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Parent & Practitioner: an interview with director and co-writer Katie Villa

We sat down with Katie, one half of Quirk Theatre, to chat about freelancing, rehearsal room babies, and sitting down to write after managing a morning tantrum. Don't miss the extremely cute video at the end!


Hi Katie! How are you?

TIRED. My three year old decided that he would make this interview really pertinent by throwing up all night long. So today I have watched approximately 14 solid hours of CBeebies (not recommended)


So, remind us - what is your Quirky role?

I’m the director of the Christmas show, and I also co write the show each year with Simon. And if we can’t secure funding for a particular show, then I have also thrown myself into a bit of producing and a bit of set and costume design!


Amazing. And you are also a parent, right?

I am. I have a 12 year old and a 3 year old. And yes, before you say it, that IS a big gap and its DOES have it’s challenges…

Henry meets the puffin. "Henry now believes that when I go to ‘work’, that puffins are always somehow involved."

Can I ask you a bit about how you juggle being a parent and your work? I promise I’ll be asking Simon the same thing!

Well, it’s hard to pin down, because it is a real juggle, and week on week I would probably answer this question very differently! I oscillate wildly between feeling like being a freelancer is the perfect compliment to parenthood on week, and the worst idea anyone has EVER HAD the next. I threaten quite regularly to jack it all in and start a 9-5 but then an amazing thing (like Quirk) will come along and I realise quite how magical my job can be. My partner is also a freelancer, so sometimes life can feel like one of those horrific 2000 piece jigsaw puzzles of a picture of baked beans or something, but often it does just naturally fall into place. I don’t think for a second that my struggle is unique, by the way. Parent or not, we are all juggling, so high fives to anyone feeling the jigsaw.


Henry on set: Ernie and the Sea of Ice

How have Quirk supported your dual role of parent and practitioner?

It’s funny, because before working with Quirk, I wouldn’t mention being a parent if I could help it when I was starting a project. Somehow it felt that to be a proper professional, I needed to be leaving home at home. But there’s something about the way Quirk has been built and led by Simon which places family life right at the centre of the process. There have always been babies plopping about the Quirk rehearsal room, or sons and daughters dropping by after school, and so it felt like a very valid thing- I didn’t need to be one or the other, I could be both!

I started working with Quirk heavily pregnant, so I guess my needs were right there for everyone to see. And Simon has always built our work around what works. So when I had my son, we would write at my house, while Henry slept on my chest. And we would work around me, just doing a few hours here and there during my maternity leave so that I could keep connected to it all. And then when rehearsals were in progress and I was still breastfeeding, my partner, Chris, would courier Henry to the rehearsal room and I would breastfeed while directing. And not only was this made OK, it was properly celebrated. Everyone loved having Henry in the space, and the interruption was welcomed, embraced even. All of this meant that then when it came to needing more, I felt fully empowered to ask for it. So after a particularly disgusting sleepless night, where morning came around and I felt utterly incapable, I didn’t have to smash through and pretend all was fine. I could ring Simon, ask him to run the morning’s rehearsal and go back to bloody bed. There was also the time during our tour where I needed everyone to evacuate the dressing rooms for an hour every day so that I could hand express milk into a towel whilst sobbing (bit of a low point tbh) and I was fully supported with tea and biscuits.... and blue roll. 

Henry visiting the R&D room

How has being a parent fed into your work?

Probably in every possible way, but most notably perhaps in how Simon and I offer each other a bit of an airlock as we ease out of parenting and into a working day with each other. Most writing sessions begin with a cup of tea and a rant about what we left behind. So one of us will ask the other how their morning was, and the other will launch into the intricacies of the exhausting school morning tantrum they’d just had to navigate through, and then the other will shout triumphantly ‘Well that’s exactly what happened in OUR house this morning!’. And it feels so


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Right, you couldn’t make this shit up. My three year old just wrestled the laptop out of my hands to ‘help me’ with my work. So I thought, this is the perfect interview to leave that in, right?!!


Anyway, as I was saying, it feels so freeing to be able to share those experiences, and to feel that these struggles are happening everywhere across the city and that you’re not the only person trying to shake off the awfulness of a morning tantrum and clunking the gear change into creativity.


It also makes its way into our scripts. Those chats helps us see the universality, so we love representing what we learn from our children in our work. Never more so than in this years show, as it’s set in a family home, allowing us to explore the challenges and magic of those relationships. Obviously it’s not autobiographical, but it’s definitely informed our choices. 


So what could arts venues in Exeter be doing to be more welcoming to mothers of young kids, both as audience members and creatives?

Flexibility feels like the key to it all, for me. Talk to parents, ask them what they need and then roll that out. Offer it openly and freely. Make it known that flexible working is available. Make it known that children are welcome. Make it known that you are up for conversations to find out what more you can do. Because before I worked with Quirk, I didn’t really know what to ask for. We aren’y all necessarily going to be able to articulate what we need all the time- that work cannot lie solely with the sleep deprived. Now I feel like I can ask for what I need, but when I had my daughter 12 years ago I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start! So offer it, and then offer whatever you can. I’m thinking of that amazing Emmy’s speech that Michelle Williams gave this year that was all about giving women what they need to do the job well. And then roll that out for all parents. Hell, for all people in your organisation. We all work best when we are supported and valued.


Henry leads a warm up:


Do you have any top tips for someone who has got a small human to look after, and also wants to carry on their work? And any big ‘do nots’?!

Well, rather unhelpfully, my advice would be, don’t follow advice! I don’t really mean that, I suppose I mean, what works for one won’t necessarily work for you. Some people need to be able to leave home at home. Some people need to be able to combine parenting and work really closely. And that can change from day to day- sometimes I LOVE walking out of that door and knowing that I can throw myself into work. And sometimes I love being able to bring my kids in to meet the puppets, or join in the warm up or teach us a dance. It’s a balance, and everyone needs different things at different times. You’ve got to carve your own path. Talk to other parents, see how everyone is doing it, and put your jigsaw puzzle together to make it work for you.

One thing I’m trying to focus on, which I think may be helpful for other parents, is to not apologise but to thank. So if I’ve been up all night with a puking toddler and need to come in an hour late, I’m not going to say ‘sorry for being late’ like I’ve somehow done something wrong, but instead to say ‘thank you for being flexible’. It’s a small thing, but an important one I think.

And I’ll end with pointing up Mothers Who Make, a proper AMAZING groundbreaking organisation, which champions the dual roles of mother makers and creates a wonderful support network for  anyone who would define themselves as a mother (this title can come in many forms) and anyone who makes anything. There’s a group that meet in Exeter every month, and although I have only been able to get to one session (where I messy cried about arts council funding- LOL), the online network and website is a wonderful resource. Check em out! https://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/mothers-who-make/


Thanks so much Katie. We’ll let you get back to writing the show!

Or watching CBeebies……

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