The Playwrights Realm, a nonprofit that supports early-career dramatists, debuted “Mary Gets Hers” at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in Midtown Manhattan in September–the Realm’s first production since the pandemic.
Like other off-Broadway plays that require frequent and hours-long rehearsals, a performance at Playwrights Realm involves professionals who are committed to their craft. But the organization stands out in one way: it offers support to theater professionals with children from the production’s first auditions through to the final curtain.
The program, called the Radical Parent-Inclusion Project, provides opportunities for parents who struggle to have stage careers by offering playwrights and actors with children an opportunity to work in theater without worrying about scheduling issues or unaffordable child care. The initiative began in 2019, and has been a part of the Playwrights Realm’s budget ever since. The organization is funded largely by donations from foundations and individual theater patrons.
“I know how hard it is,” said Roberta Pereira, executive director of Playwrights Realm, which is based on the third floor of a building on Eighth Avenue between West 36th and 37th Streets. “I think I had to call 11 sitters before I found somebody to be able to help me this week,” she said, referring to the multiple rehearsals she oversaw in preparation for the debut of “Mary Gets Hers.” The play is a comedic retelling of the morality tale “Abraham, or the Rise and Repentance of Mary.” It follows an orphan, Mary, in her search for love and acceptance in the face of the harsh reality of life in the 10th century.
Pereira had her childcare costs covered by the parent program, an opportunity she wants more theater professionals with children to enjoy.
The Radical Parent-Inclusion Project is the brain-child of Pereira and Rachel Spencer-Hewitt, who is a parent, actress and founder of the Parent Artist Advocacy League, another organization that supports caregivers in the performing arts.
The 2022-2023 season brought theater attendance much closer to pre-pandemic levels, with 88.4% of seats filled, according to the Broadway League, the national theater association. But the shutdown also amplified how unstable theater careers are, especially for parents.
“We worked out a schedule, we worked out a stipend, and we used Broadway Babysitters,” said actor Max Gordon Moore, who has an 8-year-old daughter. He was a cast member in the first Playwrights Realm production to make use of the parent program. “I could keep her in the theater just because often it was a new babysitter. I just wanted her to be around,” he said.
The program accommodated his scheduling needs and reimbursed him for his child care costs from Broadway Babysitters, a daycare service for parents in the theater industry which offers help both in the home and at the theater.
During the pandemic, Playwrights Realm hosted online panels and workshops with playwrights that were free to the public, Pereira said. In an effort to ensure that attendees with children could focus on the learning experience, Pereira offered them child care reimbursements — setting in motion a long-term effort to offer the parent program for most of the nonprofit’s events.
Today, Playwrights Realm covers a large portion of child care costs during its annual Ink’d Festival, an event where dramatists read their work.
Moore said many people in the theater industry feel like they must choose between having a family and furthering their career.
“There’s a great deal of anxiety about making things stable, because the nature of theater in my experience is that it is — even when it’s going well – unstable,” he said, adding that having a child and trying to care for her while he pursued acting frightened him. “I really considered trying to find a different thing to do,” he said.
Playwrights Realm stages just one play a year, reaching a limited number of working caregivers in the theater world. For parents in theater, the Realm’s program is the only formalized support they have seen in the industry.
Mary Hodges, 52, is a member of the Parent Artist Advocacy League and has worked as a director and actress for many decades. As a mother, she struggled to get her career off the ground after her son, now 13, was born.
On multiple occasions, Hodges, while living in New York, had to move her son to Virginia so that he could stay with her parents while she worked on productions across the country.
“When those auditions came, I was quite frankly scared because I was thinking, ‘How am I going to leave town? Do I get to take my son with me?’” Hodges said. “That’s not really how it’s done.” She now teaches public speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Mary Gets Hers” completed its run on Oct. 14.