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Performing and Parenting: Neema Bickersteth

/Written by Illustration by / Jun 9, 2016

Each month, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster interviews a local artist to talk about how they manage the tightrope walk that is parenting with a performing arts career that involves no set hours, no guarantee of future income, and no parental leave. Somehow there are lots of moms and dads who manage to be impressive artists and wonderful parents all at once. How do they do it? (You can read Courtney’s interviews with actress Michelle Monteith and dancer Julia Aplin.)

Timing is everything. This is true of live performance, and as it turns out, of family planning too. I’m not exactly in a rush to get pregnant, but timing is on my mind. Last month, I took Taking Charge of Your Fertility out of the library, and while I knew this on some level, it was still a shock to be reminded that women are only fertile for about two days a month. In combination with sperm, which live for up to five days, this means a fecund woman has approximately six days each month during which sex can lead to pregnancy.

Yes, this is all basic grade-eight biology, but it has me thinking about how women exchange one concern for another when they consider having children. Women, who often bear the larger portion of contraceptive responsibility, are popping the pills, getting the implants, inserting the IUDs, and worrying—all because of those two days a month that we’re fertile. And then when we stop all of that to have a kid, we discover that there’s no guarantee of conception: Figures vary, but the estimated likelihood of conceiving in any given month is somewhere between 15 and 30 percent, assuming you’re not one of the 16 percent of heterosexual couples who experience infertility If you do conceive, an estimated one in five pregnancies will end in miscarriage, and it’s possible that as many as 50 percent of all fertilized eggs may spontaneously abort before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

I know all this, and yet, in my mental calendar, I’ve already pinpointed the precise months—weeks, even—over the next year and a half when it would be most convenient for me to conceive. These dates and the related date nine months later are cleverly planned around various events, contracts, and ambitions. Because timing is everything!

I’ll probably have to let go of my carefully laid plans. And with this in mind, I’ve found it helpful to talk with someone who seems to have found a delicate balance between careful timing and impressive flexibility over the past two years, and indeed her entire career. Soprano Neema Bickersteth has performed across the country and around the world as a singer, actor, and dancer. This past year has seen her co-create and internationally tour her remarkable solo show Century Song with Volcano Theatre (for which she was just nominated for a Dora award), perform in the epic Apocalypsis in the Luminato Festival, and co-create and perform in the daring new play Dead Roads in Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project. She has accomplished all of this and more, while also navigating the earliest stages of parenthood with her partner, Ross Manson.

I caught up with Neema just before a performance of Dead Roads at The Theatre Centre.


So you’re right in the middle of it.

Hopefully I don’t burst into tears!

You can! This is a cry-safe space! But before I bring you to tears, let’s go back to before you had your awesome daughter who is… how old now?

She’s fifteen months, today.

How did you come to parenthood? Did you always want to have kids?

Yeah, I turned twenty-five and my body was like, “I WANT THEM.” But it wasn’t going to happen with my life situation at that time. I think on my first date with Ross I probably mentioned that I wanted kids, and so if anything were to continue…

As someone in the performing arts, did you think about the logistics of how it was going to work?

Financially, I don’t keep super track of myself, and I’ve always been able to pay my bills. So I feel like that system/not system has always worked for me. And, you know, everyone has kids. My parents, they were super poor. My favourite vacation was going to the waterslides in some tiny small town where we stayed in a motel, so I know that’s not the worry. It was more about time: having the time to be the parent, and go and do all these gigs, and this erratic schedule.

It’s funny, you mentioned that everyone has kids. In my last interview, Julia Aplin said it felt like she was the only dancer having a kid at the time, but since she’s had a kid, she’s seen many dancers have children, so now… there are examples. And she’s got a ten-year-old and you’ve got a one-year-old.

Yeah, there are tons of examples now. Not of multiples, though, so that’s interesting. Because, maybe since she was six months, I’ve been thinking, oh, should we have another, I don’t know, and I go back and forth eternally, because there aren’t a lot of examples of managing that.

Was there any specific timing around when you decided to have your daughter?

We tried for a long time. After two years, it was, “Whenever it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.” At one point, I had a gig where I had to play a boy, and I wanted to do that, so we didn’t try for a certain period of time. But overall, it took so long that we stopped trying to time anything. Then when I was pregnant I was offered a really awesome gig that I couldn’t do because I was due during the performance dates, so that was hard, and then it was like… whatever! I’m having a baby! And once you’re in it, you’re in it, and it’s awesome and distracting and crazy.

I’m operating under this delusion: Despite knowing it could take a long time, part of me that thinks I can dictate the precise window when I’ll get pregnant. Clearly you just have to let go of “perfect timing” at a certain point. Speaking of timing, you were pregnant during the rehearsal period for the first round of your solo show, Century Song, right? What was that like?

I was first trimester, so I was nauseous all that time.

Nauseous while singing opera and doing incredibly physical dance!

