On Theater, Academia, and the Art of Failure

anjalee deshpande nadkarni

I had gone to the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education to present a paper entitled “The Maternal vs. the Pater­nal: Navigating the Divide in Rehearsal and in the Classroom.” The paper, which explored differences between male and female directorial styles, was a bit controversial, and my department was not altogether happy. The presentation went well, but I was still on edge: somewhat preoccupied by how people would react to what they might view as sensitive subject mat­ter, but mainly preoccupied by being away from my baby. My time at that conference was the longest I had ever been away from my son, then fifteen months old. On the last day of the conference, day ten away from the baby, I felt like I had abandoned him. I was a complete wreck.

Trying hard to maintain my professional appearance, I decided to attend a panel on motherhood, theater, and academia. As I wandered the busy halls looking for the right room, I kept thinking about meeting other the­ater moms. I especially hoped to meet some older moms with advice to offer, some holy-grail secret that I was desperate to hear. Just one little nugget that would make motherhood and academia symbiotic would suf­fice. When I finally got to the panel I was both excited and anxious.

The small conference room was filled with women ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-sixties, with just a few men sprinkled in. All the women were smiling and chatting energetically with each other, or read­ing a book or some literature from the conference. They all looked so con­fident, so together. For a moment I wondered if I was at the right panel. These women couldn’t be mothers. They seemed too—happy?

A woman struggled into the back of the room with a stroller and I felt a pang of guilt: I should have been with my baby. I imagined my parents at home, nervous with my small son, and awkward at sharing responsibility with my very-soon-to-be-ex husband. The woman with the stroller lifted out a fussing infant, and for a moment I wondered how she would man­age to both be a part of the discussion and watch her baby—could she really do either activity justice? The next moment a man I assumed was her husband came in, and apologetically took the stroller and the baby. He strolled out, and soon we could hear the baby cooing from the hallway. I settled in and waited for the panel to begin. Still uneasy, I smiled at these women, thinking that perhaps I wasn’t the only one missing her child.

The five women on the panel began telling their stories. They all looked confident and secure—they seemed to have things figured out. And as each one began to recite her tales, I began to feel overwhelmed; the dis­tance between myself and these wonder women, these confident, beauti­ful, secure-looking women, felt gigantic.

At first, the women told sweet stories of raising kids in rehearsals, mak­ing toys out of props and cribs out of set pieces. They talked about what an amazing opportunity it is to raise children in such an open and exciting atmosphere of art and higher learning. One of the attendees introduced her daughter, who claimed she had been raised running around backstage at her mother’s theater department and once fell asleep in a fake pillar dur­ing a production of Antigone. The girl looked perfectly normal—good, even!

But soon the conversation took a turn. Women told stories of being “mommy tracked,” being told they had made “career decisions” when they had kids. Some talked about giving up academia and others about know­ing women who decided not to have kids so that they could make tenure. Although it was somewhat reassuring to hear these stories and know I wasn’t alone, I began to wonder: Was it even possible to do this? Was it pos­sible to raise a little person with love and grace, teach students exception­ally, direct innovative productions, and find opportunities for scholarship and service? The thought of juggling potty training and night rehearsals and daytime classes and office hours and faculty senate meetings and depart­mental trips and then trying to find day care for my son in a new city when offered the chance to direct there—a chance I’d have to take to meet the requirements for scholarship—provoked a small panic attack.

All the seemingly impossible requirements for being a good mother and being a success in my chosen career seemed at odds. Sitting there in the front row at the presentation, I thought about what I tell my overly ambi­tious students when they take on too many extracurricular activities and let their grades falter: “You can achieve anything, but not everything. If you try to do everything there is no doubt you will do everything badly. But if you choose, then you will succeed in whatever you do.” Yet at that moment, I couldn’t stop the voice that kept screaming in my head: I cannot choose! I cannot choose! I must do both and I must succeed!

And then I began sobbing. Quietly at first, and then with full convic­tion. I really couldn’t stop. People tried to ignore me at first (perhaps they were embarrassed for me) but soon it was painfully obvious that I was hav­ing a very unprofessional breakdown in the middle of this academic panel. Finally I ran out of the room, found a bathroom, and cried in a stall.

Once the worst of my breakdown had subsided, I pulled out a whole bunch of toilet paper, steeled myself with a firm look in the mirror, and walked back into the panel room expecting them all to think I was com­pletely insane. But as I sat down, one of the panelists asked me if I was okay, and what she could do. I said, “I’m sorry—it’s just so hard. I mean, when do you stop feeling like a failure at everything?”

The woman leading the panel smiled and said, “I’ll let you know.”

Everyone laughed knowingly. The woman then went on to talk about how when she was at work she felt like she was letting her family down, and when she was home she felt as if her work was suffering for her being home. She talked about always feeling the pull, no matter where you are. Then she said, “But it gets easier. You get better at it. You find ways to laugh at it. Ways to accept it.”

She asked me for my story and I told everyone about having a baby and separating from my husband in the span of fifteen months. I told them about my struggles with academia, that I was the first junior professor in my department as well as the first female in a full-time teaching position, so when I got pregnant no one knew to tell the dean, so no one advised me to stop the tenure clock. I told them about directing two shows and teach­ing my regular load of classes while I was pregnant, attending graduation activities and starting labor, prematurely, the next day. I told them about my baby being delivered in the spring, and spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit, and having to devote an entire summer to making sure the baby was healthy, and that summer following me, academically, for the next five years. Once I realized I’d lost a summer, I asked my department and my dean if I could stop the clock and was told that it was too late—and that if I pushed it, the tenure committee might think I was expecting spe­cial privileges for being a mother.

