No matter the profession, becoming a parent is a significant life moment—one that inevitably requires more time, money, and creative problem solving than expected. The state of Washington is taking a major step this year by providing up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave annually. It’s a significant milestone, but one that butts itself up against a hard reality: this new policy is restricted to full-time employees, a category that many working artists do not fall under.
I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of artists—a stage manager, an actor, a scenic designer, a playwright, and a pair of ballet dancers—about their own experiences as parent-artists, and how they’ve made things work at all phases of their children’s lives. Whether they’re on stage or behind the scenes, raising newborns or tweens, these artists are working to make their own lives a little more parent-artist friendly.
Freelance stage manager Pamela Campi Spee is the chief representative of the newly formed Seattle chapter of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). She’s raising her three-year-old daughter with her husband, an actor. Spee first gravitated toward PAAL after speaking with other parent-artists in her community about the challenges of the industry—juggling changing rehearsal schedules and a lack of affordable childcare chief among them.
“It seemed like such a great idea to have more people out there who are focused on doing this work, to advocate for parent-artists and help them get what they need from a theatre or a contract,” Spee said. PAAL is based in New York, but their reach is national. “I really wanted to make sure that the voices of the Seattle parent-artists were heard—and that the needs that we have in Seattle are being worked on.”
Spee has only been the chief representative of Seattle since October 2019, but she has big plans for the future of Seattle theatre, starting with childcare at auditions. PAAL has successfully partnered with theatres and childcare providers in other cities in order to make this dream a reality. And as Seattle’s spring audition season approaches, it’s the number one thing on Spee’s mind.
“The other big thing I’m working on is just really understanding the needs of parents as far as the rehearsal and performance process is concerned,” Spee said. “I know there are some theatres that have become more open about having their artists bring their children to work with them as needed. And it makes those conversations just a little bit easier to have. ‘Hey, my childcare fell through so I’m going to bring them to rehearsal.’ Or, ‘I have to leave rehearsal for half an hour to go pick my child up from school because their ride fell through.’ You know, just basic needs like that.”
It’s a role she takes very personally, reflecting back on her own place in the parent-artist community. Spee knows that if she’s not happy and fulfilled on a human level, through her work as a stage manager, she won’t be able to be the best parent she can be. She adds that many artists she’s worked with opt to remain in the industry after becoming parents, despite the juggling necessary.
“It can only enrich the art that we’re seeing because you’re getting that wider scope of human experience,” Spee said. “You know, as your children are growing up, you’re seeing what’s going on in the world through that lens as well. There are also all the wonderful playwrights who are writing about the parent experience. And for those stories to be told truthfully, to have parents involved in that, is so important. Even as an audience member, these actors that you’ve watched grow through these roles get to continue to grow instead of disappearing or taking a break from acting. It’s going to be so wonderful for audiences to see those people being built up and fostered in that way.”
When Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Lindsi Dec found out she was going to have her second baby, the timing worked out perfectly with a nine-month contract that her husband, retired PNB dancer Karel Cruz, had with the University of Oklahoma. Her boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, was supportive of Dec taking that time away from the company, encouraging her to spend time with her young family and return to Seattle the following season, giving her time to get back into ballet shape. When we spoke, Dec and Cruz were parents of one child, a four-year-old son. But I reminded them that by the time this article published, they’d have a newborn as well.
“Oh Lord,” Dec exclaimed, clearly excited about the new addition and caught off guard by the timing. We were five weeks from her due date.
Dec and Cruz had been talking about becoming parents for some time, starting around 2014, the season they were both promoted to principal dancer. But Dec felt like she still needed to dance and wasn’t ready to take a break, however brief.
“And then we had the opportunity to do Don Quixote by Alexei Ratmansky,” Dec said. “And Karel and I were partnered together. It’s kind of a full story for us because when we were back in the corps [de ballet] when we were 19 or 20, we would go to the back of the studios and we would practice doing pas de deux so that we could get better. And Don Q was the first pas de deux that we started, you know, us both being Hispanic, of course. And then a billion years later to have the opportunity to dance together on stage at McCaw Hall and do Don Q as the principal couple—I just remember thinking ‘Oh gosh, nothing will ever get better than this. I am ready to start a family.’”
