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REVIEW: Inside the babes-in-arms performance of the audacious Universal Child Care

/By / Mar 1, 2024

A baby walks into a theatre… well, more accurately, a bunch of theatre-hungry parents walk into a theatre with their babes in arms, in slings, or on pillows, with the hopes of enjoying a play. What could possibly go wrong?

Quote Unquote Collective’s latest creation, Universal Child Care, explores the experience of becoming a parent/caregiver and navigating the daycare system in four of the world’s wealthiest countries: Canada, the U.S., Japan, and the U.K. Using sound, songs, and the collective’s signature style of physical theatre, the show delves into the different ways that becoming a parent requires a huge amount of sacrifice when society undervalues both the contribution of parents and the invaluable work of ECEs (Early Childhood Educators).

For Universal Child Care’s final Sunday matinee, the producers invited parents to bring their children to the theatre, free of charge. Those 0-3 years old could sit on their caregiver’s laps, and those up to 12 years old could access free childcare options nearby. Quote Unquote Collective and its co-producers, Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre, and Canadian Stage, said they wanted to provide a space for parents to get out and see some theatre, putting their money where their mouth(piece)s were. Barring a few oversights, they achieved just that.

As a new parent, I was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the theatre and introducing my baby to what, at one time, used to take up two or three nights a week of my life. To be honest, I was equally thrilled at the prospect of leaving the house, which hasn’t happened a whole lot since baby Julius was born in December.

After parking my stroller in the far lobby of the Berkeley Street Theatre (there was also stroller parking in the front lobby), I changed my boy on a sleek black leather bench (no one was sure if there was a change table anywhere in the building), strapped him into a carrier, and trepidatiously ventured into the theatre. As Sunday approached, I had become more and more skeptical about what seemed more and more like a truly terrible idea; inviting our least decorous members of society to join us in politely watching a play. 

As I surveyed the sold-out audience, I was stunned at how many bald baby heads were bobbing up and down on the knees of what I can only assume were other nervous parents. Of the 12 closest seats around me, seven (!) also held babies. As the lights went down and the land acknowledgment began, a surprising hush fell over the audience — was I wrong to be anxious? The hush was quickly interrupted when none other than when baby Julius started screaming (an appropriate response to colonization, as far as I’m concerned). 

My immediate impulse was to run — for the sake of the performers, for the baby-less people sitting either side of me, and for my ego; was my baby going to ruin the play?!

But as the lights came up, Julius immediately fell asleep (clearly, he saw a lot of bad theatre in a previous life) as a beautifully theatrical childbirth kicked off the show. And soon, mercifully, other babies cried too (ego saved!). I experienced several meta moments during the show and I suspect that I speak for many of the parents present regarding the theatricalized challenges of caring for an infant truly resonating as we soothed, cajoled, and bargained with the wee wiggly ones on our laps. That being said, any time a baby did cry or scream, it only enhanced Matt Smith’s sound design; the integration of theme and audience was unparalleled.

I was surprised that the show wasn’t set up as a relaxed performance. Two thirds of the way through the approximately 90-minute runtime, as a caregiver scurried out with their squirmy babe in the pitch black, I wondered how many mittens and soothers might have inadvertently been left behind in the dark. The show used amplified sound, which helped with the crying and screams, but the volume wasn’t adjusted for the nascent ears in the audience, which was a surprise to many of the parents attending. Stars & Strollers, a baby-friendly movie-going experience offered by Cineplex once a week at various venues, specifically reduces the sound, maintains soft lighting, and offers change tables, bottle warmers, and stroller parking. And sells popcorn…

If this offering became de rigueur (when appropriate) in theatres across the country, it would likely become far easier to anticipate the needs of caregivers and meet them. The show itself outlines the massive hurdles for parents in the four aforementioned countries, in terms of accessing childcare, maintaining careers, and affording life with a child. Making our arts spaces accessible to caregivers seems like a relatively simple way of challenging the less-than-satisfying norms that prevail here in Canada. I commend the producers of Universal Child Care for making it happen on Sunday — I was so happy to be back. As for Julius, he discovered the magic of a disco ball, a great way to welcome anyone to a life in the theatre.

Universal Child Care ran at Canadian Stage from February 13 to 25. You can learn more about the production here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model 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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