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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A question of family

About a week and a half ago, George Hunka welcomed the new daughter of Reverend Billy into the world and then said, probably not all that seriously:

"Perhaps the blogosphere can now take up the burning question of day-care centers for the children of playwrights, musicians and performance artists. But we're changing the world, one child at a time ..."

Frankly, having children in the world of the performing arts is a real challenge, especially for those of us with prospects for income that are close to doodley-squat, as Kurt Vonnegut might say.

I'm 34 and while in the middle of Indiana I'd probably be a father of three already, most of my friends are bravely moving into this phase of life now. My actor/director/all-around performer friends Sean and Rohana are married with two children. Qui Nguyen and Abby Marcus have a son. Joshua James has a son. My friend David DelGrosso and his wife Erica have a little girl on the way. George Hunka is a father, of course. To name a few.

In the world of two income households, it's harder and harder to imagine large families. But in the arts, especially the transitory world of theater, having a family is a decision that comes with almost dire risks. As a community, we reward each other for flexibility, the ability to move around quickly and easily, the ability to take projects that offer little to no financial reward besides cab money. Being a parent comes with it an inherent cost-benefit analysis of all our activity. How much time can we have for artistic expression that doesn't pay, when our decisions affect the comfort and health of someone helpless?

Have you wrestled with this decision? If so, what made you decide to begin a family? Or what made you decide not to? Or are you still thinking about it as a hypothetical?

If you have, or are starting, a family... how has it affected your approach to your work in theater, if at all?

Update: A thoughtful and personal response from George.


Tony Adams said...

We have two kids and run a small company. A challenge is an understatement to say the least.

But one huge upside artistically is it forces you to be more choosy, and only talk on projects that you're very passionate about, opposed to anyone that presents itself. I think fatherhood has made me a better artist for that.

On the non-artistic side of the equation, being a father is the best thing to happen to me after meeting my wife.

Balancing the two is pretty challenging, but also incredibly awesome.

Malachy Walsh said...

I've got an uncle who wrote theatre in Chicago in the 70s. Today he calls the entire bohemian art-set "anti-family".

It's certainly hard.

We were going to put off having a kid because when we arrived in LA in 2006 we had no job, no house and dwindling funds. I even found myself wondering if we were going to have to live in our car as many of our friends had at one time or another. (It was part of the point of my blog at the time - www.litdept.blogspot.com)

A month and a half later I was in NY, still unemployed but workshopping a play, when my wife called to say she was pregnant.

I never looked back.

I worked the LA thing for as long as I could and then, when our son was 6 months old and our bank account was getting close to a zero balance, I got a job offer in SF to work in advertising.

Over the last year I've gotten back to writing plays and have been commissioned to write a full length for a Bay Area group called PlayGround (playground-sf.org)

I'm happy and it's hard and I'm lucky my spouse is so supportive. In turn, I encourage her in her acting endeavors - always.

And my plays, once all about single people lusting after the wrong things, are now all about raising kids and the crazy strange fears and joys that go with it.

Of course, no one will produce those either. But No is not a word I understand in reference to anything but our toddler who says it right back to me about every 5 seconds.

Dennis Baker said...

I agree with Malachy, that the arts are "anti-family". Which as Tony, proves, does not mean one can not have a family, it is just VERY difficult.

I am new father, my daughter turns one May 11th. I have to be home three nights a week, as my wife works nights as a nurse. Before having a child, my wife working as a nurse, allowed me to work part-time and act pretty regularly. Now, I am only able to do understudy work as I can not commit to a regular rehearsal schedule.

On top of that, our family support lives 3000 miles away in LA. We hope to move back where the soon-to-be-retired grandparents can help while I am rehearsing/performing.

The idea of community support is the one thing that can help an artist who want to have a family. A community made of family and friends (with & without kids). When an artist is home during the day maybe they can not only be with their child, but also their friends children who have day jobs, and then when they are rehearsing/performing their child can be with the friends.

A community is needed where support can be given and provided for everyone involved because 9-5 jobbers have it just as difficult raising children as artists. But with community support, children are raised not within day cares per se, but with people who live life with each other and have a deeper role in each others well being.

Joshua James said...

Had to basically stop working at a career in theatre, when I became a father.

That's it, in a nutshell.

Took a full time job as an office manager (I'd been working parttime before that while balancing writing stuff) and when I got hired to adapt a book into a film, I jumped right into that.

And began focusing exclusively on film / TV writing, which pays.

I still have a play or two done here and there, but other than sending out scripts when they're requested, I don't work at a playwrighting career any longer.