Two months later, Dec was pregnant. She says that there’s never any pressure to come back to work right away and that some dancers take three months of parental leave while others take longer. Dec returned to PNB five months after having her first child.
“It was really hard for me to come back,” Dec said. “Just physically it was hard—and, of course, emotionally. But my muscles and tendons and joints and ligaments were very, very weak after I had my son. And they were just—it was always very supportive, which I really appreciate.”
But even with that support, it did take some creative problem solving for them to both return to PNB full-time. Cruz’s mother, who lives in Cuba, came to live with the couple for two years to help raise their son while Dec and Cruz were at work. But it’s all worth it for them.
“This is the best present life can give you,” Cruz said. “Having a child is the best thing in the world. When you come home from work and they run into your arms, and you see their smile. They’re basically the reason for us to be here.”
And Dec agrees. One of her favorite things to do is to bring their son to the ballet.
“He just falls in love with it,” Dec said. “And for us to be able to share that with him—something that we love so much. And now we see him so musical. To be able to share all that magic when you’re so little, to provide kind of a behind the scenes view, it’s really special.”
When Dedra Woods decided to become a parent, she wasn’t doing very much acting yet. Woods raises her nine-year-old son with her husband.
“I’ve always wanted to be a parent,” Woods said. “And it felt like the right time, so we just dove into it. And it’s interesting because I do have friends now who are pursuing their careers as artists and saying ‘Oh I don’t know. We’re thinking about having children. We’re just trying to figure it out.’ Because the schedule is so grueling, and it’s not very family friendly. It’s definitely not a decision to be taken lightly, but I feel like if it’s something you want to do, you just gotta make it work. Because there’s never going to be a perfect scenario or perfect situation. You also have to teach your children to be adaptable.”
For Woods, making it work means having a support system around her who can step up and be there. We spoke over her son’s winter break, right in the middle of the rehearsal process of The Revolutionists at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery. Her son was on his way to a play date at a close friend’s house. Woods also has family members who occasionally come into town, particularly when she’s in technical rehearsals.
“I’ve never come into contact with a theatre that wasn’t supportive of my time and my commitment to my family,” Woods said. “I feel like Seattle Children’s Theatre was a great example of this—and probably the theatre I’ve worked with that’s been the most supportive when I bring my son with me to the theatre when I have a show and he’s out of school. I had to leave town for an emergency and I knew the theatre was very supportive right from the get go. I had an understudy and I was able to attend to my family’s needs without worrying if I was going to lose my job, or if there was some penalty that was going to happen because I have to take care of my family.”
“He saw me and the look on his face was just—he said, ‘Mommy, you’re so good!’” Woods said. “And he’ll say things to me like ‘Mom, I’m so glad you’re an actor’ and tell me that he loves what I do. But then on the flip side, he doesn’t like my schedule. He said ‘Mom, you’re only off one day’ or ‘How come you can never do things with me and Daddy? You’re always away.’ And that hurts. That’s probably one of the most difficult challenges, feeling like ‘Am I missing out on everything?’ But I’m also helping to build and raise a human who will be resilient and see his mom as someone who is passionate about her work, which I think is very important.”
Scenic designer Matthew Smucker doesn’t remember there being much of a debate when he and his late wife Andrea Allen decided to have children. They wanted to establish their careers before having children, making a deliberate choice to wait until Smucker had finished graduate school at the University of Washington.
“There were enough challenges that we ultimately relied on science,” Smucker said. “It wasn’t just happenstance. And we were both theatre artists—as is my current partner—so there was always the sense of ‘How do we combine these things together in an effective way?’ There were certainly some of our friends who had kids, but many of our peers in the theatre community chose to forego that aspect, which I still have complete respect for. But we knew that this was a deliberate choice and that we would have to make it work.”
Smucker’s twins are now 12 years old and he values the flexibility he has as a designer. Most of the time, he doesn’t have to be in rehearsals. And he’s not performing in the show six nights a week.
