Baby on Board at The Merchant of Venice
By Jamie Konchak (Portia)
I could not possibly have known what the experience would be like when Haysam [Kadri] called up several months ago, when I was still pregnant, and I agreed to do the show. All I knew was that I didn’t want to sign on unless I could bring my baby along with me. I waited until later in life to start a family and I wanted to give myself the gift of enjoying as much time with my new babe as I could, before handing him over to the caring arms of someone else. However, I thought, there is the creative self to consider and more than that there is the financial reality of being a self-employed artist, right? I thought it would be hard, but how hard could it really be? …..My mom agreed to help out with childcare and we would employ a lovely theatre student, Dana, to help with the time she wasn’t available.
The creative opportunity to work with Seana [McKenna] and Carey [Perloff] on a Shakespeare project was hard to turn away from, and the fact that Haysam agreed enthusiastically to support me in the desire to bring “baby” along made it seem like it might be possible.
As the start of rehearsals approached and I was making due in the moment-to-moment, 24-hour-clock of life as a new mama, I started to get more apprehensive about the reality of the request I had made of the company, of myself and my family, and most importantly of my sweet Thatcher. “Baby” was no longer a theory but a very real, sometimes gassy and ever growing, beautiful, moving target of reality named Thatcher Wallace. The thought of adding a rehearsal and show schedule to the mix left me in puddles of anxious tears. I started sending countless text messages to my artist/mom friends, begging advice. Rehearsals for any show place a significant demand on one’s focus, energy, emotions and time. These were all areas that as a new mama were already being stretched to new limits.
Haysam put me in touch with Carey and we had an inspiring phone conversation that boosted my confidence and also increased my desire to work with her. In Carey’s responses to my thoughts and concerns, I heard a confident leader whom I believed would be willing to adapt, someone who had rehearsed with her own young babies (with Harold Pinter in the room!) and it sounded like she understood that space could be made, not only for perfectly quiet and agreeable babies, but also for babies who may storm and push back against the demands now being made of them. She expressed that Thatcher would not be a liability but an asset to the process. What a relief!
I knew I would need to front load the text work and memorization, so I recorded my lines, strapped Thatcher into his carrier, leashed up the dog, and walked, walked, walked, repeating and puzzling through my scenes. I stalled out at about 85% memorization for Day 1 of rehearsal and it took me a good two weeks of stolen moments with my mom to work those last two scenes into my brain.
The first few days were HARD! SO HARD!
Thank goodness everyone was so supportive. The dam broke on Day 3 when we had moved into a new temporary nursery space, Thatcher still wasn’t interested in taking a bottle and was having a hell of a time napping in the new conditions. We had several monstrous wailing drives home, where I got a crash course in “cauterizing my nerve endings”, in the words of Christine Brubaker. I had a good cry and admitted that it was all feeling a little impossible and I seriously contemplated bowing out for the sake of my own sanity and the integrity of the production. Every single person involved offered support and encouragement. Both Carey and Seana assured me that we could make it work and having their honest support helped me to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
I underestimated how hard it would be to hand over my sweet and sad baby to someone else’s care and enter the rehearsal hall. I was overwhelmed by the guilt of what felt like a very selfish choice. Was the “feeding of my artistic self” making unfair demands on my 3-month-old baby? Was it an unnecessary cost we were paying as a family? Was I going to be able to give enough of myself to my fellow artists and my son? Did I have the focus to stay in the work, when I knew he was sad? Would I upset my relationship to my son AND contribute a terrible performance? Was it worth it? Could I really do another 8-hour rehearsal day?! These questions and more kept me awake much later than necessary after the late-night feedings.
In the end, some of my favourite rehearsal moments in my career to date blossomed out of these conditions. There were days that Thatcher joined me onstage to rehearse, either in the carrier or in my arms. The words took on new depth and resonance when my son was present. I watched fellow performers soften and drop into a beautiful place of deep understanding and care when he was looking back at them with his big innocent blue eyes. We were all just humans puzzling through something together.
We are currently creating in a time when theatre makers are being challenged to reconsider past practices that have been exclusive and harmful. We are being asked to open our eyes and our hearts to create space for all voices and experiences. I am acutely aware of how deeply fortunate I am to have been gifted access to the space that was hard won by so many other artist mothers and compassionate creators before me. I have no stories of being asked to stay out of sight and nurse my baby in a broom closet or feeling that, in order to be treated like a professional, I had to hide away my feelings or my child. Instead I can share stories of the smiles that greeted us wherever we went, the willingness of a director to move a break and alter scheduling to allow for me a little extra rest or to scoop up and comfort a wailing baby, and a company that sat with focus and respect as I discreetly nursed in the midst of late-night note sessions. It wasn’t ever EASY and I know that there were sacrifices made in order to make it work, and I am grateful that we were treated as an asset to the creative process not a liability to it.
Thank you to Carey and Seana and Haysam and the staff at the U of C, the designers and technicians, the costume shop ladies for sharing their laundry room, and to my cast mates, whose generosity, kindness and patience carried me through. Thank you to all the moms who answered my teary phone calls or text messages with words of encouragement and advice. And thank you to Dana and Grandma Robin for keeping Thatcher safe and loved in my absence. And to Graham for everything and for caring for our furry family member.
Photo caption: Robin, Thatcher, and Jamie in the Green Room.
Photo credits: William French