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Universal Child Care, a docu-musical of sorts with characters wailing about their inability to find affordable childcare.Supplied

On Sunday, my wife and I caught up with Quote Unquote Collective’s Universal Child Care at Canadian Stage in Toronto at a performance that was designed to live up to the principles espoused by the cri-de-coeur concert (which my colleague Martin Morrow made a Critic’s Pick).

Babes in arms were permitted in the Berkeley Street Theatre – and childcare was provided at no extra cost to ticket-holders’ children from the ages of 2 to 12 at a not-for-profit arts organization called Jamii Hub that is a one-minute walk away.

We availed ourselves of both these options, leaving our four year old to happily make art for an hour and a half while we brought the one year old to our seats with us.

Watching Universal Child Care, a docu-musical of sorts with characters wailing about their inability to find affordable childcare, at a performance where the performers were accompanied by a chorus of more than 20 wailing babies was definitely an unforgettable theatrical experience.

But babes-in-arms theatregoing is not a entirely new experience for us: They are welcome at some children’s shows and most relaxed performances.

The on-site childcare for an adult-oriented show, however, was a game-changer. With two children under 5, my wife and I do not see nearly as much theatre together as we used to do, owing to the logistics and cost of arranging childcare.

Could Universal Child Care’s experiment in providing childcare be replicable and get more parents of young children – a demographic notoriously absent from audiences – to go to theatre? I asked Quote Unquote’s Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava some questions over e-mail about how it went, which they answered, naturally, collectively.

How many children were taken care of during Sunday’s show at the nearby Jamii Hub?

We had ECE [early childhood education] childcare providers for six toddlers 2 to 4. In another area of Jamii hub, we had a combination of ECE works and artists working with 20 children 5 to 12 on artistic crafts and creative activities.

How much did it cost roughly to provide that to an audience for one performance?

It cost Canadian Stage and Balancing Act Canada, an organization that supports artist caregivers, roughly $2,250 in direct expenses to provide the childcare and programming at Jamii Hub for that one performance, excluding overhead costs like staff time in planning/co-ordination, admin time for registration, insurance, etc. While the cost per child is high (about $85 a child) for a theatre to provide, that is comparable to what it costs a parent to hire a babysitter for four to five hours and, like with childcare centres, the costs of labour, space and supplies are necessary to provide safe and supportive environments for children.

Based on the terrific response that we received from this pilot program this past weekend, Canadian Stage is already actively exploring consistent offers of childcare for two to 12 year olds next season for select matinees.

What was it like for the cast to perform with a Greek chorus of babies howling off and on throughout the show?

Performing with the sounds of so many babies and children was such a rich experience. It was a new layer to the soundtrack, one that is so embedded in the experience of parenting that it felt like a very natural addition. There were moments of call and response, of emphasis, of a group voice. It felt like such a team effort: That parents weren’t leaving due to the sounds of their children but were sticking it out, that we were all in it together to help everyone experience the show. Some of the singers expressed that it was the most tapped in that they had felt during the run. Not that it was a distraction but that it was actually a tool to focus even deeper. It felt ... right.

Did you learn anything about how you might do babes-in-arms performances of the show going forward from the experience?

Simply that it is a necessary part of doing this show. That so many people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend the theatre were able to join us. The subject matter of this show is most relevant to those who are so often left out of the conversation because they are too tired, busy, and have children to look after. We were so moved by how many people brought their children to join us, and told us how meaningful it was for them to be welcomed in that space.

Is there a future life for the show lined up at this point?

We are in discussions about touring currently, so nothing to formally announce, but we hope this is just the beginning of the life of Universal Child Care.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Universal Child Care, which closed over the weekend, was created by Quote Unquote and commissioned by and/or produced in association with BroadStage (Santa Monica), Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund.

Four shows opening this week across Canada

1. Father Tartuffe: An Indigenous Misadventure, a new adaptation of Molière’s classic comedy by Herbie Barnes, opens at the Arts Club in Vancouver this week in co-production with Touchstone Theatre. It runs to March 24.

I never really tire of Tartuffe adaptations. This one, set on the Rez around the time of Expo 67, seems like the latest to use the show about hypocrisy to explore the possibility that Canadian confederation was a con job, following playwright Andy Jones’ Newfoundland-set adaptation for the National Arts Centre and director Denis Marleau’s Quebec/Quiet Revolution production for the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. Though, as I wrote about the play’s many Canadian iterations in 2017: “It seems whoever is in charge, we’re always living in the age of Tartuffe.”

2. Mermaid Legs, the latest from the exceptional Edmonton playwright Beth Graham (The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble; The Drowning Girls), is described as “a surreal theatre dance fantasia about the bonds of sisterhood and the stigma of mental illness.” It’s the mainstage production at the SkirtsAfire Festival at the Gateway Theatre from Thursday to March 10. (And, hey, per last week’s newsletter, there’s a couple performances with captioning.)

3. The Piano Teacher, a play by Dorothy Dittrich about a concert pianist who returns to lessons after a loss, is on at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg from Wednesday to March 16. The drama was the winner of the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama – and this new production is directed by Simon Miron.

4. Moi, dans les ruines rouges du siècle, a 2012 play by Olivier Kemeid created with and starring the Ukrainian-Quebeçois actor Sasha Samar, is back on stage in Montreal in a big new production at Duceppe from Wednesday to March 30. The play (in French) tells part of the life story of Samar – who grew up in Kryvyi Rih, as did Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – and his 22-year search for his mother as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Canadian Stage and Balancing Act Canada paid for the child care at Sunday's matinee of Universal Child Care.

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