“As a parent, even with older kids, it still feels like some of the design work happens in the margins,” Smucker said. “You know, like between nine and midnight at night as opposed to fully during the day, particularly because I’m a full-time associate professor at Cornish College of the Arts. And so there’s that balance as well. When you carve out a pocket here, you have to figure out where to make it up someplace else. It’s a juggling game.”
When Smucker’s children were born, he very intentionally carved out time when he was not working—his equivalent of freelance parental leave. And once he did return to scenic design, he relied on the twins’ grandparents coming in from out of town, especially during technical rehearsals leading up to opening night.
“Even with the kids being a little older, it’s still a need,” Smucker said. “This next two-week period, I’ll be going into technical rehearsals at Village Theatre for She Loves Me and my wife Carol Roscoe is starting rehearsals as a director for Book-It for Turn of the Screw. And there’s enough challenges between those two things—enough of that after school period or that evening period—that somebody has to be there. So, Carol’s mom is coming into town for a couple of weeks to help with that.”
Smucker says his children feel very at home in the theatre, and that he remembers pulling props from the Seattle Rep warehouse with them when they were three or four years old.
“The theatres I work with regularly in Seattle are all very much aware of my status as a parent,” Smucker said. “And they’re often interested and excited to see my kids when they happen to come in with me to work. The fact that my kids might be in the theatre watching part of a rehearsal or run through, or sitting in during tech for certain periods of time, has not been a problem. I haven’t felt like I have to keep those aspects of my life separate.”
For playwright Holly Arsenault, becoming a parent and coming into her own as an artist happened at the same time.
“When I was first deciding to become a parent, I didn’t know I was a playwright yet,” Arsenault said. “I was applying to grad school for dramaturgy and praying that secretly I would get pregnant and not have to go to graduate school. I think it’s because I knew somewhere deep down that dramaturgy wasn’t really it, but I was too afraid to write plays.”
Arsenault’s son, who she raises with her husband, is now eight years old. And she knew that if she wanted to teach him to be brave, she would have to be brave herself. Arsenault wrote her first full-length play when her son was an infant, in addition to working full time.
“I went back to work at my day job when he was four months old, but I was writing when he was really tiny,” Arsenault said. “He didn’t sleep at all and so I did a lot of writing in the literal middle of the night, which was a little crazy but actually helped me. I think actually being sleep deprived helped me suspend my judgment on what I was writing and just write. Sometimes I would write something at four in the morning and think ‘Oh my god this is incredible.’ And then I would wake up in the morning and be like ‘What the hell? This makes no sense.’ It was like I was writing in an altered state.”
Because Arsenault began her playwriting career with so little writing time, she values the time she does have in front of her computer, whether her time is compressed by parenthood or her full-time job.
“A lot of my writing is walking around and thinking about it, not sitting in front of a computer,” Arsenault said. “And then when I finally sit down to write, I can get a lot done in 45 minutes because I’ve sort of conditioned myself that way. Even though there are times when I feel like I’ve missed out on 10 or 15 years when I should’ve been writing, I feel a bit lucky that I forged my writing style on the fire of being a brand-new parent. I didn’t have to deal with completely changing my system because I never knew any other way.”
Arsenault describes her plays as “pretty adult,” but says her son is starting to become interested in theatre.
“Now he’s starting to ask me about my plays,” Arsenault said, “and he’ll say ‘What’s it about?’ And then I’ll try to explain the play to him in a way that’s not too scary. He definitely identifies me as a playwright when people ask what I do. He doesn’t say ‘My mom works at the School of Drama at UW,’ although he does know that I work here. But he says that I’m a playwright, so that feels nice.”
Arsenault says that while there are a lot of logistics involved with raising a child as a theatre artist, what she most wants prospective and current parent-artists to walk away with is this: the theatre is poorer without your voices.
“I think that a lot of what our culture, especially our artist culture, tells us is that the qualities that make a good artist and the qualities that make a good parent are really opposite one another,” Arsenault said. “I want parent-artists to stop thinking that that’s true—and to realize that there is so much potential in the journey of parenting that can make your art better. Those are stories that deserve to be told, that belong on stage.”
I couldn’t agree more.
For more information about the Seattle chapter of the Parent Artist Advocacy League, visit paaltheatre.com/seattle.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. dan