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Free babysitting on Broadway? This nonprofit helps parents get to the theater

Broadway tickets are expensive — add babysitting to that and the costs are often prohibitive. But a nonprofit is trying to bring free babysitting to theaters around the country.
Kohei Hara
Getty Images
Broadway tickets are expensive — add babysitting to that and the costs are often prohibitive. But a nonprofit is trying to bring free babysitting to theaters around the country.

An arts non-profit has a big goal: to bring occasional free babysitting to every arts institution in the country. This weekend, PAAL, the Parent Artist Advocacy League for Performing Arts and Media, is trying the concept out on Broadway for the first time.

On Saturday, parents with tickets to the Here Lies Love matinee who registered in advance will drop off their kids about a block away at a rehearsal studio staffed by Broadway Babysitters.

"They bring their equipment to the space, so they're able to convert the rehearsal studio of Open Jar Studios into a place with mats and dividers and coloring books and games," said Rachel Junqueira Spencer Hewitt, the founder of PAAL and one of its four leaders. "And there may be some organized activities — learning, play and dance — because most of Broadway Babysitters are artists themselves."

It's tough to be an artist and a parent

Rachel Spencer Hewitt and her daughter at the stage door during Hewitt's run in <em>King Charles III</em> on Broadway.
/ Rachel Spencer Hewitt
Rachel Spencer Hewitt
Rachel Spencer Hewitt and her daughter at the stage door during Hewitt's run in King Charles III on Broadway.

PAAL started as a way to help parents who work in theater.

Hewitt had struggled to balance an acting career with her growing family. She had to hide her pregnancy at auditions; once her child was born, she had to turn down work because the contracts paid less than a babysitter would cost.

"I saw my path to my career blocked because of the lack of support," she said. "And I know that every industry has this dilemma of — if the child care costs more than my job's able to pay, how can I still do this?"

PAAL advocates for parents in all sorts of ways, including giving grants for fertility costs to artists and presenting a Black Motherhood and Parenting New Plays Festival. But helping people in theater take care of their children is part of their core mission — an early initiative was hiring babysitters to watch children at auditions.

Then the leadership realized that theater artists need audiences — and many potential audience members were struggling to pay child care costs in addition to buying theater tickets.

Grace Berryman, an actor, fell into that category. When she saw a posting on Instagram that tickets to a September matinee of Here Lies Love came with free babysitting, she was thrilled.

"I, of course, got online, bought tickets right away. I think I checked in with my husband, but I was like, 'We're going.'" she said, laughing. "Broadway tickets are expensive as it is. And then to pay $100, $150 for child care as well — it's just something our family can't do."

She says she expects her children will have a wonderful time.

It was easy

Here Lies Love isn't the first time PAAL has facilitated free babysitting. The initiative started Off-Broadway and later this month, the Sept. 30 performance of the Off-Broadway play Mary Gets Hers will also have babysitting for free.

Hewitt says when they felt like the program was solid enough to work for a larger Broadway audience, she emailed Here Lies Love producer Clint Ramos.

"We had really been waiting to bring it to a Broadway show when we knew that that Broadway show shared our values," she said. "And we had seen that this production really committed to inclusion."

PAAL is run by women of color; Here Lies Love has an all-Filipino cast.

Ramos said he immediately went to talk with his partners. "It was a no-brainer. I said, 'Let's do it!' and we started the conversation there. And to be honest, it was easier than I thought it would be because they made it easy. They have the program intact already." And then, he said, "We announced it in the press and the parents came."

The format is easy for parents, too. They buy a ticket, register their child or children using a simple intake form (the program takes kids 3 months and up) and then drop them off. That's it.

Part of a larger plan

Hewitt said that PAAL's goal is for every show in New York to have at least one "caregiver accessible" production as a standard part of their programming. But the organization is not stopping there. She said they already have chapters opening around the country, from Dallas to Detroit and Washington, D.C., to Seattle.

Eventually, she would like to see the concept spread to orchestras, operas — even museums. She says it's good for the organizations, who may see increased loyalty and gain new audiences; it's good for the parent-artists who are supported; and it's good for people who'd like to see an art exhibit or a play but can't because child care is so expensive.

"People who appreciate the arts are engaged in the realities of life," Hewitt said. "You say, 'Gosh, I wish they would come to my show,' without understanding, where are they right now? They're in the car. They're in the pick-up line [at school]. They're listening to your ad promoting your gorgeous exhibit while they're trying to schedule the soccer game."

She said, "This benefits everyone."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.