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Balancing Act creates options for caregivers in Canadian theatre

balancing act iPhoto caption: The Balancing Act team. Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.
/By / Jun 20, 2024

Is this the moment when the Canadian theatre industry finally cares about caregivers?

It was an unexpectedly snowy day at the end of March when the stakeholders of Balancing Act gathered in Toronto for “Wrap and Unpack — Celebrating Balancing Act’s Three-Year National Level UP! Initiative.” That’s a lot of words (and punctuation), but the aim was simple for Lisa Marie DiLiberto, Balancing Act’s founder and executive director: to celebrate the substantial achievements of the young organization in supporting caregivers in our industry. 

And to do so in rhyming couplets. DiLiberto is, after all, a clown first and foremost, and in her remarks she found a way to keep the packed room delighted, thanking all those who are contributing to this seismic shift in our industry.

“I think that’s the thing I worked on the most for the conference, just writing that rhyme,” joked DiLiberto in an interview. “Because I really have to remind myself that we are all artists, when it gets really administratively heavy, as you can imagine, with 76 organizations, and really quite a lot of money to manage. Administratively, it’s been a real slog to be the executive director of Balancing Act at the same time as being the artistic director of Theatre Direct [one of the country’s leading theatres for young audiences].”

In case that wasn’t enough, DiLiberto is also starting the final year of her PhD in the Theatre and Performance Studies Program at York University and, just as importantly, she’s a dedicated baseball coach to both of her sons. 

“I am a really family-centred person, but I am also a really career-driven person,” she reflected. “So I was shocked when I was moving more into the mainstream theatre world as a parent and an artist to realize that I wasn’t welcome to be there, with my full self, with my family, with my baby. I wasn’t going to be afforded certain opportunities, because I needed to have my baby with me when my babies were still breastfeeding.”

As someone currently in that exact position, I find it difficult to envision almost any way of participating in our industry, but DiLiberto’s background in community-engaged arts (for several years she was the associate artistic director of Jumblies Theatre under her mentor, Ruth Howard) made bringing her kids along a given.

Lisa Marie DiLiberto at Wrap & Unpack.

“At Jumblies, whenever you go there to do something, you wouldn’t even ask, ‘could I bring my kid?,’ you just always could, because there was always childcare setup,” she said.

This feels like a beautiful fantasy where artists are also eligible for EI and housing is affordable. (Or Germany, I’m told.) For an industry that often asks its artists to bring “their full selves” to the work, it’s ironic that our “full selves” doesn’t include considerations for the children we bear, the elders we care for, or any constellation of factors that make us who we are. But that’s changing, in part because of the pandemic and in part because of people who are proving that a more compassionate industry makes a better industry for all.

So, in 2019, DiLiberto (joined shortly thereafter by Susie Burpee, Balancing Act’s artistic producer) started gathering a steering committee, writing grants, and approaching theatre companies to participate in pilot programs.

“We supported 76 organizations over the last three years, across Canada,” DiLiberto explained. “When companies sign on to become a partner, we give them funding to carry out the strategy. And in return, they document that strategy. They create field notes about how it worked, what they did, some challenges, successes, tips. Sometimes, they might also create a resource, like, here’s all of the publicity, here’s how we got audiences, here’s what we figured out about insurance, here’s the babysitting service that we used, how much it costs. So they develop resources, explaining how they did the strategy, and then those resources are going to live on an online portal that we’re launching just at the end of June with those 76 pilot strategy resources.”

Lisa Marie DiLiberto’s children asleep on a train while DiLiberto worked on a project in Whitehorse. Photo courtesy of Lisa Marie DiLiberto.

Those strategies include childcare for rehearsals, working remotely (when possible), flexible rehearsal hours, five-day work weeks, free transportation, rooms for breastfeeding or Elders — the list goes on. One big shift seems to be around normalizing the conversation about people’s caregiving needs prior to the start of a contract and initiated by the engaging company, as opposed to the self-employed artist, who may not be asking for what they need for fear of being seen as “difficult.”

“When we started this work, I really felt like we had to hide the fact that we were parents, that we had babies, and that we wanted to work,” said DiLiberto. “But now I feel that people are more open with that information and can be a little bit more proud of balancing a family and a career.”

Strollers from the babes-in-arms performance of Universal Child Care at Canadian Stage. Photo by Kaitlyn Riordan.

DiLiberto acknowledges that at various times, in various theatres, these initiatives have existed. The difference this time, she says, is that she hopes they will become embedded within our industry’s culture as a whole. To make that happen, Balancing Act has been meticulous in collecting data, engaging stakeholders nationally, and creating a website with a resource portal for the strategies & solutions to be disseminated. All of the resources are freely accessible, at no cost, though organizations are invited to join through membership (at a sliding scale) to receive added benefits, such as bespoke consultation in exploring and implementing care supports.

“The policies that we’re creating, while they’re centring mothers, parents, artists who are caregivers, they actually help everyone in the industry. You don’t know when you’re going to need these kinds of supports, because everyone’s going to be a caregiver or need care at some point.” 

Despite that sobering fact, and the springtime blizzard outside, the mood at “Wrap and Unpack” was decidedly hopeful. Along with DiLiberto and Burpee, Balancing Act recruited Margaret Evans as producer and Meryl Ochoa as associate producer and together they were celebrating not only the vast amount of work they’d already achieved, but also the substantial funding they’d been awarded to expand it. 

“We’ve worked in performing arts, so dance, opera, circus, and theatre, and we’re moving into visual arts, TV/film, and music,” DiLiberto shared. This rapid expansion speaks to the desire for change in the arts where bringing our “full selves” to the work suddenly feels more possible. 

Attending “Wrap and Unpack” was only my second theatre-related activity since giving birth six months ago. The first being the babes-in-arms performance of “Universal Childcare” at Canadian Stage, which I later learned was funded by Balancing Act. So as I sat there, nursing baby Julius in the comfortable, designated room, I listened to DiLiberto’s rhyming couplets and thought, “send in the clown.” She’s clearly onto something. 

You can learn more about Balancing Act here.

Kaitlyn Riordan

Kaitlyn Riordan

Kaitlyn is a four-time Dora nominated actor and a playwright of Irish and French descent. She lives in Tkaronto, but originally hails from Tiohtià:ke. She was part of the leadership team at Shakespeare in the Ruff from 2012-2021. Acting credits include: Orphan Song (Tarragon), After the Fire (Punctuate!), Noises Off! (Segal Centre), Maggie & Pierre (Thousand Islands Playhouse, Timeshare, The Grand), The Merchant of Venice & Blythe Spirit (Stratford Festival), The Winter’s Tale, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Cymbeline, and Two Gents (Shakespeare in the Ruff). Playwriting credits include: Portia’s Julius Caesar (Shakespeare in the Ruff, Hart House, U of Waterloo, Little Lion Theatre - UK) and 1939 (Stratford Festival, Sudbury Theatre Centre). Plays in development include Gertrude's Hamlet, I Sit Content – a story of Emily Carr, and The Nude Nun.



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