#ArtistsInRetreat: Playbox’s Stewart McGill and Mary King on life in self-isolation

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Stewart McGill and Mary King of Playbox Theatre. Main image, Gretel, the company's recent festive show

During the coronavirus lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime in this regular #ArtistsInRetreat feature. Here Stewart McGill and Mary King, consultant director and executive director at Playbox Theatre, reveal how it’s been for them.

Tell us how you got started as artists.
Mary was a student at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff – despite what she will say her stage work was superb! I first saw her in Oh! What A Lovely War, her training was rigorous in voice, movement, text and performance – all perfect for starting the enigmatic Playbox years on.
I had a more experimental period at Dartington College of Arts. Theatre was often a banned word as we were taken through the agony of Martha Graham Dance, gruelling Grotowski techniques (which still haunt my dreams), movement, mime, creation of ‘things’ – not plays (another banned word!) and the style of Japanese and Indian theatre.
The Indian sitar player Imrat Khan was in residence and we would sit under the stars listening to his night ragas on the sitar. That’s what made us a great balance for Playbox – the technique, the rigour and precision alongside the experimental and European influences.

Where are you spending the lockdown?
In this time of isolation we are lucky to live in a very quiet village near Stratford so can plan together, and the family are nearby in Stratford, Exhall and Fulready. Although we are distanced we keep in constant touch, and do make essential trips to The Dream Factory [their Warwick base] for work that we can’t do at home.

Any tips for not going stir crazy?
The outside world is the lifeline and we are able to connect with so many organisations. I am catching up some performances I missed over the years and this gets me fired up to get back in the rehearsal room and studio. Mary has a huge task of communicating with all our staff, suppliers, arts bodies, councils, etc. So I guess it’s a mix of work, lots of planning and performance.

Are you managing to do any kind of work?
Like the old days we find ourselves planning ahead and with Emily and Juliet [the couple’s daughters are both involved in Playbox – Emily Quash as artistic director and Juliet Vankay as director of musical theatre] refashioning models for a post-apocalypse Playbox.
We are determined to kick into action as soon as the Gods allow and the programme is under revision and rethinking to ensure our members get straight back into business.
Strange that our Shakespeare Young Company were looking at the closure of theatres in plague torn Elizabethan London – very immediate and we hope their research project Subtle Flame will be shown soon. The company were to premiere this in Wales at The Willow Globe but, of course, this is off, although we have been invited next year with a new project.
There is much to plan as when we reopen some projects will be nearly ready others will need more time. So we have plan A, B and C ready to initiate. The problem is the waiting. We are in touch daily with all directors and our technical director, Richard Cooper, who with Emily is heading up our new on-line initiative.
So many members and alumni are contributing. Yesterday Sophie Turner, based now in LA, joined the team in sending a bedtime tale for going out soon on the channel. Everyone is part of a terrific movement within Playbox so, yes, we are working very hard.

What are the upsides and downsides of being in lockdown?
Downsides: missing human interaction, family, the team and our enlarged Playbox family. We would love to be in studios right now but we have to be patient and hang fire.
I miss live arts – no theatre, concerts, shows, etc. I will moan much less when this is over and see as much as possible, and perhaps not be so critical!
Upsides – reflection, music, the garden, reading – catching up on many books and rereading lots of previous ones. I’m not a great one for staying put though.

Macbeth Underworld

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?Where to begin… maybe a bit obscure but forgive me……Macbeth Underworld from La Monnaie de Munt in Belgium is Thomas Jolly’s opera take on the supernatural in the play. His directorial style is magnificent and the show is being streamed so look at visuals and enjoy his amazing approach to drama. I saw an amazing Phèdre from The Wooster Group yesterday and am looking at lots of their work alongside many European companies streaming plays, dance and opera. I’m also enjoying the French ensemble Pygmalion with their early opera variations Stravaganza D’Amore on DVD and CD and Royal Opera’s La bohème. I’ve been listening to Pink Floyd, Beatles, Oasis, Sufjan Stevens, The Cure, and Sondheim – everything he had ever written!
Also, a confession: our son Chris [McGill] has been directing episodes of EastEnders, and we’ve got hooked. It’s great contemporary drama with superb performances and if I ever rubbished it I now take back my words! The number of viewers is staggering and the immediate issues played with total conviction.

What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?
A big Stratford walk: coffee, fresh air, coffee, back to work, coffee – you get the picture. I hope it’s a global reopening, there’s so much to see.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?
We learn to value every moment, and enjoy our times to the full.

What help would you like to see being given to the self-employed and arts community?
I know that artists will keep going until reopening. I would like to see help for the self-employed. Certainly Playbox wants to retain its loyal staff and the government help for business and employees will be vital in getting us back to operational capacity. We certainly will be looking to provide artists with work alongside our teams where possible and hoping that this huge onslaught of support continues.
Self-help and our huge support from families, council, friends, members will be the most important. The model may fracture a little but the Playbox Theatre heart will continue.We have a fabulous building waiting for us to return. Ghost light extinguished and ready to roll.