Finding solutions to childcare in the performing arts industry

Finding solutions to childcare in the performing arts industry
Credit: Belga / Laurie Dieffembacq

The MAPS company, a Belgian theatrical collective focused on social issues and developing new talent, is taking steps to help those who work in the performing arts to cope with one of the major struggles of modern life that most of us in all industries labour with: the balancing of career and family life.

Founded by three artists - Stéphanie Mangez, Emmanuel De Candido, and Olivier Lenel – the MAPS Company hosts residential retreats for writers where they can come to create and bring their children.

Based on the observation that it is not easy to maintain self-confidence and find a place in the professional sector once you have interrupted your creative process for a few months or years to have a family, MAPS launched the first retreat in 2021, a unique residency designed for artist parents. The second, located at a farm in the bucolic countryside around the village of Clerheid in the commune of Erezee, took place in May this year.

The objective of the retreats is to offer a space and time to author-parents so that they can devote themselves entirely to their work by ‘freeing themselves from the duties of stewardship as well as childcare’. The residency also offers an enriching experience for children in the retreat’s ephemeral nursery.

"We have set up this pilot project, which allows each parent to take a child,” says Stéphanie Mangez. “It is a one-week residency in the countryside, with a building for artists and another converted into a nursery, with two nursery nurses."

Writers and childcare

The residence has beautiful common areas and a dozen rooms. Each selected author has their own room, and unlike other more monastic residences, the authors can take their toddlers. A caterer delivers the meals. The idea is to avoid any mental load. “We spent an incredible week, of solidarity between parents and of artistic support, which is the essence of a residency," says Stéphanie Mangez.

“It is important to us to offer a positive experience for the writer and their child, choosing competent people to watch over the kids in a nice setting with beautiful games. Obviously, the child will have to adapt to new faces, a new environment and perhaps a rhythm a little different from that of their house. That's why we are looking for authors and parents who want to try this group life experience and who are confident about their child's ability to adapt.”

The concept came from Stéphanie Mangez’s own experiences of a writers’ retreat that forbade her from leaving to visit her children. “While the performing arts sector is seen as avant-garde and a trend-setter, it is unthinkable to consider the parenthood of artists," she says. "As the old saying goes, the cultural world always trusts an alcoholic man more easily than a healthy mother."

The question of the difficult combination of work and family life does not only concern the performing arts sector, of course. But the unique situations experienced in the sector make it difficult in a more acute way. There are evening performances, endless rehearsals at odd times, travel for auditions, preparations and development of material, most of which are taking place against a backdrop of very little industry support for parents.

“It often comes down to resourcefulness, between friends and babysitters,” says Janie Follet, a single mother and actress. “The institutions do not provide for anything. The only time I received concrete help was for a performance I made at the Théâtre de Liège. I was staying in an apartment next to the theatre and I had my child looked after by a babysitter. It was my colleague Véronique Dumont who insisted that I be reimbursed for childcare expenses. It's the only time, and it was thanks to her."

Circuses, tours and pregnancy

Then there are the tours. Foucault Falguerolles and his wife Vanina, both circus performers, take their 5-year-old and 17-month-old daughters with them when they are on the road. It costs them dearly in childcare. "There is a salary that goes for babysitting. We tell ourselves that when we both work, there is one who does not really work. It quickly comes back to 400 euros a week, and we must also continue to pay for the nursery in Brussels."

According to Foucault, festivals are reluctant to pay this type of fee. "People who are sedentary tell us that they don't come to the office with their children either. They don't understand that, for us, it's not the same, we're in another city, another country."

Another difference compared to office workers: the tool of circus artists, actresses, and dancers, is their body. For performing mothers, there is an extra challenge involved before and after childbirth.

Anne Cécile Chane-Tune is a dancer, who has a 3-year-old child. "I wasn’t considered for some performances because I was pregnant," she says. “I understand that, but it did raise questions. I still rehearsed up until the eighth month of my pregnancy, but it was with a choreographer I'm close to, who was willing to take the risk. Not all choreographers are ready to take it."

After pregnancy, it also takes time to get back in shape. "It took me two and a half years to get my body back," says Anne-Cécile. Others return to the stage faster, some return too soon.

This is the feeling of Stéphanie Mangez, who put her daughter in the nursery at two and a half months: "I started too early compared to what would have been right for me, for fear of being side-lined. We are in a hyper-competitive environment. There are too many of us, we are actresses, so we know that if we are not on stage, there will be someone else to take our place."

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Beyond the presence on stage, being an artist also means creating, which needs space for thought, reading, daydreams, spiritual sustenance. With a family, especially with small children, there will always be questions about how to find the mental – and physical – space to create once you have a child in the house.

Why MAPS needs to get creative

A co-founder of MAPS, Emmanuel De Candido is also an actor, author and playwright. He wants to believe that things are changing. "There's an upheaval from one generation to the next," he says. “At the same time, we have the MeToo effect, we have softer work processes, we have people who are more respectful of the realities of each and every one of us who is putting themselves out there to perform."

To find lasting solutions, the MAPS team says the industry will have to be ‘creative’. The child-friendly residence is just the first step.

Stéphanie Mangez mentions others, inspired by other sectors, such as “babysitting offers, no meetings on Wednesday afternoons, no rehearsals in the evenings" while Emmanuel De Candido thinks of allowing children to attend rehearsals - "it doesn't work every time, but it can even be a plus” – or on-site nurseries like the one his son attended while Emmanuel was performing for a month at the Avignon Festival.

"The kids in the nursery could even go see shows. There are plenty of things we could invent to help in these situations."

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