Yup. But bodies are amazing, and minds. They had a cot for me in case I needed to take a moment, and my mind and body kind of pushed the nausea to the side during rehearsal. And as soon as I got home it was like someone punched me in the face, I was out on the couch, whining and super tired and super nauseous, as if it had all collected from the whole day. So that was crazy. And then it subsided for opening. I was so thankful! Thank you baby, because, oh, it was getting a little out of hand.

Amazing. The show you’re doing right now in The RISER Project is called Dead Roads. How long has the creation period for this show been?

About two years.

That’s what this character brought—my metaphors were all mother metaphors.

So you were pregnant while working on this show as well? How was that?

We had a workshop at the beginning when I hadn’t told anyone yet, and we were doing physical stuff. We were being different elements and doing movement based on those elements. I think I was wind, and I was whipping my head around and spinning and making a lot of breath noises and hyperventilating, and when we stopped I just started sweating. And it wouldn’t stop. And then it was time to get up again and I’m panting, “We… we have… to take… a break.” I went to the bathroom and tried to mop it up and came back and I was still sweating. My body was like, “Whaaaat did you just do, you need to stay a certain temperature and you can’t go beyond that.” Finally, I stopped sweating, and I realized, “Okay, I need to build up to certain things, and also my body will help.” I was never too nauseous to do what I needed to do, I could put it to the side until later, and when I overdid it… Temperature regulation.

That’s awesome. What a brilliantly designed… system. So then you worked on Dead Roads again later?

 Yes. I had to be in hospital at the end of my pregnancy, just as a precaution, and we were supposed to have a workshop. The ladies were willing to come to the hospital, and that’s when we did all the initial writing.

How many hours a day did you spend in the hospital, writing a show together?

I can’t remember, I think it was like, three or four, something like that.

So your daughter has been a really big part of these projects!

Yeah, she was super inspiring for this role. In Dead Roads, I speak very slowly, I’m a slower version of myself, and that’s exactly what I was in hospital. I couldn’t process at a rapid rate. It was the last month of the pregnancy and things were just… dialing down. So that’s what this character brought—my metaphors were all mother metaphors.

Neema with her daughter in Birmingham, England

Neema with her daughter in Birmingham, England

How quickly did you begin working again after you had your baby?

 She was three months. We were doing Century Song in Ottawa.

What was that like?

Tiring. Because I had a C-section, so… I had a hole in my body.

So you were recovering, and dancing.

Yeah, I was worried about everything, having a core, being able to move around that much, and to breathe deep enough. I didn’t know if it would be possible. There was nobody really to ask, because people were either dancers or singers, not both at the same time to that extent. I mean, I healed in enough time, but then to get my strength up for the singing and the movement—it was a short turnover. But we managed.

Did pregnancy affect your voice?

 I didn’t notice it. People, all the time, say their voices get deeper or richer. Maybe I didn’t notice because I was doing a lot of different kinds of singing during pregnancy. It wasn’t only classical, I was dabbling in a lot of things. I think I was avoiding too much awareness.

Were you too busy strategizing about survival?

 Yep. Just look over the top of the ocean and keep my eyes forward and keep going. Because if I tried to see everything underneath, I’d get overwhelmed.

In early 2016, Century Song toured across Canada, and your daughter went with you, right?

Yeah! And she was awesome. When people ask how that tour was, it’s all about her. I always say, “My daughter was great!” But she couldn’t walk then! We’re taking Century Song to Europe this month, and now she can walk… Everything is always changing. As soon as things settle for a week and you think, “Oh this is great, we’ve got the hang of this,” that’s exactly when everything changes again. So we’ll see what happens when we go across the water.

Has Century Song changed with her, from creating it with her inside you, to now? I imaging you’ve changed, as well?

It’s funny… I think it’s more… I mean, my body has changed. That was… that’s been a thing for me. I didn’t necessarily pay attention to my body too much. I’m not a person who worried or tried in one way or another to make my body this way or that. And throughout adulthood, my weight fluctuated, I’d say quite a bit. Suddenly, it fazed me. At the very beginning of pregnancy, no one can tell you’re pregnant yet but you’re just kind of… puffy….

Right, and you don’t even get to explain, “I’m pregnant!”

 Yeah! Because you’re not telling anyone yet. And then, when I was pregnant, I loved, loved, loved my body. I thought I was so beautiful. And… I don’t actually often look in the mirror at myself but I… I was just… “Oh my god, I love this.” I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have this thing happening in me and to be able to see it. And then I had her, and I was puffy, swollen… and even walking or bending my limbs was uncomfortable at first. And that’s surgery, but… nobody told me that and so… what’s going on? It was horrible. It didn’t last for very long but it was horrible. And then I was breastfeeding her, basically on demand, and she doesn’t sleep through the night yet, plus I was doing an extremely physical show, movement- and singing-wise. My body… all of the fat just fell off of it. I was stronger than ever too, I was carrying this weight that was just growing and growing. She was premature but then she chubbed out, deliciously.

When I was pregnant, I loved, loved, loved my body. I thought I was so beautiful.

We don’t talk much about complications or body changes, identity getting all  messed up.

