Stellar Quine of the Month: Claire Willoughby

How would you describe your current work and what do you like best about it?
I am a theatre maker, performer and musician currently based in Glasgow. I am particularly interested in devised work, cabaret, and reimaginings of classic texts. I am the co-artistic director of Giddy Aunt – a children’s theatre company that prioritizes untold stories and creating the extraordinary out of the everyday.

One of the best things about my job is the possibility for play – I love the way that I can delve into an idea that piques my interest and experiment with the different ways in which that story can be told. I also really enjoy meeting and collaborating with different people – whether that is through community work, or with other working artists within the Scottish arts scene – after every production I work on, I come away with so many new thoughts and ideas inspired by the people I have met, and often those relationships continue on for years to come.
What was your first ever job?
My first job was as a café worker at Duxford Air Museum. I was 14, and would work Saturdays, stocking up the fridges and serving cafeteria food in the Runway Restaurant. I must admit, I wasn’t particularly interested in aeroplanes, and I also wasn’t a particularly diligent waitress.. in fact I hated working there, but it was only a bike ride away so it was one of the only places that I could get to on my own in a tiny village with no public transport!
Has there been a particular person or an opportunity that you feel has made the most difference to your career?
I’ve been very lucky meeting some fantastically inspiring, supportive people here in Scotland. My first job out of University was on David Shrigley’s opera Pass the Spoon, by Magnetic North – and that really kickstarted a number of different opportunities. I was really fortunate that Nick Miller and Nicholas Bone allowed me to work on that show with hardly any experience, but I could read a score and so I was able to cue the actors and the set changes from the wings. It really opened my eyes up to how crazy and ambitious theatre can be – a man dressed up as a banana and another as an egg; a giant puppet called Mr Granuals who gets cut open and dissected onstage; a demonic operatic butcher… I was hooked! I still have ambitions to make a work on that scale myself at some point in the future – it really inspired me to believe that you can create almost anything onstage if you bring the right artistic and technical team together.

Last year I worked as assistant director for Catrin Evans on A Moment’s Peace production, Endurance. Endurance was a devised piece collaboratively written and created by the Women’s Creative Company (WCC) – a group open to any women over 18 not currently working professionally in the arts. The WCC are an incredible, inspiring collective of women, and I found Endurance to be a defining point in my career. It made me realise that I wanted to prioritize women’s voices in my own work, and that I wanted to spend my time finding ways to tell untold stories, or previously silenced voices – whether in fact or fiction. I also understood the importance of working with diverse community groups, and how that does not by any means sacrifice the artistic quality or creative nature of the work. Catrin Evans is a fantastic facilitator, and watching her lead the WCC was a real lesson in being patient, supportive, yet knowing and understanding how much you can ask for and expect in a rehearsal room.
What has been your favourite theatre production or concert?
I have seen so many wonderful pieces of theatre and music over the years, but I think the one that I continue to reference is Hotel Medea by Zecora Ura. It was a trilogy based on the myth of Medea – an interactive, promenade piece that took place from midnight to 6am in the building of Summerhall, Edinburgh. I loved the way that as the audience, our role changed and evolved throughout – firstly being cast as wedding guests at Medea and Jason’s wedding, then as Medea’s best friends as she mourns her cheating husband, and finally her children, that she attempts to murder in the early hours of the morning. It was a terrifying, utterly immersive piece of theatre – but also a wonderful way for people previously unknown to each other to live together for a night, bonding in an entirely unique experience
What do you like the best about working within the arts?
The best thing about working in the arts is the real sense of variety – I feel like I learn a new thing every day, and that can never be dull!
What advice would you give emerging female directors in theatre today from your experience?
Never feel like your voice is not valid. I have been in rehearsal rooms and felt completely intimidated, entirely mute through the fear of saying the wrong thing, or being noticed in the wrong way. I have found that as females, we can tend to be much quieter throughout school – less eager to put our hands up and be noticed – throughout university, in lectures and seminars – and that becomes ingrained in us. But you can break free of that psychological confinement, you just need to believe that what you say is equally as important as anyone else in the room.

I think you also need to stay true to what it is that made you want to get involved in theatre in the first place, and try to stay connected to that in every job you do, no matter how much of a struggle that may be. Be as open as possible – with the people you meet and work with; with the different styles and genres and ways of working – always be interested and intrigued. Try to stay courageous and keep your principles close to your heart – they are what will define how you come to be known.

Who would your Stellar Quine of the month be and why?
My Quine of the month would be Patricia Highsmith. She’s one of my favourite writers, and although she died exactly 10 years ago, I am reading her book Carol at the moment, and it reminded me of what an extraordinary woman she was. When she first attempted to launch Carol, it was rejected by her publishers – despite following on from her incredibly successful debut novel Strangers on a Train. Dealing explicitly with a lesbian relationship, Carol was one of the first books to address a serious relationship between two women that didn’t end in suicide, despair or a cure thanks for the love of a good man. Highsmith was forced to change her name on the sleeve, to protect her commercial success, and Carol was eventually published by a small press, Coward McCan. It sold nearly 1 million copies when it came out in paperback in the USA alone, and reportedly Highsmith received packets of 10 to 15 letters twice a week for months after from delighted readers. I would love the opportunity to tell Patricia Highsmith’s own story at some point in the future – she is currently on my list of untold voices!

SQ of the Month