guest blog post by Amber Onat Gregory
I’m the Co-Artistic Director of Frozen Light theatre company (alongside Lucy Garland) and we create multi-sensory theatre that tours nationally for audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). But I’m not here to talk about that, the notnow Collective have asked me to write about my experiences of touring with children.
I had been working as a freelance artist running various projects for numerous community groups for 6 years when I really started to feel the struggle of being a sole practitioner. In 2012 funding in the UK felt particularly bleak and having moved from Australia in 2011 (which was booming) I’d really struggled to get my teeth stuck into a long term project, and was finding it hard to earn a living from being an artist. I thought it could be an ideal time to start a family, and slowly grow my work as the children got older. It was around this time that Lucy and I explored the idea of doing a collaboration. We’d met at uni and since graduation had both been doing small scale multi-sensory storytelling shows in special schools. We were both eager to raise the artistic quality of our work and explore the possibility of creating productions for theatre venues.
It was really a case of two heads are better than one and our work took off in a way that we initially couldn’t have predicted. It was at a time when access for people with disabilities was becoming a hot topic in the arts sector, relaxed performances were a growing model, and it seemed ideal to push these boundaries further.
By the time we did a development tour of our first theatre show TUNNELS in special schools around the country I was already 5 months pregnant. I couldn’t even perform in our first ever show at a theatre venue (at The Garage in Norwich) as I was so pregnant that I could only waddle. The reception we received at that first showing we did at The Garage was amazing, feedback from audience and carers showed that the demand for our work to tour theatre venues was huge- and we had received the arts council funding to do it, it felt like such a success. We were then brought on by house theatre to tour 12 venues in the East of England, and on top of the 6 venues we’d secured ourselves nationally it became quite a large theatre tour for a very new theatre company. This tour started when my first child was 8 months old.
My mum came on tour with us and we shared a hotel room. I never thought I’d be a fan of budget hotel chains but it’s amazing that they only charge per room and not for the amount of people in it – a standard room is the same price as a family room so the cost of extra people on tour wasn’t a problem. By the end of TUNNELS tour both Lucy and I were pregnant. With the success of the tour, future plans and funding already in place for the development of our second show we pressed ahead. We rehearsed right up until we were both very pregnant and then premiered our new show ‘The Forest’ when our teeny babies were only 5 months old. It seems mad to look back at that time now with babies coming in and out of the rehearsal room to feed in the lead up to the premiere. I had the world’s noisiest breast pump that made a loud mooing noise (ironic right?) whilst rehearsing.
Once the babies were 9 months old we began our tour of The Forest to 26 venues across the UK. During this tour on top of the 3 performers (including ourselves) and technician, we also had 3 children under 3 and 3 grandparents on the road with us – my mum and both of Lucy’s parents. Sometimes it was 4 grandparents when my dad and step mum came over from Dubai if my mum was away.
I was now sharing a room with my mum and both children – the once spacious Travelodge seemed to shrink when my angelic first born became a two year old who loved his tantrums. When myself and Lucy both became pregnant at the same time we had joked about getting a ‘tour nanny’ but realistically it didn’t seem like a viable option for what can be long and sometimes unpredictable hours. Also the cost of hiring someone and paying for their travel, food and accommodation would be prohibitive. It turns out you can ask your mum for a whole lot more. We couldn’t have continued our work without the support of our parents, partners and in laws.
Sometimes it was total madness- driving from Dundee to Stonehenge in one day to arrive at the Travelodge at 10pm only to realise that I’d booked everyone’s hotel rooms for the night before. That wasn’t so fun. The children would never fall asleep with me in the room so we had what we called ‘corridor parties’ which were ultimately sitting in the corridors of hotels with our laptops. We’d write funding applications for the next project, respond to the constant influx of emails all whilst the children slept in the hotel room (or didn’t). At home my kids sleep pretty well, and they’re not that bad on the road either, but sharing a room does mean that most nights it’s like playing musical beds and all the sleeping strategies I put in place at home go totally out the window. But what happens on tour stays on tour so that’s ok.
