As part of our work in Scotland, in collaboration with Federation of Scottish Theatres, funded by Scottish Government’s Workplace Equality Fund, we caught up with Glasgow based actor, musician, singer and physical theatre performer Tara McGirr, to find out how she balances working in performing arts alongside caring for her younger siblings.
I am of Scottish/Thai heritage and was brought up in Thailand. I moved to the UK five years ago when I was 23 to study at East 15 in London. After graduating in 2019, I moved to Glasgow to be nearer my Scottish family, which includes my dad, grandmother and grandfather. I do not remember much about my own mum as she and my dad split up when I was 4 years of age. I was raised by my dad and step-mother.
I have two half siblings – a sister aged 11 and a brother who is 15 years of age. Our childhood was chaotic, due to alcohol misuse within my family – my dad and Thai grandmother. My step- mother has mental health issues and has spent a lot of time in hospital and on medication. Therefore, by the time I was 16 years old, I was looking after my siblings.
I didn’t realise I was a carer until I attended a coffee morning organised by PiPA
It was through one of the coffee mornings organised by PiPA that I became aware of my caring responsibilities. I had never regarded myself as a carer because I thought that caring for your family was normal and that you just ‘got on with it’. When I started to think about it the more I realised that I had been juggling caring responsibilities ever since I could remember, especially in relation to my siblings given that my father and step-mother were unable to look after my brother and sister.
When I heard other people’s stories and struggles along with helpful tips, it made me realise how much pressure I have actually been under my whole life. Since moving to Scotland last year, my focus has been on my family. My dad and stepmother have now split up and my dad has returned to Scotland. My grandfather is living in a care home and, pre Lockdown, I had been visiting him most days. My grandmother, although very capable of looking after herself is on her own therefore I was visiting her every second day.
A huge stress in my life is that I worry about my brother in Thailand. Recently, he has been having trouble at school. I would like him to come and live with my partner and I in Scotland, which he is keen to do. Currently I am in the process of trying to move him over to live with us so that he can have more stability in his life and perhaps finish his schooling here.
This is proving to be very stressful as, trying to negotiate it with parents who no longer speak to each other, is very problematic. I am not his legal guardian therefore any decision needs to involve communicating with many different people which can be incredibly intense. All these conversations are exhausting given that I have to constantly tread very carefully between my dad and step-mother. The only positive aspect is that my decision is being fully supported by my partner and Scottish grandmother. This decision is important to me as I only want what is best for him.
Juggling a career in the performing arts and acknowledging my caring responsibilities can be very hard
I am still relatively new to the performing arts and am acutely aware of the risks of having to juggle my career and my caring responsibilities. My theatre work to date has been a celebration of different cultures including a Chinese Opera play and a native Brazilian story adapted to theatre and Japanese Butoh. My work has been a balance of celebrating cultures however I am aware of the need for me to be sensitive in order to make sure what I am doing represents culture appreciation and not appropriation.
As an actor, you have to be flexible enough to be able to audition for any new opportunity that comes your way. However, with my caring duties I recognise that I also need to be flexible enough to drop everything and be there for whoever needs me. My Scottish grandmother has offered to help me when my brother moves over if I am on tour. This leaves me feeling guilty as she is 74 years of age and it could be very hard for her taking on the responsibility of a 15 year old boy.
Having a career in the performing arts is already hard but, coupled with my caring obligations, it can make me feel at times very restless. I acknowledge the impact this is having on my own physical and mental health. At times, being a carer is draining and I recognise that working on a passionate creative project can also be tiring. It is very easy to forget about yourself as you are always having to think about others.
Out of financial necessity I am also working in a bar to help me pay the bills. This upsets me as, with everything else that is going on in my life, I realise my career is not going at the pace that I would like it to be. I would love to be more creative and take on more theatre roles, however I have to hold myself back because of my other commitments.
What has been the impact of Covid-19?
My partner and I work in the same bar and currently we are both furloughed so financially things are tight. Caring wise, I am more stressed given that everyone who relies on me is trying to access me at all times of the day.
On a more positive note, I am also trying to take back some control of my life and I am in the process of planning a lot of exciting new theatre projects. Being creative is making me feel happy. I would love to be in a position to have financial stability to enable me to work on a new project. In reality I am aware that I am still new so this will not happen overnight.
I would love to be in a position to know that I have security to enable me to focus solely on my creativity. However, I have to be pragmatic and know that working in the arts is precarious and that I need to rely on having another source of income. Lockdown has enabled me to enjoy having fun with my family rather than just being seen as the one who carries out tasks for them. I believe it has created a stronger bond between us. When Lockdown is over, I am looking forward to going to the theatre and accessing activities that we can all attend as a family.
What I have learnt?
This sounds very simple but I would encourage the importance of scheduling your time. It sounds obvious but with a lot of responsibility comes a lot of scheduling. I never used to do it and ended up feeling that I had sold my soul to everyone apart from myself.
I also recommend the importance of remembering to have ‘you’ time. To be there for yourself as you would be to others. I would love to believe that having a career is equally as important as those you care for.
It may seem robotic to be creative at scheduled times, however it has enabled me to feel more relaxed and not let my mind become overactive. We live in a 24/7 society, and it can make one feel constantly ‘on call’. I now schedule times during the day when I can look at my phone.
I am also a believer in the power of meditation. This plays an important part in my life and I try to meditate at the start and end of each day.
I hope the arts industry is changing. Through PiPA, I hope that we will have a more honest dialogue within the sector and that organisations will move away from hiring those who can be accessed ASAP to it being more in tune around people’s situations. I think this could be a game changer, especially for those with family and caring responsibilities.
Moving forward I hope there will be a time when my caring commitments will no longer be considered an obstacle for me in accessing creative opportunities. I realise that more transparency in relation to the struggles faced by carers is vital.
If carers and representatives of organisations can have honest conversations about the issues from the outset I believe it will increase the potential for arts organisations to find better solutions. This would create scope for organisations to create an equal playing field between carers and non-carers in competing for jobs.
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