A production company run by two women with seven children between them is rewriting the rules that separate work and family life, explains Sarah Bird.

Photo of audience at festival
The audience at the Just So Festival in 2014

This festival season has been dominated by conversations about working women. Pictures of billboards listing the dwindling number of female acts on stage have gone viral, and a number of discussion pieces about the lack of women in key positions in the music and festival industries have been written by figures such as Glastonbury co-ordinator Emily Eavis.

With a full female cast and two female directors, the production house Wild Rumpus may be seen as something of an anomaly in the festival sector. But there’s no doubt that the arts sector has presented more opportunities for us than our prior workplaces, not only as working women but also as business owners and industry leaders. If I had stayed in bookselling, or my Co-Director, Rowan Hoban, had stayed in science, our careers would most likely have been limited by their respectively entrenched social and gender expectations.

We took baby Gabe to hundreds of meetings, and never did an artist, collaborator, sponsor, funder or contractor raise an eyebrow

Our current jobs as Directors of Wild Rumpus, staging large-scale outdoor immersive events for families, allow us to revel daily in our very idea of the perfect career. We love our work and our audiences, who are usually women with young children like us, but we have never seen our work as simply by women and for women. Our productions find places for families of all shapes, sizes and genders, with our programming focused on engaging everyone, from zero to 90, at any point along the gender spectrum.

After all, the best work is the most inclusive. Music from The Baghdaddies and Perhaps Contraption and theatre from Pif Paf and Les Enfants Terrible just works. Our workplace is built on the same principle. We admit everyone. We focus on dismantling current standards of working practices, and with them, gender norms and ‘roles for women’ or ‘barriers faced by women’.

The practices that normally alienate families in the workplace are non-existent at Wild Rumpus. Our working lives fit around our home lives. We work very differently to other companies by coming together at a variety of times during the day, in a variety of different environments. Rowan and I have meetings while running or walking, in the school playground, on camp outs in the woods, over meals and round campfires, at festivals and events. It makes for a more open-ended conversation and creates a more dynamic and innovative way of working. The workplace culture allows our creativity to run freely and has become something we are passionate about for all our team members, even those without family commitments.

This began entirely by necessity. We have seven children between us, the youngest of whom was born in between our first and second Just So Festivals. We took baby Gabe to hundreds of meetings, and never did an artist, collaborator, sponsor, funder or contractor raise an eyebrow. So we gradually created an inclusive environment, surrounded by supportive people. I don’t know that we would have felt comfortable doing this in a retail or a science environment where ideas about family and work are so entirely separate.

Starting a company from scratch, and shouting about spending time with your family and immersing them in the arts, meant we could rewrite the rules, often using support networks that exist in the industry. These range from funding streams to partnerships, collaborative working environments and a culture of sharing expertise to formal and informal mentoring.

Everyone faces social barriers. What really matters is how we dismantle these in order to create an environment where grassroots talent from anybody can thrive.

Sarah Bird is Director of Wild Rumpus.
Tw @_wildrumpus

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Photo of Sarah Bird