Shock.” That’s what Hedydd Dylan felt the moment she found out she was pregnant this year. The Welsh actor had recently been cast as Adriana in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Comedy of Errors – their first post-pandemic show – but her mind was full of horror stories surrounding pregnancy and the industry. “Some of the first thoughts that ran through my mind were like, ‘Oh god, I’m gonna burn all my bridges with the RSC, I might not be able to do the job,” she says.
The actor’s fears about breaking the news weren’t unfounded. A report in The Stage earlier this year found that nearly two thirds of women working in theatre have considered leaving the industry for good, with attitudes to ageing and having a family some of the main reasons cited. Dylan’s friend Antonia Kinlay had recently made headlines after taking a TV production company to court in a pregnancy discrimination case (she won £11,000), while stories of insurance companies refusing to insure pregnant people are common across the entertainment industry.
After waiting a couple of weeks, Dylan plucked up the courage to tell her director, Phillip Breen, who reacted with support and enthusiasm. A radical idea was posed. What if the role was shared between two actors, allowing Dylan to keep working throughout her pregnancy? It turned out to be the best of both worlds, and meant that another actor, new mum Naomi Sheldon, could return to work in what she describes as a “very safe environment”. At every stage, the pair have been supported, the weeks scheduled so that Sheldon could return to her 13-month-old twins at the weekends. It’s brought the women closer together too, they tell me over Zoom, with “mum wisdom” passed from one new parent to another expectant one.
While job sharing is slowly becoming more common in the UK, it’s virtually unheard of in theatre. A production of the musical South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre earlier this year planted the idea at the RSC, after actors Alex Young and Gina Beck, the latter of whom was pregnant, shared the role of Nellie Forbush. A similar model was adopted in The Comedy of Errors, with the production beginning in Stratford-upon-Avon this summer with Dylan in the role of Adriana and Sheldon later joining on the national tour. Sheldon is now the sole actor playing the role at the Barbican, where the show remains until the end of the year, but Adriana is portrayed as pregnant in all versions, with Sheldon wearing a bump to match Dylan’s own.
Both actors are keen to stress what an equally beneficial and positive experience this has been for them. The Comedy of Errors is Sheldon’s first show since welcoming her twins and she describes the opportunity as a “huge gift”. “Now I’ve stopped breastfeeding, now they’re old enough to be able to be at nursery… it was perfect timing,” she says. Her theatre director husband remains at home with the twins, while she works. “People keep asking me, ‘Who’s looking after your children?’ as if it has to be completely my job,” she adds, eyes rolling.
In the show, two sets of identical twins are separated at birth, with hijinks of a mistaken identity-kind ensuing as their paths cross. It was decided early on that within this production, Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus (one of the twins) have been married for a year or two, so her pregnancy makes logical sense. But, as Sheldon points out, “it’s also really nice to see pregnant people on stage in surprising roles. I think it works really well with Adriana, but she’s also very sexy, sex-seeking, sexual. She’s powerful, she has agency… it’s unusual to see women that are pregnant in those situations.”
As unusual as the RSC’s programme is, Dylan says it’s “bonkers that people aren’t thinking outside the box a bit more” when it comes to ensuring pregnant people and new parents can work. Sheldon has experienced that discrimination first-hand. With only a “pitiful” maternity allowance available to freelancers, she took her first TV job when her babies were only five months old. Stopping breastfeeding would have been dangerous, she says, but her employer refused to let the twins stay with her. With the help of actor’s union Equity, Sheldon fought hard to do “the work that was offered to me” but says she was given no time to express milk and felt “deeply, deeply uncomfortable” on set.
“Not to be too much of a martyr about it, but I felt like the issue was bigger than me [and that] if I do this, this production company sees that this is possible, it’s going to be easier for the next person that comes along,” she says. “But it didn’t feel like a triumph, I felt bruised. I felt like I’d had to do it at the detriment of my own mental and physical health and that was really hard.”
As much as they dismiss claims of martyrdom, both Dylan and Sheldon are aware that what they’re doing is making a difference. “It feels like a step forward and exciting for other actresses to know that there are options,” Dylan says. Sheldon is in agreement. “I think it’s rife within our industry that we feel that if we start to entertain the idea of parenthood as an actor, it’s going to be the end of your career,” she says. “You won’t be employed or your casting bracket will change because you’ll be perceived as a ‘mum’. If I had known that job sharing was a thing between pregnant people in the theatre, then I would have been less scared about even thinking about having a family.”
‘The Comedy of Errors’ runs at the Barbican Theatre until 31 December
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