Because theatre, unless one is also a professor with a cushy package of bennies, just doesn't pay.

Even the playwrights I've known tend to make most of their money from film / TV gigs.

The other work pays most of the time. I had a son, so that matters, paying the bills.

And there's a time issue, too.

When you have a child, you have a LOT LESS SPARE TIME ... if any. You socialize much less, you see less (if any) movies ... you don't read as many books ... at least, that's my house (we don't have a nanny or granparents who live close by to help out) and that affects you, too. And when you do have time, you're wiped out, exhausted, and the last thing you want to do is go out. A lot of theatre is done by referral which comes through socializing ... if you're not able to go to shows, see and meet people, you kind of disappear for awhile.

Friends told me that would happen, and they were right.

I miss doing theatre, I still maintain it's the most fun you can have with your pants on, I miss the work, but I don't miss the politics and bullshit of what a writer has to do to get their work considered, either.

Hopefully I'll come back to playwrighting at some point ... I really loved it.

But I also like getting paid for what I do now, too. Getting paid is a measure of respect as well, and I just wish more playwrights got the same amount of respect.

Just my opinion, of course.

Daycare, OMG, you don't even want to know. You can spend the same amount on daycare that you do on rent, which is still half of what you'd have to pay a full time nanny. Unless you have your own folks living nearby to help, expect to pay a lot for help.

Freeman said...

Does seem a bit harrowing to imagine trying to raise a child and do work that doesn't pay. Not to bring everything back around to this issue - but it does seem like another place in which class factors into a career as a playwright. If you are financially supported in a way that isn't writing, it's easier to have a family.

It amazes me that our culture still treats, in many ways, raising a family like a financial decision. That's an essential problem of capitalism as an ideology: it replaces Priests with Economists.

Not to be too full of gloom though. I have friends who have children and seem to push to make time for all sorts of other endeavors. It's just extremely, extremely hard and it looks hard from here.

Joshua James said...

I was told we had to make time, and it's hard, but we're just now starting to figure that out ...

But it's very hard when it's just two people doing it (egad, couldn't imagine being a single parent) ... It would be honestly easier if we had family living close, a lot of people we know have their parents, brothers and sisters nearby, and they pitch it and it helps ...

Mine are in Iowa, my wife's in Japan ... too far away not only to help but also a factor in traveling to visit.

It is economics, in a way ... If I lived near my brother he'd be over every day to help (he loves kids) or we'd be over there.

We're not the only ones, I have a writer friend with twins and they have no family very close by either, so one has to hire a nanny or do it yourself.

We did it ourselves.

And that's a lot of hours in the day, my friend. A lot.

But to echo what Tony said earlier, being a father is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. Sincerely. One of the hardest but the most awesome, bestest thing in the world.

Malachy Walsh said...

We've talked to a few other theatre parents about carving out a work-out time on a regular basis and splitting the kid-care costs for the time. Lot's of people like the idea, but so far, no real commitment. And it's no one's fault, really.

If only I'd known I'd need the commune-model theatre company earlier, I would've started one.

But I do like de-odorant.

Freeman said...

Many of the larger contemporary corporate work places, in lieu of government action, have started to create policies are that are specifically family-friendly. I think some of that has to do with their ability to invest in policies like those. Are there larger theaters that are specifically family-friendly for artists? Or are trying to be? Or is it simply not cost-credible?

Meaning: if you have a workforce of eager performers, writers and directors who are desperate to work at all, and will work for low pay and make huge sacrifices to do so... the only incentive for a company to create a specifically family-friendly environment is one of principle.

One thing we often forget is that parties without specific, current interest in a practice sometimes need to get behind that practice on general principles. A single actor with no attachments who is extremely mobile should support family-friendly policies and ask for them to be enforced through their union; just as much as those with families do. I don't see that principle applied much when it comes to the stage.

For example: I'm pro-choice. I am not married, I cannot get pregnant. That doesn't mean I don't care or that I won't publicly state my support for that principle. I see it as a part of a decent society, and I support that on principle.

Shouldn't all of us that work in theater support family-friendly environments, salaries and hiring at the theatrical level?

Dennis Baker said...


The fact that you are asking that question is great. What I heard from other actors with families, is the opposite of support.

I heard that once an actresses was cast, she asked if her child could stay with her in the actor house, and the theater said no. Sshe had to turn down the work.

I know in the AEA contract, it states that the theater is only responsible to supply housing to the actor. I know this protects the other artists living in the house and I am sure there are theaters that are allowing parents to house their children when they visit, but I am sure its not easy when one's own union does not support the idea of trying to keep the family under the same roof.