Noah in the sling sideways (lying down) so I could breast-feed and walk at the same time. Useful sometimes. Hilarious when people would peer in to say ‘Oh, how sweet a tiny baby’ and then see more than they bargained for. Also the sling-feeding leaves you hands free for writing emails/novels/operas etc.

4. Recorded interviews with Tuareg tribeswomen in the Sahara about the oral storytelling traditions of Morocco. As you do.

5. Done a poo. Gross, but true. You might be attending to your own call of nature but in those early days as a new mum you sometimes feel like you have to respond immediately to that fierce call of hunger. Funny how you don’t care at all with the second baby.

6. Rehearsed a play. Or indeed nine. (Nine?!!) 3 years, 2 babies, 9 plays. How did that happen? Big tip for breast-feeding in rehearsals – master the trick of spraying milk across the room, preferably in several directions at once. Hilarious. My serious tip – breastfeed on your right breast during tea-breaks/lunch then you can breast-feed on your left during rehearsals and still write notes with your right hand (reverse if left-handed).

7. Attended conferences – circus conferences (easy), academic/Wellcome Trust conferences (still easy but some funny looks). See above for note-taking.

8. Skype meetings – very easy to keep your boobs/baby out of shot. You just have to explain the noises sometimes.

9. Press interviews – only newspapers and radio, not yet TV. Though I’ve never yet done TV interviews of any kind so watch this space… Radio interviews can be dicey – again like Skype sometimes you have to explain the strange noises. Newspaper interviews are a doddle provided your brain doesn’t turn to mush when you breast-feed (that’s a myth anyway, it’s sleep deprivation that turns your brain to mush).

10. Fund-raising. Our success at fund-raising (£250,000 in 3 years – not bad, not bad at all) has in no small part been catalysed by the addition of two tiny mouths to feed. Or was it really just that the kind folks at the Arts Council and the Wellcome Trust love to see a breast-feeding mother making an impassioned plea for arts funding (almost as much as they love to see a new father getting covered in poo whilst supporting that plea).

how to survive

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to survive, as an artist (specifically Director/Producer of a small theatre company), as a mother and as both an artist and mother at the same time. So here are my top five tips. For each.


  1. Make the work for your ‘audience’. If you work in the subsidised sector and on the small scale your main ‘audience’ is your funders (sad but true) so dream up ideas that are in line with their funding priorities. Wellcome want science theatre. ACE want touring work, especially for diverse and/or young audiences. Also make it for your actual audiences – that doesn’t mean selling out – just take a moment to really interrogate whether there is an audience out there for aerial-dance-theatre about arsenic poisoning (there wasn’t!) or how you might frame the work in terms that would appeal to the audiences that are out there.
  2. Make work that makes your heart sing. Do the other stuff as well (that maybe feeds your wallet or your CV more) but if it’s your own work then do the stuff you want to do (whilst also aiming for 1.)
  3. Learn to love marketing. It makes you a better artist to understand how to present (sell) your work (to audiences, to funders, to venues) and sometimes it even shapes the work itself. That’s a good thing – it means you’re making it for your audiences and not for your navel-gazing self.
  4. Ask for help. There will always be people willing to advise – especially producers/marketing/fund-raisers within larger organisations – no one ever writes to them, everyone’s too busy writing to the Artistic Directors who have no time to reply.
  5. When you write budgets (again specifically within the subsidised sector) a) budget for what things will cost first, think big, be ambitious, dream. Also properly work out the number of days you’ll spend managing/administrating/fund-raising for it – really properly and in great detail. Then aim to pay yourself at least £100 a day x however many days that is. Then work out how much money you need to raise (from box office, ACE, other funders, begging, crowd-sourcing). You can always cut things (and of course paying yourself for the management of it all will be the first to go though do keep a note of the days/in-kind work somewhere in the budget) but start from what you feel the project needs rather than how much you think you can raise.


