Firmly rooted in Exeter, Quirk prides itself on making family theatre for all generations, and has created an original Christmas show at Exeter Phoenix for the past 16 years. We spoke to Co-Director Katie Villa about the magic of performance and plans for the future…
How did Quirk Theatre start?
Quirk was formed in 2002 by Simon Hall and Andy Brodie shortly after they moved to Exeter and realised there was no meaningful alternative to mainstream panto at Christmas time. Their first show, Rumpelstiltskin, was a runaway success and Quirk is now headed into its 17th Christmas production! Andy moved away five years ago, meaning I was invited to come along and fill his sizeable shoes as a Director, giving Quirk an opportunity to grow.
What do you do?
Witty, playful and often anarchic, we pride ourselves on devising top-notch, original shows with a social conscience. We are so lucky to be making work in the South West, with the best creatives that this beautiful part of the country has to offer. As well as performing in Exeter, we have more recently added in a tour to The Plough Arts Centre in Torrington.
And what keeps you doing it?
When I first sat down to have a meeting with Simon, all those years ago, he told me a little anecdote about how he feels every time he walks into a theatre, sits in his seat, and then the music fades and the lights dim: that intake of breath, that sense of excitement that is shared by the whole audience, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark. Every time, he’s bowled over by the feeling that all this work has happened behind the scenes just for him, just for this moment; that, in a few seconds, actors will come out and tell him something, take him somewhere, and that they are going to share something magical. This is what we try to create every year for our audiences.
Our show will often be a child’s first experience of live theatre, in a theatre space. That feels like a huge privilege for us, so we want to use the opportunity carefully and wisely, and we’re committed to presenting important, relevant stories that have the potential to make the world a slightly better place. We’ve explored the refugee crisis, non-traditional family set ups and climate change, all through magical, hilarious and heart-warming stories of aliens, puffins, explorers or velveteen rabbits.
Despite being in our 17th year, we’re still very much the little guy in the Exeter theatre scene. We have a tiny team (often just the two of us), sometimes we’re able to secure funding, sometimes not; often we have to work well into the night to make it all work. But when the lights go down, and there’s that excited hush as children and adults alike hold their breath to see what happens next, it’s all worth it.
Last year, Simon was stopped by an audience member in the Phoenix café, who said, “We’ve come every year since Rumpelstiltskin – you’re part of our Christmas.” He then introduced his wife, his parents, his son, who had been eight for Quirk’s first show, and then his grandson. Four generations of one family! What an honour.
Who do you work with and why?
Quirk has a wonderful ongoing relationship with local primary schools and a loyal following of folk who come to see our show as part of their Christmas traditions – the Christmas Eve shows are always such a blast! Every year, we put on a relaxed performance, where audiences are free to move around, make noise, meet the cast, and come and go as they please. We are also proud to say that we have a growing audience for our BSL interpreted show, and this year we’re working with BSL interpreter Siobhan Green and The Audience Club to develop our accessibility as a company.
Name one thing that would make your life easier as an artist or arts organiser.
Audiences! It is always going to be hard to compete with the big pantomime machines, but the more people make the choice to buy local, support South West artists, and come to see a Quirk show, the longer we can stay afloat in these uncertain seas. I think it can feel like a risk, going to see something other than a Christmas classic, but Quirk brings all the laughs and tears and a very, very big heart. Being a bit smaller and working with the amazingly talented designers, performers, composers and producers allows us to make something very special and unique for our audiences.
What can audiences expect when they encounter you?
Audiences for a Quirk Theatre Christmas show can expect to laugh until they cry, cry until they laugh, laugh a bit more, squeeze in one more happy cry, and then leave the theatre feeling like the world is a pretty wonderful place. They may feel their theatrical expectations slightly pushed, and they won’t shout “He’s behind you”, but they will get a chance to engage in some top-notch theatre that invites them to play a real part in the action. For example, at last year’s Puffin Island, the audience named the lead character at every show!
What does the next year look like for you?
This year, we’re launching our Graduate Scheme with the University of Exeter, supporting a recent graduate into their first professional role, which we’re so excited about! And, as well as our original adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit, we’re pairing up five young, emerging photographers with a professional mentor to create a stunning exhibition of portraits of Exeter people with their childhood toys. This will be up in The Walkway Gallery at Exeter Phoenix (12 Nov – 17 Dec) and in CoLab in January, and is sure to be a thing of beauty.
In what ways are you helping to put Exeter on the cultural map, nationally or internationally?
Tours, partnerships with other cities, successful alumni… Right at the heart of what we do is our commitment to creating opportunities for artists in the South West. It can be so hard to make a life as an artist outside of London, and we want to make it more possible for more brilliant artists to stay in Exeter and make amazing work here. So many of our alumni have gone on to amazing things, touring the world with creatives like the Welsh National Opera, 1927, Red Ladder and director Sally Cookson, and we are proud that their first experience of professional theatre with Quirk provided that all-important springboard.
…we were able to retain more talent in the city, create more opportunities to work and make and grow, and show that amazing work is made and enjoyed outside London?
How do we find out more?
Like us on Facebook: QuirkTheatre
Follow us on Twitter: @QuirkTheatre
The Velveteen Rabbit is on at Exeter Phoenix, 11-28 December. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Phoenix website.