Performing and Parenting: Michelle Monteith

This is the year that I turn thirty. These days, thirty seems to be neither here nor there on the “grown up” spectrum—I have friends who assure me that thirty is the new twenty and that I don’t have to get my shit together for a good five to ten more years. So for the most part, I’m pretty mellow about entering this new decade; I figure things will be pretty much business as usual.

Except for the babies.

Friends and colleagues bring their itty-widdle babies by the theatre or post their photos on Facebook, and then I find myself online reading up on prenatal vitamins, perusing photos of the Toronto Birth Centre, and hovering over the BUY button beside Taking Charge of Your Fertility in my Amazon cart.

Having a baby soon-ish is not entirely unimaginable. My partner and I are solid, we’re making the best of our modest incomes, we have a place to live, and we’ve both been working consistently. But we’re self-employed artists (he’s a musician, I’m an actor) and all the usual questions about having kids seem amplified by our ever-changing performing arts careers. For us, there are no set hours, no pensions, no benefits; there is no guarantee of future income; no parental leave. We rarely know what we’ll be doing in six months time. And there are more uncertainties: Will I have to turn down work while I’m pregnant? If I take time off, will anyone hire me when I come back? How do you find childcare that is flexible enough to handle a performer’s schedule, where you rehearse during the day, six days a week for weeks, and then flip to nighttime performances? Will I ever be able to work on a passion project for no money again? What kind of artist will I become after taking the leap?

The question of how to have a family while making your living in the performing arts is not a new one. Artists keep talking about it, maybe because there is no one way to make it work, and no defining experience. In this Playbill article, American actor Celia Keenan-Bolger reassures: “When people say, ‘There’s never a good time,’ what they actually mean is, ‘You’ll figure it out when it happens.’ It was amazing to me how everything aligned once I was pregnant.” On the other hand, English actor Laura Wells told The Guardian: “From pregnancy onwards, the industry turns its back on you and you become invisible.”

That’s a pretty bleak statement, but it doesn’t ring entirely untrue. There must be a connection between motherhood in the arts and the disturbing lack of gender parity in our industry. According to Equity in Theatre, “Women constitute over half of all theatre school students, as at the National Theatre School of Canada, where they were 58 percent of the enrollment in 2014/15. Yet, after graduation, women make up fewer than 30 percent of the profession’s creative leaders.”

Eeep.

But I do see people making it work: moms and dads who are impressive artists and wonderful parents all at once. I want to know how. Everybody says nothing can really prepare you for parenthood, but being an actor, I’m reassured by stories. So I’m going to talk to artists from Toronto and across Canada about having children, about performing, about our industry and the way it helps and hinders family life. Welcome to Performing and Parenting.

First up: an interview with the wonderful Michelle Monteith.

The first time I saw Michelle perform was in the premiere SummerWorks production of Hannah Moscovitch’s Little One. I’d only recently moved to Toronto, and someone told me I should see the show because “Michelle Monteith is in it.” The emphasis was evident, and deserved—Michelle was spellbinding in her performance of Claire, a disturbed and violent young girl.

A few years later, I had the honour of working with her on Of Human Bondage at Soulpepper. I shared a dressing room with her and two other actors, and I was the only one without an infant. They apologized to me for always talking about their children and the various struggles of breastfeeding, teething, and trading bedtimes for calltimes, but I found it fascinating. Here were three women in the thick of things, who were able to support each other by sharing and listening.

This past year was a busy one for Michelle: she starred in a show at Tarragon, had roles in several Soulpepper productions, and shone in Theatre Why Not’s Butcher. In some ways, she credits her professional fulfillment for her parenting ability: “I need to work,” she told me. “I get a lot out of it. And it makes me a better mom because I’m looking after myself too. But I also say, I come to work for a rest!”

I was thinking about the special personal and professional intimacy of that Soulpepper dressing room when I sat down with Michelle to talk about her experience as a parent and actor.

You and your husband, Stuart Hughes, are both actors, and you had your daughter three years ago. What was making that decision like?

