Playbox Theatre artistic director Emily Quash on life in lockdown #ArtistsInRetreat

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Emily Quash pictured at home during lockdown with her children Tom and Matilda.

During the lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime. Here Playbox Theatre’s Artistic Director Emily Quash shares her thoughts. The drama company is hosting many online events via www.playboxtheatre.com

Tell us about what you do, and how you got started as an artist.
I’m lucky enough to be artistic director of Playbox Theatre, based at our lovely theatre, The Dream Factory, in Warwick. I usually work with hundreds of children of all ages, every week, exploring the world using lots of different creative approaches… it’s the best job on earth! I grew up in a family that was passionate about the arts, so music, theatre, cinema, books and paintings have always been a central part of my life. I always knew that I wanted to work in theatre, although for a long time I thought that meant ‘being an actor’ but I later realised wasn’t my true calling.
I joined Playbox the day that it opened in 1986, when my mother [Mary King] created the company; it became everything to me and was where I forged my greatest friendships, felt I genuinely ‘had a voice’, discovered limitless creative practices and had opportunities that I continue to draw on every single day.

Where you spending the lockdown, and who are you socially isolating with?
Lockdown is at home in a lovely village (well, more of a collection of farms) called Fulready, just outside Ettington. I’m with my husband, Toby, and our children Tom, 11, and Matilda, six. Fulready is always a very quiet place, which is why we love it, so in many ways it doesn’t feel hugely different.

How are you staying connected with the outside world?
I’m actually feeling very well connected to people at the moment. It’s really important to our company that we stay in touch with our members, our families, friends, alumni and supporters, so that is taking up a lot of my time. I’m on my phone and computer a lot more than I would like to be, but enjoying loads of social media interaction, learning about things like ‘Zoom’ and talking incessant amounts to our alumni, who have been absolutely pivotal in Playbox’s response to the current crisis. I’m generally a bit grumpy when it comes to apps and social media etc, but I have to say it’s been a lifeline over the past few weeks. I’m desperate for a screen-break though and definitely need a news detox as soon as possible.

The December Playbox production of Gretel, directed by Emily and written by her husband Toby.

Are you managing to do any kind of work?
Yes, in many ways I feel that I’m working harder than ever, but having to navigate things in a new way. It’s a really steep learning curve for someone like me, whose entire career and way of working is based on immediate, human contact – being in a room with people, being noisy, hugely physical, feeding off the energy of a group in a present moment and being able to respond fluidly to a live situation.
I’m now needing to find ways to maintain the humanity and creative energy of Playbox, but using ‘virtual’ and online methods. It’s been hard but I’m learning and discovering that there is a whole world of potential out there that I hadn’t needed to explore before, and I can see all-sorts of ways that Playbox could expand and diversify in the future. For example, we’ve created Playbox Dreamtime, a lovely daily bedtime story for under 7s, and Chatterbox, an online Zoom chat between actor Calum Finlay, a Playbox alumni, and celebrated actors/artists, with a live audience submitting questions throughout.
What I’m really yearning for is that moment when I can throw open the door to a studio and welcome people in – I cannot wait.

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown/isolation?
There are lots on both sides. We live in this beautiful, green, space, surrounded by rolling Warwickshire countryside and I realise I never usually spend anytime in it, other than to stomp out to my car in the morning and back in after dark. It’s been fantastic to get outside every day and watch the seasons change. I’m also loving spending calm time with my family, as it’s usually incredibly hectic and a race to get from one commitment to another, so having time to really talk to one another feels like a luxury. I spend a lot of time with Tom and Matilda anyway, as they’re very involved with Playbox, but it’s lovely to be with them without any surrounding pressure, especially as Tom goes to secondary school in the autumn and I know Toby and I will look back on this time as a real gift.
Although we both work with Playbox, Toby and I are often like ‘ships that pass’, with workshop and rehearsals taking up the majority of evenings and weekends, so I’ve loved the extra time we’ve been able to spend together too, with space to talk creatively about plans for the future.
Of course, the major downside for me is not being able to see the rest of my family. As part of a family business, not seeing everyone each day is agony.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?
BOOK OF DUST! Can I say that over and over again?! Anyone who knows me will be aware that I am a huge fan of His Dark Materials and I loved the first Book Of Dust volume that Philip Pullman published a couple of years ago. I was given the second in the trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth last September but failed many times to make my way through it. As a result of the lockdown, I have restarted and finished it, and it is wonderful. We may not be able to literally travel anywhere, but the expanse of ‘Lyra’s world’ is absolutely transportational and I loved every page…I hope Pullman is using the lockdown to complete the final in the series, because I cannot wait for Volume III.
We’re also catching up on films and thank goodness for Netflix – Captain Fantastic is absolutely sublime and 127 Hours was last weekend and absolutely compelling.
We did a proper binge-watch of The Letter For The King, which stars the fabulous Playbox member Nathanael Saleh, and we loved this and were very proud. Plus endless re-watches of Breaking Bad and Friends, which we never tire of.
There are some fabulous offerings from theatres across the world and I really recommend The Unknown Island which has been shared by The Gate Theatre, as well as Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant 90th birthday musical celebration. There are daily workshops being streamed by the extraordinary Akram Khan who remains a massive positive influence on my work and we listen to a lot of music, which keeps us sane.

Any other tips for not going stir crazy?
Routine. I’m a creature of habit and I need to feel that I have something useful to offer. So I get up early every day and make sure everything’s quite structured Monday to Friday. Toby runs the creative writing programme, Blank-Shift as well as his work for Playbox, so this is a really pressured time for him too, and then we have to navigate the children’s schoolwork, so we’ve had to be quite disciplined in how we divide up each day. I think this has really helped me to feel that I have some control over things, at a time when the world feels as though humans have very little of that. We down-tools at the end of each afternoon and head to ‘The Rusty Inn’, which is really just a battered shed next to a field near our home. We get some fresh air, I have a massive flask of tea and watch the children learning to skateboard – divine!

What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?
Go and see my family. Without question. As quickly as I can.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?
We do not have control over as much as we think. We are a tiny part of a system that is vastly bigger than us and we must respect our place within it and value, nurture and cherish it. I hope that we will place more importance on the things that really matter – on honest, human relationships, in appreciating what we have and not constantly wanting ‘more’. I hope that our materialistic urges will be lessened and a more holistic society emerges. We mustn’t squander the opportunity that this ‘time’ has given us – it’s a once in a generation chance for us to make positive changes in how we lead our lives. I’m going to try my best to take all the ‘good’ that I can from this situation into my future.

Find out more about Playbox at www.playboxtheatre.com