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Mothers: Survival guide in the Greek theatre

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The text that follows is addressed to the mothers – current, future, potential – who work in any position in the Greek theatre, whether they have a partner or are single.

However, it pulsates with the hope that it will be read by as many people as possible, parents, non-parents, all genders. By the people who work in theatre, who watch theatre and who study theatre, by the many people who need to fill this gender data gap1Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women, Penguin Random House 2019., inherited from the hitherto one-sided record of human history and experience, at a level not only pan-Hellenic, of course, but global.

Finally, it is dedicated to the heroic mothers of previous generations than mine, who persistently worked and lived in the inhospitable to them Greek theatre, without ever having the time to question its mode of operation, and to those who just as heroically abandoned it.

  1.   Return to work

This is the first great and frightening agony that overruns every woman working in the theatre field after giving birth. It is the first sweeping wave she has to fight. It is the anxiety not to be forgotten, the anxiety not to get out of our tiny map that fits us with difficulty, the anxiety to continue to exist professionally. In the trimester, one month, sometimes even twenty days (!), latest technology breast pumps and ruthless alarm clocks, grandparents, dads, and moms -if any- are recruited to help the woman who has just given birth return to the stage, under the stage, behind the stage and, as a true champion, be effective again. Present. Whether this woman has managed to realize if her anxiety is hers or if it has been inflated and cultivated to her by directors, artistic directors, and colleagues, who were surprised by her ‘brave’ decision to give birth to a child, but also how many more unknown inciters of the frenzied currency of this so precarious profession are there, is and probably will remain unexplored and inestimable. Rumours of the 21st century, however, have it that maps are to be spread out, to be enlarged. As long as they include.

So, mothers, inhalation-exhalation. Because you share your anxiety. It is so common, regardless of age, status, financial standing, that this alone can transform it into the ability to create a strong, solidary network.

  1.   Career woman or mother

Obviously, we have never heard the expression ‘career man’. In no profession does the social environment and the work context confront men with the stereotypical pseudo-dilemma ‘career man or father?’. And yet, the female mother faces it in all professional spaces, from the first moment and forever. In this respect, the problem especially with theatre, especially in Greek society, is complex: on the one hand, the very low social status that theatre workers have in the eyes of outsiders and on the other, the distortion of the concept of devotion, as it is adopted by the people of theatre themselves and as it is passed down to them generation after generation, give to the already existing stereotype, multifaceted extensions. The mother who works in theatre, either in an artistic position or in production, receives the explicit or inextricable social criticism that we could try to sum up as follows: ‘you run around in theatres while being a mother with a little kid?’. If you were running around in a shipping company or a health care group, it would make sense. And at the same time, the new condition of the mother’s life conflicts with this deeply rooted mythology about theatre, that it wants its people to place it as the one and only priority against their personal life, to definitely stay up late and generally to be productive mainly after the sunset, to sit and talk for hours after the rehearsal, to socialize after the performance in various hangouts, to be emotionally full only in theatre and only through theatre and in cases of ensembles and long term collaborations, literally to belong to their groups. According to all the above construction, having children and doing theatre are two paths that do not meet anywhere and the woman has to choose either one or the other. That is, the industry itself treats them as hostile, incompatible paths.

Even if no one tells you that boldly, mothers, you are often punished for choosing that other path. How? With the silence of the telephone and the non-existence or vertical reduction of professional proposals. After all, even if you give 100% of yourself at work, there will always be a part of informal socialization and there will always be jobs that are agreed ‘over a beer’. However, in the end, with less fluidity in the work context, with a stricter definition of the practical specifications of the artistic creation, and better organization of the working time, great performances are made anyway. Several models of theatres operating abroad may prove this to us. Let’s look into them.

  1.   Wrestling with time

It is a constant, hard struggle, which I realize is probably beyond the imagination of the non-parent. Especially in the phase of breastfeeding, which can last for many months, the woman feels that she is constantly doing acrobatics to meet the needs of the baby and at the same time those of the rehearsal or the performance. The milk, stored in the freezer and waiting -will the rehearsal end on time or not? Sometimes she is on time, sometimes she is not, it also depends on the traffic that the mom will have to deal with. Yes, yes, practical details, but every day depends on them. But even later, in the next phases, the mother-creator constantly feels that she can never have her concentration back again, that the struggle with time limits her and tears down that limitless time that seemed to be necessary in order for her to go deep into the artistic creation. Personal time is non-existent, working hours are offered only in the deep night. And if the woman is single, the battle is completely unequal. How can a mother who raises her child alone meet the time requirements of theatre as a profession and the program of an elementary school child, when the profession does not balance the relentless hours with other types of benefits?

Mothers, time will never be dilated and nobody will ever understand the acrobatics you did to make it through. There is a solution, however -I know, there are contributors, even organizations that will be shocked- and that is the schedule: given to you early, respecting your parenting as much as possible, and followed strictly.

The mother who works in the theatre field bears the extra guilt of the ‘not-so-perfect’ mom that centuries-old stereotypes have laid on her, setting the bar where a man is never asked to reach.