I’ve always joked, because I’ve always read younger than I am, that there would be a time when I wouldn’t be quite young enough to play those parts and I wouldn’t yet seem old enough to play the older parts, so I always called those my “child-bearing years.” [Laughs.] But the time to have a child came suddenly—and I was here, still playing those parts…

How old were you when you had your baby?

I was 37. So, you know, I was aware that time… that it was something I needed to consider. And it was something I always wanted to do. It was actually a really easy decision once we got married.

Did you work through your pregnancy?

I worked until I was about six months. I was doing Ghosts and The Odd Couple at Soulpepper, and then I had from December until about October off. I did a few workshops, which was just fun.

I worry about stepping out and then back into the industry. Was that a factor for you?

I thought it would be, and then while I was pregnant I had a job offer for when my daughter was going to be six months old, and I called a few people who’d been in similar positions and asked them if it was doable. Stuart wasn’t going to be working for that slot, so it was perfect. I think it would’ve been different if Stuart had been working—handing her over when she was so tiny to someone who wasn’t her father might’ve been harder.

As freelance artists, we don’t have a specified maternity leave, or coverage. It would be nice to have that financial stability for a year, but I also imagine it could seem like a long time to be away from this whole other fulfilling part of your life.

It’s funny—a woman who was in my prenatal class, she went back to work full-time and she was nervous because for her that meant that all of a sudden she would be gone from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., five days a week, forever. And the thing about what we do—I thought, I’ll go back, I’ll do this play, and if it’s too much, then I don’t have to take the next one. I can take it contract by contract. And I love that freedom where I know these next two weeks are going to be insane and I’m not going to see much of her, but then I’ll have three months off and I’m going to be there 100 percent. So I love that it’s always changing, and if I feel like I’ve been too busy I can make up for it. Going back to work isn’t final. It’s on a case-by-case basis. 

Huh. I hadn’t considered how the unpredictability and flexibility of what we do could really be a big plus for parents. So you were back at the theatre at six months. Were there challenges for you? Physically, maybe?

Not really… I was breastfeeding and pumping at the theatre. My daughter never really took a bottle; I just did it to maintain a supply. Stuart would bring her to the theatre or I would go home, whichever worked that particular day. I was also really lucky. For the first two years I went back to work, I was never working a 10 to 6. They were either in rep with other shows or two-handers—and working beyond five hours with just two actors isn’t necessarily needed. When I did switch to the standard 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. days, that was harder. You’re gone from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and that’s long. But those were rare.

Breastfeeding and pumping at the theatre… Where would you do that? The greenroom, the bathroom—well, not the bathroom I imagine!

I have pumped in the bathroom! But usually a dressing room. On the first show I did back, I remember pumping in a bathroom stall. I think I was afraid to take up space for those things that I needed to do. I wasn’t afraid to ask for the break, you know, ’cause sometimes people would want to push through and I’d say, “No, I need to stop now,” but I think I was afraid to ask for a room; I didn’t want to be a hassle. Which sounds stupid now, in retrospect.

Generally when I’ve had to bring my daughter to work, it’s been a welcome experience. Earlier this year I worked on a show and there was an emergency, and we had to have a couple of emergency rehearsals and I didn’t have anyone to watch her so she came to the theatre and the other actors who weren’t on stage watched her upstairs. And before I knew it she was running around every aspect of the Tarragon!

Does she understand your job?

I’m not sure she fully understands. Stuart is thinking of bringing her to see a little bit of Parfumerie, just because it’s the first show I think I’ve done that she could see.

And she’s seen pictures of us, and she’ll be like, “Mummy, you crying,” and I say, “Oh that’s Mummy at work, I’m pretending.” So she understands that pretending is part of it. And we just bought her a book for Christmas, Olivia the Pig, and in it Olivia is in a play. I thought that would just help her understand.

By

Courtney is from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and has performed and created theatre from coast to coast. She is currently a company member with Soulpepper Theatre Company.

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Kris is an illustrator and iced coffee connoisseur. A self-proclaimed enthusiast for all things unordinary, Kris spends her time pondering over outer space and indulging in the arts. She is driven by an innate curiosity for both people and the planet.

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