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An Actress's Thoughts

Curtain Call for Stage Mothers

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Eleven years ago, the second text of this blog was about theatre: A Flower on the Stage (22.1.13) I have also looked at the productions invited to the Theatertreffen for several years (click!), but the last time was in 2016 – high time to do that again, and perhaps also one or two theatre/schedule analyses.

Today it’s going to be about a different theatre topic

Balancing Family and Career in the World of Theatre

  • An Association
  • A Split
  • A Family Seal
  • A Pilot Survey
  • A Toolbox
  • A Catalogue of Measures
  • An Aside

An Association

I am very happy about the Bühnenmütter (Stage Mothers), an association founded in 2021 that supports and networks ‘stage artists with children’ and ‘advocates family-friendly structures in theatres and cultural institutions’.

Their website will be redesigned soon – if the volunteer activists find the time or receive unexpected financial support (and hopefully they will also incorporate a search function!). But in terms of content, the site is a wonderful source for all those who work on public stages or in the independent scene. And the new logo is already there.

A Split

The stage mothers describe the coexistence of family and stage career as doing a split (click! in German),

“because a split is something that builds up unpleasant tension, it stings, pulls, then hurts and finally threatens to tear. A split can overwhelm us. And excessive demands can cause lasting damage if they are exaggerated.”

I would like to add – as an actress, not as a dancer – that well-executed splits instill a sense of achievement and trigger admiration from onlookers. This certainly also applies to female colleagues who manage to balance their stage careers with family commitments or choices, as this releases energy and happiness hormones and can turn them into a role model and inspiration for others.

However, it is never easy, because

The structures of cultural institutions continue to make it almost impossible to combine an artistic career with starting a family – many mothers disappear from their professions – highly qualified – after taking a break to have children.

The social image of an ‘artist’ seems incompatible with that of a ‘mother’. Female artists conceal their motherhood for the sake of their careers. The topic is a taboo that is rarely discussed in public discourse.

In general, mothers on stage, if they appear at all, are not exactly positive figures of identification, especially not when they combine children and a career (e.g. as a sorceress, queen, sutler): Medea, Gertrude, Queen of the Night, Mother Courage – but this will be changed by the Bühnenmütter as well, maybe.

The Bühnenmütter counteract this problem by empowering those affected, by networking and creating a platform for exchange, by intensive public relations work and by providing political and direct support with solution-orientated formats (source in German).

A Family Seal 

When I first came into contact with the Bühnenmütter, I was working on the (in German only) website ffd PQF – Family-Friendly Filming on behalf of Pro Quote Film. In a working group, we also thought about a family seal for productions (on hold for the time being). The Bühnenmütter had and still have a similar idea, so it made sense to exchange ideas, and not just about that.

We are planning a ‘family seal’ to be awarded to cultural institutions. The seal should be an award for the implementation of family-friendly working conditions and create an incentive for theatres to present themselves as role models in this respect (Bühnenmütter – political activity).

In order to make such a seal or the honouring of its criteria even more attractive for example within the film industry, it would be a good idea to make it mandatory for public funding – but that is a topic for another day. Because here and now it’s not about film but about the work of the Stage Mothers. And they’ve done quite a lot. For example

A Pilot Survey

Two years ago, the Bühnenmütter published a pilot study on the ‘Living situation of stage artists with children’, which deals with the ‘stress, needs and challenges of Stage Mothers’. (PDF in German, 86 pages – click!). Among other things, it shows

that female stage artists with children experience it as a great challenge and in some cases a heavy burden to reconcile motherhood and work due to the inadequate working conditions, which are perceived as hostile to families.

This is not really a big surprise – which working environments, especially in the cultural sector, are really family-friendly? But it is of course a great help for political work to have some statistics and to get to know the experiences of other mothers in the theatre, in addition to the personal experiences of the people behind the survey:

The few existing (partial) studies indicate that it is particularly difficult and sometimes impossible for female stage artists with children to pursue their profession in the cultural sector. This is also in line with the experiences of the authors, who had to experience that on the day of the expected birth date, the existing contract was not extended in a personal conversation, that an agency terminated the cooperation when the singer was in childbed or that a third child was used as proof of the alleged unreliability and lack of commitment to working in the theatre. The realisation that these and other experiences are not an individual but a systematic problem for very many women grew slowly over the years and through numerous conversations with colleagues from all disciplines who had experienced similar things. (Published by Bühnenmütter  e. V. Annika Sophie Mendrala and Verena Usemann. page 12 / 13)

Bühnenmütter / Stage Mothers. Photo by Heidi Scherm

In this respect, the answers to the open questions in the study are well worth reading and very compelling, see pilot survey p. 61 – 86 (sorry, in German only). Bühnenmütter e.V. derived a catalogue of demands from the findings of the study (see pilot study p. 53 – 55):

We call for an open and constructive exchange on the issues of reconciling family life in stage professions, in the independent scene or at state-funded theatre institutions. Our aim is to strengthen the perspective of ‘motherhood’ in political and social discourse and make it visible.