Children’s daily routines disappear as you have to get from venue to venue (we drove over 5000 miles on the tour of The Forest and travelled through every county in England except for Cornwall) and meal times move about and are often on the road. It can be refreshing though to not feel dragged down by everyday housework – no meals to cook, no dishes to clean, no daily laundry cycles (just a big fat pile when you get home). Most of the time we’re away for about 4-5 days (I think the longest was 10 days), so even though it was hard to be away from my partner and home, we were there enough to not feel like it had been too long.
My mum’s pretty much the most active grandmother ever so it means the boys have been to every library, museum, soft play area and playground in the places we have toured to (which as I’m sure you’ve gathered is a lot of places). So life is never dull on tour. Crazy yes, but not dull.
After 3 months on the road with The Forest, we were done – and life returned to ‘normal’. And that feels weird too. Being on tour doing something you love is such an intense and all encompassing feeling that when you go back to your everyday life it’s such an anti-climax, and like something is missing. It’s odd.
Now that neither Lucy nor I are breastfeeding a baby we have a lot more choice. But choice can sometimes makes things a little more complex. Do we bring the children with us or leave them at home? Bringing the kids on the road when they were so little was such a no brainer, a hugely challenging task, but something I didn’t question. Now that I can choose whether they come or not I feel pretty stuck. We took The Forest to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer for 4 days without the children and it was such a freeing experience for me. I would perform in the mornings and then spend the day seeing shows and the evenings networking and I didn’t worry about dinner being too late, or where I would be meeting my mum (who doesn’t own a mobile phone, which is a tale for another day).
In the Autumn just gone we did a 6 venue tour of our latest show HOME which was much shorter than our previous tours. I booked family rooms for everywhere we toured but then let my mum decide if she wanted to look after the children at home or come on the road. In the end they joined us for 3 of the 6 venues. As lovely as it is to see them after work everyday, it can be a nightmare to work out where to go for dinner, and then, you know…. bedtime….. and you also end up doing less networking which can often lead to further work opportunities. But when you leave them at home, even a few days can feel like a long time, particularly when you keep going away for a few days, week after week. And that’s rubbish too. And that’s just it – there’s no right or wrong – I’m supposed to choose what’s ‘best’ for everyone. And it’s rarely the same thing, particularly when you’ve got more than one child – what’s right for one often isn’t for the other. People talk a lot about ‘mother’s instinct’, and I’m just not sure I ever got it.
Our next tour of HOME starts later this month. We’re going to over 40 venues in the UK- that’s 40 different towns and cities between January- May 2017. I have no idea what to do. I’ve asked nursery (they both go to nursery 2 days a week) to see if they can have a few months off. So far that request has been met with a rather awkward silence… And is it better for them to be on the road with me and my mum? Or at home with my partner and my mum? Or a bit of both? Still trying to figure that out. And what about when my eldest starts school next year in September? What then? I’m not sure, but I know that we’ll work it out. What’s been great with Frozen Light is that when all of the artists on tour are parents, we all know what each other are going through- whether the children are with you or not, and that creates an incredible support network.
So why do it? Why endure this madness? Why not get a proper job (other than the fact that I’ve worked for myself for so long that I’m not sure anyone else would have me!) Well when you’ve spent 6 years working as a freelance artist and barely managed to scrape a living together, it feels pretty amazing to finally feel like you’re working on something that is really working. It’s working for us, it’s working for our audiences, it’s working for the arts industry, it’s working for our funders and it’s working for other artists that we’ve been able to employ. It also feels pretty good to not be light years away from perhaps earning the average UK salary one day (maybe). It’s also absolutely incredible being to earn a living and support my family whilst doing work that I love and believe in so whole-heartedly. Being able to work in a field where I believe in the ethos of everything we do is pretty magical. Knowing that this is possible in a workplace is something that I’d love to pass onto my children.
There we have it – my muddled thoughts. I realise I haven’t yet figured it all out. What I do know is that I truly believe that for my family and I, it really does take a village to raise a child. And sometimes that village just needs to come on tour (thanks Mum).
To follow us on our Spring 2017 tour antics head to: