For some women in theatre, even the decision to become mothers may be a complicated one.
For example, actress Brooke Lynn White waited until she had security in her non-theatre job to become a mother. At the same time, Julie Kleiner Davis chose to leave behind a promising New York stage career to settle down and pursue parenthood.
“I was getting final callbacks for Hairspray, Next to Normal, all these big broadway shows, so it was a definite choice to say I’m not going to pursue that now anymore,” she says.
But her decision to prioritize having a family is one that she never has for a moment regretted. Since early health issues left her uncertain about whether she would be able to conceive, Kleiner realized early on that having children was something she wanted to prioritize.
“I have lots of friends who I grew up with who are big famous Broadway stars, but they made a lot of sacrifices early on and weren’t sure they were going to be able to have families. I didn’t want that to be me.”
Instead, she focuses on how blessed she feels to have been able to carry her three children and has learned to embrace success on a smaller scale with the help of insight from her mother.
Julie’s three kids
“My mom always said she wanted me to be like Patty Gardner,” Kleiner says, referring to a celebrated local actress who also juggled acting and motherhood.
“When I was a kid, I thought that was ridiculous because I wanted to be on Broadway, but raising a family is so much more rewarding than just having a career.”
The other mothers expressed similar gratitude that they chose the path that led them to their children, despite the substantial sacrifices that choice entailed.
“My son came at the exact perfect time in my life.” Shelley Keelor said about her 13-year-old. “He’s my raison d’etre.”
In contrast, Molly Anne Ross had her seven-month-old, Luca, in what might at first have seemed to be a particularly imperfect moment—in the middle of the pandemic! But the timing turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing Ross to have much more quality bonding time with him in his first few months than she might have had under more normal circumstances.
Molly with her son, Luca.
“Like so many of us, I had been caught up in running the race and staying busy. But Luca has taught me so much and has shown me joy found in the simple things,” she says.
Yet, for all the joy that parenthood brings, it also comes with enormous logistical challenges when it comes to the practicality of theatre-making.
“Scheduling is key,” White says.
“If I have my rehearsal at six, she gets dropped off at Abuela’s house at 5:30, and maybe I pick her up at night, and she sleeps in the car. But that takes a lot of commitment. People don’t always understand that. That when I show up, I’ve come through a lot to be there…because I love this.”
Now that she has enrolled her toddler in preschool, she is newly grateful for the spare hours it affords her, often harnessing the time to work on her craft. However, the limitations on her availability also mean that White has had to be choosier about which projects she commits her time to, as has Kleiner.
“I’m a bit picky about what I’m leaving my children for. I might choose the role of a mother over whatever other role I might play,” Kleiner explains.
Keelor, on the other hand, says she hasn’t pulled back at all, keeping up with a demanding schedule of shows and cabaret performances that leaves her busy on nearly every weekend of the season. And anyone who questions her ability to keep on making it work will only add fuel to her fire.
Shelley’s son, Sean
“Someone said to me, oh, you’ll have to quit the business since you’ll be a mom now. That was all of the ammunition that I needed. So I worked hard to market myself and, since being a mom, I perform more than ever,” Keelor says.
Her success is even more awe-striking when one considers that she is a single parent and has no immediate family in Florida. But she has found “one of the most remarkable groups of supporters I’ve ever had” and many lifelong friendships by joining mom’s clubs and nurturing relationships with other mothers.
“I always tell new mothers, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You might meet one of your best friends.” she elaborates.
Other actresses who are lucky enough to have family around locally have found them critical elements of their support system. For example, Kleiner’s husband, who works in finance, takes on nighttime and weekend childcare duties “like a champ” while Kleiner is occupied at rehearsal, and both sets of her childrens’ grandparents also live close enough to lend a hand as well.
New mom Molly Ross also plans to lean on her relatives.
“It takes a village, and I have a wonderful family who loves on Luca as much as I do… I plan on relying on them in the juggle,” she contemplates.
Though she is eager to return to the theatre, Ross is still figuring out how she will balance her acting roles with her role as a mom.
“As theatre starts to come alive again, I am unsure what the future holds and how theatre will merge with motherhood. But I’m excited to go back to creating art and telling important stories. The dramatic escape will be more important than ever, and I expect it to take on a deeper meaning,” she says.
Both expectations and worries may be borne out by the experiences of actresses who’ve already had to brave the theatre world with their youngsters in tow.
“Those of us that have families know it’s not an easy balancing act,” Kleiner reflects. “Yet I’m so grateful I have that opportunity cause a lot of people don’t. So they have to choose.”
And though Kleiner at first welcomed the chance the pandemic gave her to slow down and spend more time with her children, after more than a full year of seclusion, she is all too eager to get back into the theatre thrall as soon as equity allows.