A Toolbox

The ‘artist lab’ provided further assistance in which the Bühnenmütter were involved; this time it was about enabling or facilitating theatre visits for people with children:

In two think tanks (23-24 September Hamburg Kampnagel and 7-9 October Berlin Feuerwache), recipients and producers from the independent theatre scene, whose everyday lives are shaped by care work, met with representatives from the fields of festival management, event management and artistic direction. The toolkit builds on the in-depth knowledge of the artists/mothers from the research project ‘BEYOND RE:production – Mothering in the performing arts’ (Take That 2022) and uses expertise from the ‘Bühnenmütter’ initiative.

It is time to break down barriers and fulfil the right to participate in art and culture for parents and other people with care responsibilities. The Lab has produced a booklet with specific instructions and suggestions for a corresponding transformation of production venues, production methods and funding structures. (Download the colourful 26-page booklet as a PDF via this page).

And now I come to the latest resource published by the Stage Mothers.

A Catalogue of Measures

We want to seduce you to recognise beauty in change.
We want to encourage people to create connections with potential for the future.
We want to live and promote social sustainability.
Because we can all do things in different ways from before.

The working group Family Seal of the Bühnenmütter has not been idle; they have drawn up an impressive catalogue of measures – which basically summarises the possible conditions for a seal.

The proposals were reviewed within a think tank with actors from the performing arts and published at the beginning of May as a 7-page paper entitled ‘ACTION RECOMMENDATIONS for the compatibility of care and artistic work in theatres’. Let me quote from the preamble:

With this catalogue, we Stage Mothers* want to make a contribution to ensuring that family and art no longer have to be either/or, but that both can be reconciled without fear and on good terms.
We recommend that you carefully define the terms family and care for yourself and your own institution and include as many different perspectives as possible.
Choose the aspects that you particularly believe in and want to invest in.
Have the courage to enter unfamiliar territory.
Take one step at a time.
Appreciate every change.
Be patient with yourself and others.
Because even a small movement starts a process.
We want to seduce you to recognise beauty in change.
We want to encourage people to create connections with potential for the future.
We want to live and promote social sustainability.
Because we can all do things in different ways from before.
We Stage Mothers* believe that those cultural organisations that question existing social values with creativity and dedication can be the driving force behind reconciling care and artistic work and thus become sustainable.

This paper can only be an impetus.
Change is what we all make of it together.
The following measures are a toolbox of recommendations for action and suggestions, compiled for implementation in theatre and cultural institutions.
They are supplemented by demands for changes at a political level that create the framework for a sustainable transformation of the institutions.

Beautiful language quite fitting for theatre people, and how nice that facts rather than demands are spelled out, i.e. as something that will simply be (done) in the  – near? – future. What I also like is the personal touch of the preamble. We are human beings, not machines.

The preamble is followed by suggestions for theatre institutions and legislation:

  1. Possible measures at the operational level (‘They can be implemented independently or as part of a target agreement between institutions and funding bodies or the administration.’ p. 3 – 4) and
  2. Necessary changes at legislative level (“The implementation of the following measures represents relevant equality issues that must be implemented at political level. They form a binding framework for sector-specific recommendations for action and can also promote transformation in society as a whole. p. 5).

Both very fruitful and well worth reading.

Finally, the stage mothers offer a look behind the scenes with the question ‘Quo Vadis Catalogue of Measures?’. Following the recent publication of the paper (in May), a press conference is planned for the summer together with the BFDK (Bundesverband Freie Darstellende Künste / Federal Association of Independent Performing Arts), taking into account the  Guidelines for Parent-Friendly* Production in the Independent Performing Arts developed by the NRW State Office.

And the next focus will be on a further training/workshop offer for ‘performing arts institutions to explain and implement the catalogue of measures’, starting after the summer.

More to come, I’m sure.

An Aside

When we talk about family friendliness, sooner or later it should not only be about (one’s own) children, but also more broadly about relatives in need of care, whether they are children, parents or partners. Also for theatre people.

And I’ve already mentioned that the Bühnenmütter website needs a search function – because I couldn’t find some of the subpages I linked to in this article via the menus (of the desktop or mobile version of the site). But that could just be me. But anyway, a search box is always good, and maybe a keyword cloud? (just a thought).

Other than that, I recommend that you all study not only the recommendations for action (= catalogue of measures) but the entire extensive website – it doesn’t have to be all at once – and pass it on to others, link to it and make it visible. Or, if you are in the right position, simply contact the stage mothers and enquire about their workshop offers.

If you work in the theatre or in the independent scene and have children or are planning to have children or are already thinking about caring for relatives, contact the Bühnenmütter, join the association, work with them – you can of course also support their work by sending a nice message, a ‘like’ on social media, sharing the URL and of course by making a financial contribution.

This paper can only be an impetus.
Change is what we all make of it together.

Thank you, dear Stage Mothers, for your great work, all the best, much joy and success for the future! 

Five links:

Bühnenmütter e.V. / Stage Mothers
Mehr Mütter für die Kunst / More Mums for the Arts
PiPA Parents and Carers in Performing Arts
with a special reference to the Balancing Act 2024 study published on 21.5.24
All for the Film Family – How do we want to work?
ffd PQF – Family-friendly filming (in German only)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Bühnenmütter mit neuem Maßnahmenkatalog - ffd PQF

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