Mum and Milk and Gall: Is theatre finally fixing its motherhood problem?

A few years ago I interviewed an actress, and as part of our conversation, she shared an experience that I’ve found myself thinking about ever since. She was performing in a play while pregnant, which meant that she needed to leave the job early. It ended up being an uncomfortable situation for her, because the fact she was having a baby was just… never really addressed. No one had a conversation with her about how it would be managed, and she found herself wondering if the pregnant women she’d worked with before might not have been okay as they seemed – but never felt able to say so.

It was shock to hear, not only how deeply alienating this must have been, but that there were no formal provisions for new and expectant mothers. That not only was it not on the agenda, it appeared not to have been thought about at all. Fast forward to 2021: two new plays about motherhood are about to be staged in London. But Mathilde Dratwa’s Milk and Gall at Theatre503 and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Mum at Soho Theatre aren’t just putting the subject centre stage. Both productions are using it as an opportunity to try and reinvent the rehearsal process to make it a better experience for parents; the show’s directors, Lisa Spirling (who is also artistic director of Theatre503) and Abigail Graham, will be bringing their young babies – 12 weeks and seven months old respectively – to the rehearsal room with them.

But other than, um, Medea, why don’t we see stories of motherhood on stage more often? “I think that people assume that every motherhood story is the same,” says Dratwa. “And that motherhood stories are domestic, that they’re small in scope, and that they happen in the living room. And that, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And if you see something marketed as a motherhood story, people assume they know what that’s going to look like. And it drives me crazy, because I think there are so many motherhood stories. I think motherhood is inherently political, that it’s actually extremely broad in scope. I think they can be theatrical, funny, devastating. And I don’t think once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Also, they aren’t just for mothers – as Dratwa says: ”no one thinks a story about war is just for soldiers.”

That these two plays are being staged at the same time only proves Dratwa’s point. They are both shocking, audacious, unexpected and ambitious, and completely, utterly different. Milk & Gall, which was a finalist for the 503 International Playwriting Award in 2018, is the darkly funny story of one woman’s first year of motherhood, beginning with her giving birth on the night that Donald Trump was elected, and is full of beautiful and impossible stage directions. Mum, which is being produced by Francesca Moody, is harder to describe without giving away the urgent journey it wants to take audiences on – but it’s also exploring the overwhelming, exhausting days of early motherhood.

Milk and Gall is New York-based Dratwa’s debut. When she wrote it, she was working as an actress, struggling to combine going to auditions with being a new mother. Having to find childcare while not getting paid was difficult, “so I started writing as a way to just stay creatively engaged during that time. I wrote during his naps. I was already writing about my identity being shattered with his birth and not expecting that and not having anyone really to talk to, so I was writing as a way to sort through all of these feelings. And then the election happened, and I was so angry, I felt so paralysed. I was stuck at home with this baby and everyone I knew was out on the streets every day, and I couldn’t figure out my place in the world.”

Through form, Dratwa conveys the almost hallucinatory experience of sleep deprivation, something that emerged organically in the writing process. “The time I had to write was so limited – I found myself writing sometimes in the middle of the night. My life was just so fragmented that the play became fragmented, just as a necessity and as a mirror, not as a conscious decision,” she says.

Despite being 122 pages long (conventionally, a page usually equates to about a minute of running time), Dratwa’s script states that the play should run at 90 minutes. “We want an audience to have quite a wild, exhilarating ride, because that’s in some ways what the first years of being a parent is,” Spirling tells me, as her newborn daughter naps beside her. She has spent the morning on the phone with the cast to work out how to set a flexible schedule that accommodates everyone’s caring responsibilities, including making sure lead actress MyAnna Buring can be back for her four-year-old’s bedtime. “She was just saying those conversations have never happened. And because you don’t feel empowered, you feel like you have to pretend that you don’t have a child,” she says.

Rehearsals for Mum have already been taking place with Graham’s son in the room. “It’s like he’s got all these aunties,” she says of his presence in the all-female and non-binary company. Sophie Melville, who plays new mother Nina, has also been able to observe his bond with Graham as she builds the character. Graham describes the first six weeks of motherhood as “like the apocalypse” but she feels a conversation is starting to open up as we come out of the pandemic. “Now we’ve had time and space as a community to be like, ‘hey, why is it like this?’ What can we do differently as an industry to make our industry more inclusive, including for parents and carers.”