  1.   Physical exhaustion

A woman who falls asleep behind the wheel, stopped at the traffic light, after the theatre, for forty seconds. A woman who runs through a window glass because she did not see it due to fatigue. A woman who wakes up and is so exhausted that she does not remember which theatre she should go to. A woman who is pregnant and goes up and down stairs endlessly with her swollen legs from the stage or rehearsal room to the toilet and back. A woman falling asleep on stage during the reading of the play. With a sharp eye, we can see those women, they are around us. Even in the arts, work culture is based on the belief that men’s needs are universal, with the result that the female body is constantly trying to exceed its limits and when it does not succeed, it is often ashamed.

Mothers, if we do not respect your body, we will never respect your soul.

  1.   Guilt

The internalized guilt of the mother who works in the theatre field is a deep, mute conflict that we can hardly understand, but we can, if we want, try to listen to it. Not now, reading an article; let’s do it the next time we meet this woman in the theatre on Christmas or Sunday morning or late at night or on the far stop of a tour, while at the same time she knows that her financial rewards will not justify her absence from home and while she bears the extra guilt of the ‘not-so-perfect’ mom that centuries-old stereotypes have laid on her, setting the bar where a man is never asked to reach.

It is probably extremely difficult, however, mothers, very simply, do not listen to anything and anyone, you are a miracle.

  1.   Lack of space and infrastructure

In 2017, Apple named its headquarters in the USA ‘the best office complex in the world’, when it included a doctor’s office, a yoga centre, and a luxury spa, but no child care area.2 The example illustrates that the inhospitable work culture for mothers is not a matter of country or profession. However, personally, my expectation from the cultural facilities is and will always be higher. It is the relationship with otherness and empathy that I hope is cultivated in theatre; it is the necessary coexistence that cannot be given to us, we need to win it step by step; it is finally another proposal for the world, for a better world that makes intra-theatrical life a political act. In this world, mothers cannot be invisible. And yet, none of us remembers seeing a changing table in the toilets of a theatre in Greece, do we? Nor would it be easy for a mom to take her child to the theatre during a rehearsal when it is so dirty, unventilated, has bare wires and rusty nails, and everyone often smokes. Even when it does not have the above characteristics, it certainly does not have a playground or a properly designated space. Before the pandemic, the Athens Epidaurus Festival presented the excellent initiative of amusing the spectators’ children, while their parents would watch the performance. Why not do something similar, at least in institutions such as the Festival and state theatres, for the children of the employees? We do not have theatrical spaces that take the child into account and therefore we do not have theatrical spaces that include the working mother.

Mothers, is this the solution: everywhere with children? The image can be so strong that it will inevitably lead to new initiatives and plans.

  1.   Financial agony

Financial insecurity is huge in the theatre field, that is obvious. However, nowhere in the world have I seen the feeling of the impossible being imposed like this: ‘I will not have children because I will not be able to afford them’. Why though, does the theatre field itself not look for new mechanisms -funds, bonuses, arrangements in all kinds of contracts and not only in the contracts of actors and state theatres- to give perspective to a new generation of potential mothers, who with a feeling of defeat exclude motherhood only because of financial distress, while otherwise, they would choose it? Why not invent the framework from the beginning? It seems that we live in a culture that has accepted fear, which it diligently feeds and calls us not to multiply because we simply will not survive.

Even in the arts, work culture is based on the belief that men’s needs are universal, with the result that the female body is constantly trying to exceed its limits and when it does not succeed, it is often ashamed.

  1.   Colleagues

Mothers, you deserve to have understanding colleagues. End of discussion.

  1.   The others

The ‘others’, the ones without understanding,

those who are surprised that you left the opportunity of the role for a child,

those who ask you to correspond to the idea that puts theatre above family, as if these two should be compared and ranked,

those who are annoyed that you don’t want to be at the rehearsal on your child’s birthday,

those who have not been trained enough to know what is really needed for their job and therefore recognize that you do not need to be there staying up all night and for no reason, because ‘this is how things are done in theatre’,

those who are overwhelmed by unresolved anger that comes from the feeling that they have sacrificed something to be parents working in theatre, so now ‘you will sacrifice too, it’s your turn’,

those who no longer trust you because you gave birth,

those who do not trust you because you spent the night up with your child, who had a restless night,

those who never ask you anymore: ‘What are you working on?’ but only: ‘How are the children?’,

those who do not find it so artistic to be a mom or express their admiration through: ‘you definitely don’t look like a mom!’,

those who start a business appointment by a warning with a hidden message ‘this project is very important to me’ and therefore your schedule doesn’t concern them,

are not colleagues. They are witnesses of another era that has passed.


* I wholeheartedly thank Penelope Markopoulou (actress), Yolanda Markopoulou (theatre director & producer), Christina Thanasoula (lighting designer) and Ioanna Valsamidou (dramaturg) who talked to me on the occasion of this article, but also many other mothers, friends, and colleagues who have shared their experiences with me from time to time.

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