Don’t Call Me a Liability

This week I’d like to take you back in time to when I was pregnant and was fired from an acting job because of it. This article was originally posted on Some Lady Parts, an excellent blog focused on calling out sexism in the entertainment industry.

Don’t Call Me a Liability

I am an actor in Los Angeles. And I am pregnant. I’m very driven, always on the go self-producing, auditioning, hustling for that next job. So before we decided to start a family, I had a lot of questions. Will being pregnant and having a child slow me down? Will taking time off for labor and recovery jeopardize my career? Can I be a great mother AND a great actor?

My husband and I talked about it a lot until finally, the timing felt right. When we saw that little blue plus sign, I was thrilled! And nervous as hell. I decided to tell my agents when I was 4 months along, not knowing when I’d start showing, but wanting to give them a heads-up. I spoke with my acting coach on how to broach the subject. I stayed up late worrying about it.

And you know what? It couldn’t have gone better. They squealed and clapped, the same way my closest friends and family did! They offered their support and told me stories about how amazing parenthood is. They told me to take whatever time I needed — they’d be there when I got back. They even offered to hook me up with an agency that specializes in pregnant moms and newborns. I left the meeting beaming and reassured that I could, indeed, do this. Everything would be fine! My career wasn’t over. A new chapter had just begun.

A few days later, I had a theater audition. At the the callback, they had some basic set pieces set up and I used them, running around the table, tossing down a chair as directed. They told me they’d likely make their decision over the weekend and call Tuesday (it was a holiday weekend). They called the next morning and left a voicemail.

Hi Kate. This is —- with the —– Theater. I would like to invite you to play —- … Congratulations! I’m looking forward to this!”

Perfection! One last play before taking a break from theater to nurse a newborn. The comedy was right in my wheelhouse, the theater right in my neighborhood. Yes!

I called the director and accepted the role. We talked about the schedule, then I said:

I just want to let you know that I’m pregnant. I’m not very far along but if the show gets extended, I may need to let out my costumes a bit by the end of the run. I’m very healthy and physically active so there should be no issue in terms of my ability to perform this role.”

Why did I tell him? A: It had gone so well with my agents and B: I have always been a very honest person. I was sure that it was better to tell them up front than to spring it on them later.

I joked “There aren’t any high-wire stunts in this show, are there?” The director laughed. “No, no. The physical stuff you did in the callback is the worst of it.” He thanked me, and said again how excited he was to have me on board.

Yes! It felt like another actor/mother win! But that evening, I got this voicemail (emphasis mine):

Listen, I had a conversation with the owner and artistic director of the theater and they feel because of LIABILITY ISSUES we won’t be able to use you for this show…”

He apologized, said he really liked my work, hoped to use me another time but… ya know, liability issues.

I was shocked. Hadn’t we just spoken and agreed it wouldn’t be an issue?

I was also heartbroken. There are very few things more painful to an actor than having a role, starting to own it, then having it snatched away.

And finally, I was pissed. What the f*** did he mean, liability?

I gave myself a bit to cool off and called back, leaving a voicemail:

I got your message. I just wanted to clarify a few things. I’m not really clear on why my pregnancy makes me more of a liability than a non-pregnant person. Presumably, if an actor got hurt, that would be an issue whether they are pregnant or not. As we discussed, there are no stunts which my pregnancy prevents me from doing, so I’m just not clear on what the issue is. If you could please give me a call back, I’d like to discuss this further.”

The director did not return my call.

I was reeling. This was the opposite of how my agents had reacted. The thought crept up slowly: this was… was this discrimination?!

I posted about it on Facebook. No names, just the facts and my shock, heartbreak, and anger. I reached out to a friend in Equity for insight. He posted to his own wall asking for advice from the community.

Our pages blew up with outrage. Some people asked for names. “What theater is it? We’ll tell everyone!” And man, wasn’t that tempting on some level? But I’ve been very concerned recently with the rise of “internet mob justice”. Stories get taken out of context, threats are made, and lives are ruined without a fair trial. Our justice system is FAR from perfect, but I’m terrified by the online witch hunts. So that wasn’t the route for me.

Non-acting folks cried I should sue — it was pregnancy discrimination and against the law. But here’s the tricky thing. In Los Angeles, Equity has the “99-seat theater agreement” in which actors aren’t paid. (Actor’s Equity tried to change that this year, but many members marched to prevent it, worried that the LA theater scene would collapse.) So I didn’t know if I was even considered an employee. Many acting folks weighed in that they doubted it.

Another issue? I’m SAG-AFTRA but not a full Equity member yet. Would they protect a non-union member?

I decided to wait until Tuesday and make some calls. The thought of suing the theater, while appealing, didn’t seem realistic. As most actors at my level will tell you, we aren’t looking for a court case, no matter how justified, because a) we aren’t wealthy (yet) and b) this is business is a small one, really, and you don’t want to be known as a troublemaker.

Isn’t that awful? To know you’re in the right, wanting to do something to fix it, but to to be worried it might destroy your chance to keep working?

Along with all the advice, there was a chorus of actresses listing shows and roles that they did while 30, even 35 weeks pregnant! They were indignant that “in this day and age” someone would treat a pregnant actor like this.

In this day and age” came up a lot. Everyone, including myself, was shocked to think that in 2015, anyone could be so ignorant as to consider a pregnant person a liability. Because pregnancy is like an injury? A disability?

Sunday morning, I got an email from the director.

The artistic directors… feel this would be a liability problem because there will be considerable physical blocking, involving climbing on and jumping off tables, diving into boxes, which I wasn’t aware of. They also feel a pregnant character would significantly change the dynamics of the play and raise issues that weren’t addressed by the author…”

Wait. Suddenly, there were stunts that the director hadn’t known about even though he’s, ya know, the director?! And then that line about pregnancy changing the role. This was not his opinion when we spoke!

I recognized a case of CYA . Unfortunately, it probably worked. Their asses were covered. By saying it didn’t work for the character to be pregnant, they gave an excuse that I couldn’t really fight. As actors, we’re hired for our look all the time. “You didn’t get the role because we see this character as thinner, hotter, older, brunette…”

My heart sank. It seemed like they won.

I’m generally a very positive person. I stay that way by trying to find the silver lining or lesson in every shitty situation. But I can’t find it here. Is it “DON’T tell people you’re pregnant if you wanna work?” I can’t believe that’s it. I don’t believe it. I’ve had other experiences proving it isn’t.

But I want to do something to fix this. I don’t want this shit to happen to women “in this day and age”. I don’t want to feel like they won, to feel helpless against discrimination of any kind. So I’m sharing my story here. It’s a start.