 Yeah! Yesterday I was coming to the theatre and I saw a little boy trip over his scooter and he fell and started crying, and half a block away I see a mother coming, and she seemed so calm. He started really crying and I think he actually did hurt himself because it pierced something in me and I started crying. I had spent the day with a crying baby—she’s very frustrated these days because I think she wants to speak but she can’t—and it didn’t affect me, I kept the calm face. And then as soon as I was away I witnessed what I probably looked like all day. And I totally cracked.

And then you had to come and perform! What did you do to be able to do the show?

 … I think I did a plank.

Here I am hoping for some deep mystical tricks of the trade, Neema, how do you do it? Planks.

 [Laughter] I did a lot of deep breathing, and a plank. Because I don’t ever actually have time to just do plank at home, so… it’s great. Very meditative.

Everybody has said coming to work—

 Is a bit of a break in a way!

How do you and Ross strategize around getting your creative time, sharing household duties, that kind of thing? I’m sure it’s an ongoing thing.

Definitely ongoing. Every now and then we have a conversation and work it out. But we also have a really great flow of spending our morning together. When we wake up, he takes her down and gets her breakfast, and I either sleep a little more, because I’ve been up all night, or take a shower or do whatever I need. And then we go for a walk. And having that together time every morning helps balance us. And then, it’s just communication. Are you working now—because he works from home—or are you just on Facebook? Okay, you’re working? So I’m going to take her to a park or to a drop-in centre or whatever. Or, I need to memorize my lines, so I’m going upstairs. Call me if you need me. But that happens less because it’s hard for me to be in the same space that she is and not want to jump in and react or help or something. I think part of that is because I breastfeed, and for so long that was the thing the solved everything. It’s not anymore, but I’m used to having this magic thing that can soothe her, and so it’s still hard for me to be in the house and do something else.

Do you go elsewhere to do that stuff?

 I tend to do things when she’s asleep. We’ve also talked about getting a babysitter even if we’re both around. Because there’s no one going to the office or going to a regular thing so you fall into the trap of struggling to do everything at once. Now we’re realizing we can get a babysitter for two hours and get some stuff down. And in the evenings too! I think we went on our first real date that wasn’t going to a friend’s show… two weeks ago?

In your experience of the performing arts, what do you find conducive to parenthood? What are the barriers?

Working at home doesn’t lend itself to getting most work done anymore. But at the same time we do have this really beautiful life where we can trade back and forth quickly. She doesn’t have to go off to daycare for a whole day. It’s flexible. We’re both around unless there’s a rehearsal. And even in that case—when she was breastfeeding a lot, Ross would not schedule his own rehearsals and would come to mine. I was in Apocalypsis in the summer, the thousand-person piece in Luminato, and we would all come to rehearsal, and she and Ross would play in the lobby and go for walks, and she’d nap. He did initially bring his computer to work when she was napping but then he stopped because he realized that he could read a book! In a park! And I could breastfeed her anytime I needed to. I remember this one time, I was sitting next to a soprano and she got to this super high note and one of my boobs just exploded, as if it was a baby crying.

Wow. That’s amazing. She hit the frequency? The boob frequency?

She totally hit the boob frequency. Luckily everyone knew I had a new baby, so it was embarrassing but glorious. Speaking of breastfeeding, I think I saw myself in the mirror for the first time during that show and I realized—my whole boob is showing. I didn’t know that! From my perspective I see her beautiful face, and this big head with lots of hair, and then in the dressing room mirror I was like… “It’s just as if I pulled my whole boob and I’ve been showing everyone.” Oh well!

This one time, I was sitting next to a soprano and she got to this super high note and one of my boobs just exploded, as if it was a baby crying.

Oh well! Did you find that the community’s been supportive? 

Totally. All of the projects I’ve done, from pregnancy on, everyone’s been so supportive. I don’t know if this is always how it’s been, or if there’s a move towards making it easier for women, that it’s more acceptable. For Dead Roads we had rehearsals at hospital, or at my house. Any time I needed a break, everyone was cool.

It sounds like I’ll need to learn to go with the flow a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of organizing has to take place: We’re going to be here at this place when she usually eats lunch, we’re going to need this many mini-snack options in case three of them don’t work, where is she going to sleep… Obviously there’s lots of planning involved, but flexibility helps.

Do you have any advice for… well, me, but any potential future parents who are in this career?

I guess trust. Because, what else do we have? I think humanity needs to believe and hope in things, and children are that, in a nutshell.

On a train to Ghent, Belgium

On a train to Ghent, Belgium

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is currently appearing in Incident at Vichy, one of the three plays we recommend seeing this week.

Click here for tickets or more information.

Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster

Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster

Courtney is from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and has performed and created theatre from coast to coast. She is currently a company member with Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Kris Noelle

Kris Noelle

Kris is an illustrator and iced coffee connoisseur. A self-proclaimed enthusiast for all things unordinary, Kris spends her time pondering over outer space and indulging in the arts. She is driven by an innate curiosity for both people and the planet.



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