What It Takes to Be a Working Mom on Broadway — Despite Its Challenges, 'We're Here to Stay'

Women in theater tell PEOPLE about the realities of raising children in an industry where the show must always go on

Kenita Miller and Lilli Cooper
Photo: For Colored Girls; Jenny Anderson

When it comes to parenting and the performing arts, many moms want to be able to do both — simultaneously.

The theater industry, however, has often made women feel as though they must choose. Bodies change throughout pregnancy, but costumes tend to stay the same. Childcare gets tricky when artistic families work late-night hours. And holidays are usually a requirement on Broadway (typical eight-show work weeks only give those in the industry one day off).

"It really gives me this badge of honor that I'm so proud of. I'm so proud to be a working mom," Tony Award nominee Lilli Cooper, mother to 7-month-old Bodie, tells PEOPLE ahead of opening the new Broadway play POTUS.

"It feels like there's this really special club of people who are a part of this, and I feel like we're here to stay," she adds.

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While in the midst of rehearsals for the new play, the former Spring Awakening star, 32, breast pumps during breaks. "Motherhood is messy. You don't get sleep, and you're covered in breast milk, and you're exhausted, and you're pumping, and you're hormonal," she admits, adding that in order to join a new project at this stage in her career, certain "bottom lines" must be met.

Cooper is not alone. When Tony nominee Amber Gray returned to the hit musical Hadestown for its recent reopening on Broadway following theater's hiatus, she had new off-days written into her contract so she could spend more time with her two children, ages 6 and 3.

"All I asked for was to have an alternate who was specifically in [for the] Sunday matinee and Tuesday nights so that I could have three days out of that building, three days in a row, and one of those days being Sunday when my kids weren't in school because when you have Monday off, it doesn't serve me," the Macbeth actress says.

"My kids are in school, so I was only seeing them for about 15 minutes every morning, and on Monday nights for a proper family dinner. That's not okay. I always say I didn't have kids to not raise them."

Hadestown's Amber Gray Reflects on Powerful Photo of Her Pumping Breast Milk Backstage
Emilio Madrid-Kuser

For Gray, 41, one of the biggest challenges of being a working mom on Broadway was being absent when her children were home. As babies, she explains, "They don't care you're on Broadway, they don't care if that's 'cool.' You're just like a deadbeat mom. That's a hard way of putting it, but it's the truth. They don't understand. And they want you home, and they need you."

Some mothers, like director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, are taking their children to work with them. Campbell-Holt, who was an associate director on Dear Evan Hansen, went back to the theater to direct the New York premiere of the play Eureka Day six weeks after giving birth because, like many new theater parents, she thought that opportunities may pass her by.

"Frankly," Campbell-Holt, 41, says, "I felt like I didn't have the confidence that if I stepped away from my directing career, it would still be there for me to come back to.... Esme [her daughter] did come to rehearsals starting at six weeks old, and I cast my husband in the show as well, so it was a real family affair."

broadway moms
Ashley Van Buren

Campbell-Holt, mom to Esme, 2½, and son Desmond, 11 months, prides herself in making it work so that she could be both mom and director at the same time. "We actually are in control of our lives. We only have one life. How can we make our life what we want it to be, and how can we stop doing things because that's the way they've always been done?"

Over at Broadway's Wicked, a group of mothers — who have dubbed themselves the "Sayonara Sisters" — all put in their notice at the smash hit around the same time to put their focus elsewhere, including on other theatrical opportunities that offer more of a work-life balance.

Lindsay Northen, who had been with the musical for 13 years, recently moved to Florida and booked a job as a starfish in the Finding Nemo stage show at Disney World, which provides a flexible schedule so that she could be with her 8-year-old daughter, Georgia.

Lindsay Northen and daughter Georgia
Courtesy of Lindsay Northen

"A lot of people are like, 'So you're gonna give up this Broadway show? It's one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. It's gonna run forever.' And that's the problem. I don't want young women and men who want to be parents and are reading this to think that you can't be on Broadway and be a parent, but the deal is that if you're in a show that's never going to close like Wicked or Phantom or Hamilton or Lion King, then the only thing that is gonna take you off that Ferris wheel is you," she says.

"You have to be the person who changes your trajectory," Northen, 40, adds. "I chose [Finding Nemo] because I am done with those shows at 5 p.m., and I can go and see my daughter every single night. There are multiple casts, so if I want to see her dance recital, there's another starfish that I can ask to cover for me. I'm not making as much money, and there's no Playbill, there's no glamour to this, there's no big opening night. But I chose this because this is the lifestyle that I wanted."

Not only do most mothers want to keep performing because they've worked so hard at achieving the sought-after Broadway dream, but they also need the paycheck to support their family, and they need the work to be eligible to keep their health insurance.

For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf actress Kenita Miller — who is currently eight months pregnant and expecting her first child — is currently proving that moms-to-be can keep working up until they're due.

"First and foremost," she says, taking the job was a "necessity." She explains, "I needed insurance weeks. … Then I guess a part of me is very stubborn and hard-headed, and it's like I can do whatever I put my mind to."

While some women have openly expressed that they've had trouble working as a pregnant woman due to factors outside of their control, Miller, 40, says the creative team at for colored girls have been "willing" to be inclusive — and she's optimistic this is only the beginning of some much-needed change in the industry.

"I'm really hoping that our union starts to see that this is something that is not rare," she says. "It's a part of life. It's how we all got here!"

Cooper says that while she was pregnant, she was still auditioning — but felt the need to "hide it" so that she'd still be considered for the job. "I really hated that," she admits, adding that theater actors should be afforded the same flexibility as screen actors, where pregnancy can be written into the script or covered up with costumes.

Explains Gray: "I know women who have been fired when they told the bosses they were pregnant in the theater community, and they're not getting fired for being pregnant, they're being fired for the technicality in the contract that says, 'Must always be able to fit in the costume.' I know those women."

Kenita Miller
Kenita Miller/instagram

Mothers are asking for "grace," says Cooper. Options including job-sharing (where more than one actor splits the same role) and late-night childcare are slowly being integrated into the equation, but theater parents hope more can be done to take the pressure off.

After all, for Miller, pregnancy has been a beautiful part of her Broadway experience. "As long as I've been performing, my nerves are incredible, except with carrying this little being. Cue the tiny violins, but I never feel alone. I never feel by myself," she says.

"A few weeks ago, I just got my first 3-D ultrasound, and I periodically have feelings of like, 'Oh, what if when I'm jumping around and dancing, what does that feel like to her? I hope that she's comfortable.' And I got this picture back, and she literally was smiling. She was in there nestled up and smiling, and I was like, 'Oh!' I want to say that means she's comfortable and that she's happy. To have this little person in there who is possibly happy and comfortable makes me feel like a super woman."

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