  1. Ask for help. Don’t expect it but don’t apologise for needing/wanting/asking for it. Lots of people love babies and will happily hold one for an hour while you sleep/wash your hair/have a meeting. Or they’ll come round with food and wine and hugs. Whatever it is you need – just ask (especially through Facebook/Twitter where people can choose to ignore or engage on their own terms).
  2. Cleanliness is not a priority. Babies don’t need washing very often (every 3 weeks is fine, apart from bums, and they get washed when you change them so that’s enough) and embrace the greasy-haired/vomit-stained look yourself. Then on the rare occasion you have a shower/wear make-up you’ll get loads of compliments. Also houses don’t really need to be kept very clean and if you’re lucky enough to have family close enough to visit every now and again then they’ll probably pitch in when they see you’re living in a cesspit.
  3. Bad sleepers are all geniuses. Console yourself with this fact (good sleepers can also still be geniuses). And if they won’t nap then walk them in a buggy with a cover over (like a parrot) and they’ll go eventually, plus they’ll be strapped in so they can’t escape.
  4. Streamline your life. Children eat up time and energy which makes them great for forcing you to prioritise. So let go of anything in your life that doesn’t bring you joy (see Number 2.) including relationships. Especially relationships. Equally trust that the relationships that do matter will endure even if you don’t have lots of time to put into them. One of my best friends I only see once a year – he’s still one of my best friends.
  5. Fish fingers can be cooked in the fat bit of a Dualit toaster in 6 minutes (and you can get cheap-ish second hand reconditioned toasters on Ebay for not silly money). It’s also fine to feed them fish fingers for dinner 5 nights in a row.


  1. You can get maternity pay as a self-employed artist. It’s only £100ish a week but adds up to over £5000 which, let’s be honest, is about half of what I earn in a year, and I imagine that’s the case for most young-ish freelance artists. So claim it!
  2. It’s much easier to network with a baby. No one likes networking – we’re all shy really, but (almost) everybody likes babies (the newer the better). A lot of people remember us now as the ones with the baby (ies) – and you suddenly discover huge swathes of the arts community are also parents and they in particular will support you more, knowing you are parents. Because they know how cocking hard it is. So take babies to parties/meetings/conferences (while they’re still small enough) and if you’re writing to someone you know has children too there’s no harm in including a picture of your new-born baby. Why not!
  3. You can take a proper break/gap from making work and the world won’t forget who you are (this is obviously not advice I’ve followed but I want to put it out there – if you choose to jump straight back in, great! If not, also great).
  4. Crowd-source your childcare. On Facebook. See Number 1. of HOW TO SURVIVE MOTHERHOOD. If you’re still young-ish/emerging-ish then childcare will cost more than you will earn. Trust that other people won’t break your baby (they won’t) and just ask for help. Start when they’re little and the babies won’t mind or even notice – it’s particularly useful for short meetings in town and you’ll be surprised by who and how many people want to hold a baby for an hour. It gets harder as they get older but by then you’ve hopefully built up a core group of people who know the child and will take them for longer stretches of time. Plus it makes your children really confident with adults.
  5. It’s totally fine to put them in front of YouTube videos of tractors or Disney for several hours when you have a deadline/funding application to write. So long as it’s not every single day. You can even have them on your lap with one tab open with YouTube and another with your document/email/work. Cunning.

And once you’re out of the survival stage (or even during, if you can summon the resources/energy) be the one to offer help or respond to people’s requests for it. That’s how I’ve survived the last 9 years of being an artist and 2 and 1/2 of motherhood.

the year so far…

So it hasn’t been quite as quiet as predicted. ALICE toured in the spring and received some amazing reviews so that’s touring again from October. We spent several weeks over the summer developing a new hip hop circus and dance-theatre adaptation of the JUNGLE BOOK and we’re also just about to premiere a short circus piece about DNA/twins and epigenetics for a very glamorous party next month – rumour has it both Boris Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch will be there, among others. That is a lot of glamour!