As I told my story, one of the conference attendees, a pregnant doctoral candidate, actually gasped. For some reason that struck me as funny. We have a saying in theater, “two boards and a passion,” which is supposed to mean that all you need to create good theater is two planks of wood for a stage and a passion for acting. I think all of us disillusioned mothers in there had once thought that all we needed to live this life successfully was the baby carriage, the grade book, and the best of intentions. I looked at that grad student and smiled. Poor thing, I thought, we’ve just told her that the fairy tale isn’t real.

I continued to share my stories, like the one about having to pump milk in a maintenance closet, and how mortified I was once when the chair of my department walked in on me. Many of the other women shared stories of similar mortification when it came to breastfeeding and talked about how most academic theater settings did not factor female faculty into the equation when designing performance centers. Brilliant, million-dollar – plus theaters, but no day-care facilities on campus. Exquisite dance studios and expensive sound equipment, but no changing tables in the bathrooms.

“But,” laughed one of the panelists, “we theater folks are ingenious. We adapt.” I laughed with her. It was true. My technical director was kind enough to add an armchair, a rug, and a little antique table (all props saved from past shows) to my modest maintenance/pumping closet. It was almost a homey way to pump.

We talked for another hour, and with each story told, with each fear expressed, with each knowing laugh, I felt better. Somehow this group of women seemed to express such sincere understanding that I finally felt relief. Relief in being able to share my story. Relief in knowing that I was not alone.

Looking back, the most practical pieces of advice I got out of the panel were to seek unexpected avenues for scholarship, to find mentors, and to find community. My progress so far has been slow. I hope to be more pro­active in finding an outside mentor this summer, preferably a woman, and preferably a mom. I have made attempts to find community, although it is tricky. Academics without children want to do things I generally cannot do with my child, like happy hour, or dinner parties at lovely un-baby-proofed homes. On the other hand, I don’t fit in with moms outside academia. Last spring I tried to join a baby gymnastics class with my almost-two-year – old son to meet some other moms and kids; it didn’t work out. During the “moms sit this one out” portion of the class, all the kids played together, and all the moms began a conversation about how one of them had to leave her two-year-old with a sitter for two hours twice a week. “Wow!” they all chimed in. “But so long! God, how can you stand it? He’s sooooo little.” I winced, thinking about the thirty-plus hours my baby spends in child care weekly. The next week I switched to a later class in hopes of meeting a working woman friend, and I did, but then she said, of the two-year-old swimming in the ball tub with my son, “Oh, she’s not my daughter—I’m her nanny. Most of us here are nannies.” Not quite what I was looking for either.

Seeking alternate avenues for scholarship has been my main focus since the conference. For a directing professor, the main forms of accept­able scholarship include directing or acting in a professionally produced play. Professional theaters are scattered across the country, and getting acquainted with a company, let alone getting booked for a show, requires a lot of travel during rehearsal and performance. This was, and is, my main anxiety about fulfilling my scholarship requirements. Courting a theater and booking a gig means considering how to care for the baby in another city—finding both day and night care, and then taking into consideration how he would adjust to unfamiliar surroundings, new bedtime routines, new caregivers, and how his eating habits (it’s always a trick getting my sensitive “fourth percentile for weight category” child to eat) and upcom­ing potty training might be affected. Yet out-of-town productions are the primary way of achieving scholarship requirements in my discipline.

When I seek help or advice from my senior faculty members, they are at a loss. The department is not set up to support women with families. So my alternatives include options such as writing a one-woman show and courting a theater to produce it locally, writing a textbook on collaboration and finding a publisher to publish it, writing a play and finding a venue that might produce it, or, if I’m really lucky, finding a local summer stock theater that might only need me for three weeks or so as a director.

Next week I am going to an audition in another city. If I get in to the play, then I will have to take my baby to an unfamiliar place for three months in the fall, find a way to take care of him during day rehearsals and night performances, manage rent in both cities, and find other faculty will­ing both to take my classes and to direct the production I was slotted to direct pro bono. Yes. Well, I am hopeful. Terrified, but hopeful.

If only my department had some senior faculty members who were female, and mothers, like those wonderful panel members. The advice they had to give was invaluable. Yet the main thing that I took away from the panel that day wasn’t actually the career advice. It was the moment I wept and asked the women about failure. Because they didn’t speak about life becoming a success, but about letting go of the notion that success is singularly obtainable. Deciding to do this job and be a mother requires

becoming not only familiar with failure, but comfortable with it. Comfort­able enough to say that today, I didn’t get to grade every paper, but I did get my son to poop in the potty instead of in the tub. Or that today, I didn’t get him to eat anything healthy, but in rehearsal I did get a chance to work more deeply, and now the scene between Konstantine and his mother, Irina, feels much stronger and more honest. At the end of the day I realize that my experience with my son has helped me to better understand the play I am directing, and that somehow all this is interconnected in a very tangible and positive way.

I am learning to become more comfortable with both failure and suc­cess. Being comfortable with failure is knowing that the only successes that count are precarious and temporary. It is accepting that every seeming fail­ure is the foundation for growth, and it pays to laugh at it. The papers will get graded, and my son will eat the broccoli when he is hungry. Every re­hearsal I bring him to will shape him into the amazing person he will one day be. He will grow up with stories and actors, among an eclectic com­munity of artists. Every time I take him to a faculty senate meeting or a national conference, he will understand on some level that his mother worked hard to be able to take pride in her accomplishments. Every time I carry him into class under my arm or set him up with crayons in the back of the room, he will see me with my students and watch me both teach and learn. There is no better way of sharing with my child the blessings and importance oflife than by making him a part of my life. Not the perfect life, perhaps, where every day is a singular success. But my life, the one that I love, where every day is a risk and a possibility.