She cites the practical measures that have been embedded into the process for Mum: shorter rehearsal days and tech days so people can get home for bedtime, scheduling in advance so people can arrange childcare, Monday to Friday rehearsals so parents can be around at weekends. “We’ve actually found the quality of work is richer because everyone has had percolation time, and people are happier and much more productive as they have more of a work/life balance.”

In addition, producer Moody has brought in a wellbeing practitioner for the company to explore how the play’s themes overlap with their lives. She’s also provided per diems (a daily allowance for expenses such as food) for the dads, such as Graham’s husband, who is doing a lot of the daytime parenting. “I’m not worried about how can I stretch my per diems between me and my husband and our baby, so suddenly everything’s a bit easier,” she says.

In Mum, Lloyd Malcolm, who has two children, wanted to explore “the sense of just being completely lost” after having a baby. Both she and Graham use the same metaphor, describing it as like being in a storm. “It’s really hard. It’s the combination of sleep deprivation, of not knowing what to do with this creature, probably having had a very overwhelming, maybe even traumatic birth, being full of hormones, trying to get to grips with things like breastfeeding. All of these things just add on top of each other, and yet we’re almost kind of just expected to just do it and get on with it.”

Anyone who saw Lloyd Malcolm’s rabble-rousing smash hit Emilia won’t be surprised that she wants to blow the roof off this subject. “We’ve been told our whole lives that our stories are not epic stories, and that they’re things that people don’t really want to hear about, because surely everybody goes through that. We do go through that – so, can we talk about it now? Can we actually say that out loud?” she says.

“There’s always kind of a distaste as well about women complaining about how hard things are or how boring things are or upsetting they can be… We’re supposed to just do things in the background and effortlessly present as a mum who can also work, keep the house tidy, all these different things that have been hardwired into us for years and years of patriarchal nonsense. We’re still grappling with all of that, and it still feels icky to talk about these things out loud sometimes, because of this sort of weird silence around how hard it can be. Other people need to hear that so you can be ready for it when it comes.”

Of course, given that theatre generally revolves around evening performances, it has always been a challenge for parents in the industry. But the pre-pandemic inflexibility and all-consuming nature of putting a show on often made it feel particularly unaccommodating. Lloyd Malcolm says she would have probably had children earlier if she hadn’t been worried about losing the ground she’d made on her theatre career. When she was pregnant, she got a commission for a show – she delivered the final draft four weeks after giving birth. “I remember thinking okay, great, I’ll have a show, I won’t disappear. But the process of trying to get that done, having just given birth, was so hard that I remember telling myself to just stop for a bit, be in the world of my baby and just breathe.”

Everyone wants to point out their relative advantages – a salaried job, a partner who works in the evenings to do childcare during the day, or the power to set the schedule. That so many people working in theatre are also operating in a precarious freelance economy exacerbates the issue. Dratwa speaks of actor friends who don’t want to mention that they’re parents in case it’s viewed as a problem, something that will require special provisions. “There’s a hesitancy to talk about it because we don’t want to endanger our livelihoods and our opportunities,” she says.

Lisa Spirling in rehearsals with her daughter

/ © Jane Hobson

These plays centre on the stories of mothers, and right now, it’s women who are pushing through changes. But it shouldn’t have to be. Listening, planning, empathy and a bit of kindness are the main things needed to make the industry better for parents. They’re usually seen as ‘things women do’, but, obviously, anyone can if they want to.

Thanks to the past year, the old ‘show must go on’ attitude is over, reckons Spirling, and we’re “in a completely different landscape. How we treat each other and how we make the work is as important as the work that was made.” Graham feels empowered by her experience on Mum, something she’ll bring to future work. “I feel like on my next job I can say ‘hey, this is how we did it on Mum. Would this work here?’”

This is, after all, Dratwa points out, supposed to be an industry that thinks creatively. “We’ve all seen the most theatrical, beautiful, crazy things on stage, that should not have been possible and somehow people find a way to do it. Why not apply the same thinking that we apply creatively to our work process and the way we work together. If we can make magic happen on stage, why can’t we make it happen in the rehearsal room?”


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