Also been busy having another baby – little Finn who was born 6 weeks ago and has already attended two conferences (one on circus at the Lighthouse in Poole, one on science theatre/public engagement at the Wellcome Trust) and acquitted himself well at both. Admittedly he almost hit someone from the Arts Council with his epic projectile vomiting and he soiled himself so badly over the lunch break I had to throw his babygro away but crucially, bar a few minor squeaks, he slept quietly throughout both – long may that continue! And even the academics and policy wonks at the second conference were very supportive of and receptive to the tiny human being in their midst and I was waited on hand and foot over the networking lunch. I didn’t get much networking done – sat in the corner breast-feeding – but I was brought lots of food by helpful delegates!

a very busy year

Oops, fell off the blogging train in spectacular fashion. In my defence after we got back from Morocco I opened a show in June (MONKEY & CROCODILE), another in September (WELL), another TWO in November (ALICE plus a cheeky little 10 minute one called BREAD as part of Theatre Uncut) and one more in December (DUSA, STAS, FISH & VI)! So it was a busy old year.

Meanwhile Noah has learned to talk – am teaching him ‘To be or not to be’ – he’s currently got most of the first line down and then the last word of the following 5 lines. I’m hoping he’ll have it all down by his second birthday at the end of May. I mean what’s the point of kids if you can’t plaster your theatre company’s logo all over them and teach them Shakespeare speeches to show off at parties.

This year looks set to be a little quieter with ALICE going out on tour in the spring and then just a few things in development for next year. But who knows, maybe by next week several more shows will have sprouted…

a story-telling odyssey

We’ve just returned from Morocco. What bliss. But also hard work with an 11 month old baby. We visited 8 cities over 15 days (including a tiny village in the desert and a Donkey Sanctuary in the foothills of the Atlas mountains) all in the search for Moroccan stories and story-tellers which are sadly an elusive (and dying) breed. We also met with the National Theatre in Rabat who are really interested in the project and potentially interested in co-producing (watch this space). It was a huge success both artistically and strategically and Noah had the time of his life – especially getting lost in the souks of Marrakech and Fez where he would have happily stayed for days.

Full of stories and tagine, and a little bit browner than when we left (in Noah’s case a lot browner) now all we have to do is create some sort of show from the experience. And quickly! On June 8th we’re showing a 10 minute scratch performance at the Battersea Arts Centre for their Scratch Festival so we’d better have something to show by then!

And MONKEY & CROCODILE opens next month. Plus we’re reviving our 2007 smash hit HIDDEN LIGHT for one night only at an academic symposium in York. And I’ve also got to fit in some days with the magicians developing their latest show – which is a full on narrative this time (Morgan & West’s A Grand Adventure). June is going to be busy…

post-show discussions

After a relatively quiet March things starting getting busy again in April. We held a Research & Development period for WELL – our aerial dance theatre piece exploring arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh culminating in a 45 minute showing to industry and critical friends. Mostly Noah was out of the rehearsal room until the post-show discussion when his babysitter had to run for a train. So yet again I spent another post-show discussion breastfeeding. It’s becoming a bit of a trend.

And then we held auditions for the third performer for Monkey & Crocodile – a trumpet playing Crocodile’s Mother. A bit niche. I have so many actors writing to me asking to be seen for Metta shows and I always feel a bit sorry for the straight actor types because unless you’re an opera singing, puppeteering stilt walker you’re unlikely to get a look in.

And now to pack for Morocco – we’re off for two weeks to research and develop a new show HALQA – with Lahcen Razzougui, star of our ARAB NIGHTS last year, which will explore the oral storytelling traditions of Morocco. I can’t wait, and neither can Noah I’m sure – it’s his first trip abroad and his first flight. Finger’s crossed he doesn’t scream the whole way there.

premièring an opera with a baby

January brought snow and a new opera about Locked In Syndrome. Flicker opened at Sadlers Wells Lilian Baylis Studio after a super short 3 day rehearsal (we had planned a semi-staged concert performance but as ever we made something much more finished). It was a huge success with audience and funders so finger’s crossed for the future – which we hope will be a UK tour in 2015. It was a frantic week though,  but much less of a drain than a full rehearsal process – although Noah at 8 months has just started feeling the pangs of separation anxiety so packing him off to several different baby-sitters throughout the week became increasingly stressful. Oh for the days when I could hand him over to all and sundry.

