In a theater disaster, an understudy replaces a lead actor, sometimes even during intermission. The public adapts and sometimes a star is born. Yet performers, on stage or on screen, are always seen as the last people who should ask for flexible work. Instead, they are expected to give everything, until everything gives in.
Now, calls for the sharing of work between actors, as well as for members of the backstage team, are increasing, with the aim of making entertainment a better working environment. Leading the campaign are many new mothers, who argue that there is no real reason why the burden of long hours and late evenings cannot be borne by two pairs of shoulders.
“People are really reacting to it. The idea of sharing now really strikes a chord, ”said actor Naomi Sheldon, who shared the role of Adrianna in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production. The comedy of mistakes at the Barbican in London with actor Hedydd Dylan.
“I was pretty hesitant about it all,” said Sheldon, “but it was all an absolute dream.”
Dylan played the role of pregnant Adrianna in Stratford upon Avon and on tour. She then shared the role with Sheldon, before stepping down in November before her son was born.
“At first I was nervous about how Hedydd would feel about the arrangement,” Sheldon recalls. “But having been an understudy for Hayley Atwell before, I knew that whatever my own take on the role, I had to fit in.
“It wasn’t a production that I had helped shape, so I made sure I knew where I needed to be to make my mark on stage.
“Lucky for me, Hedydd turned out to be a class number,” added Sheldon.
When the director of the play, Phillip Breen, learned that Dylan was pregnant, he decided to make his character pregnant to match, allowing the actor to remain in the role throughout the race to Stratford upon Avon and into tour.
“This worked pretty well, ”Breen said. “It raises the stakes between Adrianna and Antipholus of Ephesus and explains some of the intricacies of their relationship, but also ultimately their great bond as well. It also adds an extra dimension to the family reunion at the end.
Sheldon found that the tight stage choreography and strict discipline of a production she describes as a “shrewd prank” helped her find her niche, as she navigated her arrival in the cast. It soon became clear, however, that she couldn’t just copy Dylan’s comedic techniques.
“We are very different creatures,” she said. “Hedydd is tall and sleek, with a lot of natural status on stage, while I’m smaller and I have an erratic energy within me. Some actors have described it saying that Hedydd’s portrayal of Adrianna is “like a greyhound walking around” while I am “more of a persistent terrier”. So even if I had wanted to do a performance version of Hedydd, I couldn’t have. “
Sheldon took over the role full-time last month after Dylan left before his son was born. As the new parent of a baby girl and boy, Sheldon said she “never would have believed that I would be able to play a demanding lead role at RSC at this point,” adding, “And when my babies were small, while we shared, I was able to spend the first half of the week at home with my babies.
“I felt proud that other actresses in a similar position could be encouraged and inspired by my experience and hopefully less afraid of juggling an acting career and having a baby,” Dylan told The Observer.
The RSC was following in the footsteps of the Chichester Festival Theater, which enabled Nellie Forbush’s central role in the musical South pacific to be shared by actors Gina Beck and Alex Young in summer.
Beck, who played Rodgers and Hammerstein until the end of August, said she hoped then that the “pioneering attitude” of the theater would spread throughout the industry: “When I bore my first child , I became unemployed and didn’t get paid for six months because I looked, well… Pregnant. “
Actor Romola Garai is among other artists campaigning for better work practices for families. Garai, who just wrote and directed the horror film Amulet, released next month, remains committed to campaigning for more production companies in theater, film and television to allow cast and crew to share their workloads.
Talk to Observer A few years ago, Garai said, “Liberal industries are seen as so leftist, but it masks the incredible backwardness of our employment practices – it’s terrible for caregivers and parents. I recently requested a four day week for the first time and was laughed at.
The organization Raising Films, which makes these arguments, offers employers in the film industry a checklist of tools to improve hiring practices. “It’s difficult for independent producers to put together teams, but we are facing such a massive skills shortage that we need to think about better ways to attract and retain talent,” said Nicky Bentham, co- founder of Raising Films, a producer at Neon Films. “Not all roles or all productions will suit a job-sharing scenario, but I think there’s probably more room for that than people think.”
Raising Films also operates a website that connects workers to job sharing programs, including Media Parents, the union Bectu’s TakeTwo and Share My Telly Job (SMTJ), set up by Louise Patel in 2015.
Patel argues that the lack of flexibility in TV production means talented people leave the industry or find themselves stuck in roles below their skill level. It’s a sadly limited attitude, she believes, in contrast to the premium of entertainment over creative thinking. Job sharing, Raising Films argues, also helps prevent career burnout that can hamper careers, and it provides vacation cover for anxious employers.
SMTJ co-director Michelle Reynolds likens a good deal of work to a marriage. “Trust and communication are essential because there will inevitably come a day when your job sharing partner makes a decision that you don’t agree with. You have to have some respect for that person to see their choice as equally valid. “
SMTJ, explains Reynolds, was born out of frustration with the struggle to return to work after children were born. The campaign was boosted by reports of the huge drop-out rate of women working in television production. As a result, this year they created The Time Project, a means of recording hours for anyone working off-screen on UK television.
“There is a myth that people who want to work flexibly are less engaged in their work than their full-time counterparts. At that, we’re saying no one is going to want job sharing to be successful more than the job sharers themselves, because that’s their key to staying in the careers they love, ”said Reynolds.