Though she’s searched for artistic fulfillment in the meantime in everything from cookie decorating to butterfly gardening, she’s found that nothing that can quite live up to that theatre buzz or provide the same opportunity to immerse herself in another persona fully.
“I feel like a lot of times it’s a strange balance because I have my family life, and I go do theatre, and I’m a different person there,” she says
But having theatre as her emotional outlet seems to be essential to the personal balance that helps her be the best mom that she can be.
“I’m a much better mom when I am doing theatre, and I’m a much better actress now that I’m a mom.” Kleiner continues.
White feels similarly about the importance of not losing touch with her passions.
“You do need that personal time to yourself to spread joy.” She reflects.
“Because if you don’t have joy in yourself, how can you pass that joy on?”
But she is careful not to let even the creative work she loves come at the expense of bonding time with her daughter.
“She is a priority in my life, so when she’s there, I want to be as present as possible. Living in the moment, looking into her eyes, talking to her. Letting her know she’s loved.”
The love these mothers feel for their children was certainly evident in our conservations, as was the unique character of that love, a love so profound and intense that it radiates out into nearly everything.
“Everything, even your molecules change, almost at the moment you realize they’re growing inside of you,” White reflects.
“It’s changed my life totally, in the aspect of who I am. I’m all out now; I’m a fiercer person, you’ll find me taking more risks now. I’m there to Light the Way for my daughter,” she continues.
Brooke and her daughter, Olyvia
Ross also looks forward to taking artistic advantage of the expanded capacity for feeling that her motherhood has brought her.
“Being a mom has heightened every emotion for me, so I assume that will carry over to the stage. I feel everything on a deeper level. I have compassion and love for life that has become stronger through the trials the world has faced this past year,” Ross says. “Luca has brought a joy to my life that I can’t quite put into words.”
Keelor has indeed found that her love for her son has deepened her capacity as a performer,
“Once you become a Mom, you are more self-aware. You want the world to be perfect for your child, or at least I do, and we all know it is far from that. So yes, I see and appreciate theatre quite differently. It has also made me a better actress, being a Mom. Hands down.” Keelor says.
Some actresses also reflected on the Way their mothers helped them find their Way to theatre-making. For example, Keelor credits hers with encouraging her early affinity for acting and nurturing her musical talent.
“My mom always sang to me, always. Mostly she sang standards and songs from the Great American Songbook. Thus, my love for that genre of music,” Keelor notes.
“She also put up with me pretending to do various acts. Like dropping on the floor while choking, acting as I fainted…and, of course, the little plays that I would write and put on with my neighborhood friends. She’s by far my number one supporter!”
Meanwhile, Kleiner’s mom helped lay the groundwork for her theatre career in more practical ways.
“My mom will tell you her role was being a cab driver! She took me to dance classes, voice lessons, took me to California and booked commercials there. She took me to the Broadway auditions. So I had a lot of experience as a kid outside of Florida, and that wouldn’t have been possible without my mom,” she says.
And Molly Ross’s mother not only introduced her to the theatre but set an example of the kind of strong, artistic woman that she would eventually become herself.
“Before my mom had me, she was an actress and is a singer as well. So it runs in my blood! I remember being a little girl and attending her rehearsals in my pajamas…she introduced me to the magic of music and theatre,” Ross reflects.
Molly, Luca, and Molly’s mom
That appreciation for the magic of theatre is something that some of these moms are now working to instill in their children. Kleiner is looking forward to supporting her children in their passions as they become more mature. She was excited to share that her oldest daughter is now interested in attending the prestigious theatre camp that she attended in her youth.
White, too, is excited by the idea that her daughter may grow to share her love for theatre.
“She plays and pretends, and she does have a love for it, and I’m happy that that’s there, and I can slowly guide her into it,” she says.
Meanwhile, White is busy working towards a world where her daughter’s voice might be more likely to be heard as one of the founding members of Femuscripts, an all-female and female-identifying production company aiming to amplify female voices in theater.
And though Shelley Keelor’s son has gravitated towards athletic rather than theatrical pursuits, she is still mightily proud of all that she’s helped him achieve.
“I’ve seen him go from white belt to black belt in karate. I have watched him try soccer, basketball, and now, Lacrosse. And I make sure that, one way or another, he gets to every practice or class.”
Shelley and Sean
The two of them still find plenty to share, and Keelor still finds plenty of opportunities to be an inspiring presence in his life.
“We’ve camped together, traveled together, and love to hike and be in nature together. But, more important than remembering me as a professional singer and actress is that he remembers me as a great mom with whom he enjoys spending time,” she says. “That’s my goal every day.”
Whether it’s through inspiring their children or setting an example for other young women who dream of being able to have a family and still make a splash on stage, it’s all but guaranteed that these four theatre superheroines will play a big part in ensuring that strong women will keep finding their way to the stage for generations to come.