This week to compensate I’ve reverted to bringing him along to all my meetings and interviews – just like the old days when he was a tiny little thging. It’s worked surprisingly well so far – I breastfed through a job interview for a Young People’s Project at the Young Vic and much to my surprise got the job! And then I took him along to a meeting about directing a production of Medea for Actors of Dionysus. Somewhat inappropriate material to discuss in front of your son but he totally charmed Tamsin – the Artistic Director of AOD – who has her own 15 month old.

Then finally we caught up with the Wellcome Trust who have just awarded us another grant to develop a new circus/dance theatre piece about arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh – and again Noah was on good form although he did wander off at one point (he’s on the verge of walking unaided and can travel quite far with an ungainly sort of lame legged bum shuffle) but at least we’ve had no repeats of the infamous Arts Council meeting poo-mageddon incident!

touring with a baby

Turns out touring with a small baby is quite fun – though I’m sure less fun if you’re not also on tour with your husband. But Noah had a lovely time in Stratford – where he made an unplanned appearance in the post-show workshop and much to the horror of one of the cast I proceeded to breastfeed throughout – which amazingly, given the audience was comprised entirely of 17 and 18 year olds, didn’t raise a titter. If my brain were less sleep deprived I’d try and make a witty pun about titters and tits…please invent one yourselves. Thanks.

Manchester was also fun – Noah was recognised in the Royal Exchange green room before we were – his presence on Metta Theatre social media being such that someone from marketing came over and said – ‘I recognise that baby, is that Noah?’ Who knew babies could also be such useful marketing tools? I suppose putting him in a Metta branded babygro has helped…

Bury St Edmunds was freezing cold so we managed to fit in a very frosty but very beautiful walk around the Abbey ruins (with Noah wrapped up tightly in the sling of course). And then finally Exeter, where we managed to fit in a few site visits for playgrounds for the Monkey & Crocodile tour which will tour there in the summer. Then true to form, on the last night of Arab Nights Noah was out partying with us til the small hours, in the Bike Shed Theatre bar and of course flirting with all the women (especially the random hen party. Bit weird.)

And then Christmas and New Year.  A genuine rest from work. Mostly. Though of course with a baby one can’t just slob out in front of the telly any more. Alas.  But we did manage a few lie-ins.

And now – onwards with Flicker – which opens (and closes) on the 24th. Already half full which bodes well. And reaming and scheming of more shows  so watch this space.

late nights and arab nights

Turns out mounting a production at the Soho and juggling a six month old baby is quite hard work. Who knew? But the show is up (and selling out) and Noah is still alive (and currently asleep) – win win!

The somewhat ludicrous highlights of the last month then – crowd-sourcing our childcare through Facebook for the first week of Arab Nights rehearsals at ETT – every three hours another willing volunteer (although I think we may have exhausted our supply of free childcare now). Breastfeeding through an interview for the Metro and a recorded interview for Theatre Voice – if you listen carefully towards the end you can hear Noah snoring softly. A late night meeting with our Sound Designer which I spent pumping the milk from my breasts, much to his amusement. And then tech and production week where Noah got handed round more people than he’d probably ever met in his short life – hilariously the venue, ever mindful of health and safety – also made us fill out a risk assessment especially for him!

Every lunch break being filled with production meetings, marketing meetings and press interviews while simultaneously breastfeeding was quite a strain. As was the averaging 4 hours of sleep, and the great decision to build the set – consisting of 1001 shoeboxes – in our flat. But we got there in the end and I have never been more proud of a project and my team before.

Finally press night on Thursday where – decked out in his new Metta branded babygro – Noah flirted outrageously with Libby Purves from The Times – finger’s crossed that equates to a good review, watch this space…