INTERVIEW: RSC director Kimberley Sykes #ArtistsInRetreat

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Kimberley Sykes

Theatre director and RSC regular Kimberley Sykes talks to Gill Sutherland about her experience of living life under lockdown

Tell us about what you do and how you got started.
I’m a freelance theatre director and practitioner and enjoy working in a variety of theatrical forms including classical plays, new writing, devising and musical theatre. I enjoy the different opportunities and challenges they each bring. The work is always collaborative.
As a child growing up in Huddersfield, I was always involved in some kind of performance-making. At each and every stage of my life, theatre has been a huge influence. I started getting serious about directing in my late teens/early twenties, completing a degree in theatre directing at Rose Bruford College. My relationship with the RSC began in 2012 as an assistant director, then associate director on Dream 16, after which I was given my first major directing gig on Dido, Queen of Carthage, before going on to direct As You Like It and The Whip.

Where have you spent lockdown, and who are you with?
I’ve spent lockdown at my home in Forest Hill, London, with my husband and dog. We’ve barely been in the same city for the last few years due to busy schedules. So it’s been an unexpected delight getting to hunker down together!

Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC

How have you stayed connected with the outside world?
I’m not very good at doing nothing. So as soon as the pandemic took hold, I started volunteering at Lewisham Foodbank. The people there have been a lifeline for me during the last seven months – a family. They’ve helped me to connect with a world outside of my normal circles; people I wouldn’t normally get to meet and who have inspired me enormously.
Demand amongst foodbanks nationwide rose by over 80 per cent during the first few weeks of lockdown. Foodbanks shouldn’t need to exist, but poverty is real, it’s getting worse and those most affected are often from marginalised groups. Things have to change.

Tell us about any work you’ve managed to do.
As a result of my work at Lewisham Foodbank, I’ve started a community project collaborating with local theatre-makers to deliver creative workshops to the clients we work with; nourishing through creativity as well as food. Beyond the Bank is about empowerment, discovery, wellbeing and community spirit.
I’ve also loved reuniting with writer Juliet Gilkes Romero and the company and team behind The Whip to create an audio recording of this most urgent and powerful play. It hasn’t been easy, rehearsing over Zoom and recording into home devices. We’ve had to adapt to the times we’re living in. But I’m pleased that we’re able to reach new audiences, in particular young people – taking this opportunity to lobby for The Whip being on the national curriculum so that the next generation are better educated on the transatlantic slave trade and the UK’s colonial history and responsibility.

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown/isolation?
It’s been great having the time to read for pleasure. I’ve had a pile of books growing on my desk for years, but most of my reading has necessarily been for work – which is great – but connecting with literature and my own personal taste beyond a particular production has been very welcome and super cathartic.
I think the worst thing has been the feeling of grief for a life lived before. Like so many, I’ve been through the many stages of grief: denial, anger, challenge, acceptance, rediscovery. It’s been hard to feel motivated and to see how one can be of help. Feeling helpless doesn’t sit well with me. It’s been a bit of an identity crisis at times.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the crisis?There’s been a great period of female writers giving voice to women in the classics these last few years.
I’m obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology, so have devoured every single book by the extraordinary Natalie Haynes. I’m very excited to crack into her new book Pandora’s Jar. I’ve also revisited Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, both of which have broken my heart. And it’s been refreshing to read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey from the female gaze.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a work of genius and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is profoundly humane.
My favourite binge watch has been Lovecraft Country. It’s ridiculously epic and groundbreaking in terms of style. They surprise their audience constantly. It’s properly unbelievable and yet makes complete and utter sense. The actors feel like their boldest, biggest selves and completely in charge of the storytelling.

Any tips for not going stir crazy?
Yoga – I do it every morning. It clears and focuses my mind and creates a kind of routine. My jackapoo Plato (I know, theatre director cliché name!) has kept me entertained and given me a reason to get out and into nature. I’ve also started weaving and made my own loom. Something about using one’s hands to create can be very therapeutic.

What have you missed most?
I miss being in a room with other people. So much of human communication is paralinguistic – it’s about breath, physicality, touch, energy, space. Zoom can’t really give you those moments that happen in between people saying things, in the gaps, the silences. That connection is what happens in a rehearsal room and with an audience. I ache for it.

Have you found out anything about yourself during these strange times?
Being forced to stop has taught me a lot about myself – mainly that I’m rubbish at it. I’ve had to learn to be okay with standing still and being in one place. It’s incredible how you can ignore what your mind and body need by “being busy”.

What was the first thing you did when lockdown eased?
I saw my family. I’m lucky to have my mum, sister and stepdad close by, but not being able to see them for several months was very painful. My brother lives in the north and he came down to visit with his partner too. I’ve always thought of myself as quite independent but now I realise that so much of my strength comes from their love and support.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the crisis?
To put human life and the future of our planet before wealth and profit. And a bit more empathy.

The audio version of The Whip will be available via the RSC’s YouTube channel later this year. Please seewww.rsc.org.uk for updates.