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Breastfeeding in rehearsals: how the West End is embracing new mothers

When director Michael Fentiman asked her to join the cast of The Importance of Being Earnest in the West End, Pippa Nixon thought having a six month-old might make it impossible

Pippa Nixon as Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest
© Marc Brenner

When he phoned, our director Mike Fentiman knew I was on maternity leave. But he rang on the off chance that I might be up for playing Gwendolen in his production of The Importance of Being Earnest in the West End. At the time I thought: 'No way'. My daughter – Noa – was four months-old at the time and solely breastfed. But it was my husband who said: 'Find out all the details and maybe we can make it work'.

Mike essentially said that they were really willing to work with what I needed. So I basically laid down everything that we, as a family, might need to make it work. This involved having a break every couple of hours to feed Noa and I asked if we could start rehearsals slightly earlier, so I could then leave to be back for bath time. This was all fine, as long as I was able to stay until 6pm occasionally, which was fine with me. The important thing was that Noa was with me all the time. My mum was happy to come into rehearsals so I said I would need space for them in rehearsals where we could put up a cot and a space for me to breastfeed. Mum had the stage manager's mobile, so if there was ever a problem during rehearsals, she would message the SM, who would pass it on to Mike, who would call a tea break. It was amazing to have the flexibility and it never disrupted the flow of rehearsals.

The important thing was that Noa was with me all the time

When it came to the performances, I said we'd need a space at the theatre, and so Classic Spring generously have given a dressing room for Noa and my mum or husband. So we're essentially in dressing room one at the Vaudeville. We've got a travel cot, a blow up bath and a changing table. And now she's six months-old we have a high chair and I'm trying to wean her. It's worked fantastically. The first week was probably the hardest because I had been with her 24/7 up to that point. But it took three days and she's completely happy as Larry.

Left: director Michael Fentiman giving notes with Noa on his lap and right, Noa with Sophie Thompson

Everyone has been so supportive. I am wearing a corseted costume, but I said that I was breastfeeding so they have made me a corset with openings so I can breastfeed throughout the show. I also asked wigs if I could get into mine as late as possible, so that I get her ready for bed until 6.30pm and from then I am in show mode and my wig goes on at 7pm.

Sophie Thompson (left) and Pippa Nixon (right) in rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Marc Brenner)

I wanted to share the experience we've been having, because a few people have said they have been turned down from jobs because of their situation, or have even had to hide their pregnancy. Some have said they had to compromise on breastfeeding and started giving formula earlier. I think there's a fear in my generation about being a mother and being able to continue. But my agent has been nothing but supportive and I've had some great jobs since having Noa. Fiona Button is working on the show too and she did The Split last year with a 15 month old and the BBC were incredibly supportive. Classic Spring have also helped with the cost of childcare for me and Fiona as we have an extra matinee midweek.

Producers and directors need to trust their actor

It feels like a really exciting time. People are thinking more about being flexible and I wonder if that's because of a number of contributing factors. It could be to do with the 50/50 casting push, the BBC having to share their pay bands, Act for Change are working on equality in casting and the #MeToo conversations too. PIPA (Parents In Performing Arts) has been promoting issues like these for a number of years, but I think the industry are having to shift more.

The key advice I have for a director, producer or organisation thinking of employing a new mother is that they need to trust their actor. I have been acting for 17 years and I know how to do this job and I also know what's right for Noa. I would no way have taken the role if it wasn't going to be right for Noa. We are able to multi-task. When I was in the rehearsal room I was 100 per cent present and when I was with Noa I felt 100 per cent present there too. I thanked Dominic Dromgoole for being able to provide a nursery, but he said: 'Well done to you for saying what you need'. I was never prepared to be compromised as either an actor or as a mother. It was amazing how I actually had more energy in the rehearsal room too.

It's exciting to feel part of the industry at the moment and to be a parent. I really feel that I haven't compromised over my time with Noa. Over the course of the run our aim as a family is to begin to take her home, so we get back into the routine at home. But I think we wanted to decide that for ourselves.

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