I’ve been looking forward to this interview for AGES as it is with one of my favourite pals in the entire world, but first some context! Today, Monday 25th January, is the premiere of the theatre performance The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust. This production is free to watch and will premiere tonight at 7pm– streamed live over on Gosforth Civic Theatre Facebook page.
This theatre show tells the remarkable true story of two eccentric, opera loving lasses from Sunderland who achieved truly extraordinary things! The sisters, who lived to travel the world to listen to their favourite opera performers sing, used this passion as a cover, to secretly work to bring Jews out of Nazi Europe. In total, the Sunderland sisters, Ida and Louise, saved the lives of 29 Jews during the Holocaust and this theatre show tells that courageous story. Extraordinary lasses who did extraordinary things!
This production is part of Brundibár Arts Festival; the first annual Festival in the UK dedicated to the Music and Arts of the Holocaust. I’ve supported Brundibár Arts Festival for the last few years – it’s a super important and special festival; it seeks to find new ways to positively document the astonishing achievements of artists under adversity, and to keep their stories alive through music and the arts. They will be back (hopefully) with an in-person festival in 2022!
I’m so excited to watch The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust tonight and not just because it is part of Brundibár Arts Festival or because it is amazing two amazing North East women, I’m super excited because it is Culture Vulture pal Eilish Stout-Cairns directorial debut! YAS! Eilish is such a glorious and talented creative chameleon and one to watch with a bright future ahead.
I recently caught up with Eilish for this lush interview – we chatted Cook sisters, mental health, social media, Melva and online trolls….over to you Eilish!
Can you introduce yourself for my readers?
My name is Eilish Stout-Cairns and I’m a 24 year old actor and creative freelancer from the North East.
Well hello Eilish! Can you describe what you do?
Goodness, second question and it’s already a tough one! I act, I work as a content creator for two online companies- with that I also video produce, I work as a facilitator for young people, I just wrote my first show last month and I guess now here I am directing The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust. It’s a big mixed bag!
Questions like that also send me into an existential crisis! How did you get into creative industries?
As far back as I can remember I wanted to act. I loved being on stage, even if one of my earlier roles in life was ‘Window Number Two’ in a Youth Theatre production of PeterPan- I made that window my own! I jest. But I truly can’t imagine doing anything else.
I left sixth form at 18 and went on to work in makeup, all the while still auditioning- without having a clue what I was doing, then I went on and trained at Project A at the Theatre Royal when I was 20, since then I’ve been in the professional industry.
People don’t really understand the fact that us creative freelancers – do A LOT. Multiple projects, jobs, businesses, freelance shenanigans. I think your portfolio of work sums that up……can you briefly describe the melting pot of wonderful things you do?
Wow, Okay! Being an actor was always my main job, even if, at the start, that didn’t necessarily make me that much money. So, then I had to put my eggs in other baskets. I trained to become a spray tanner in April 2019, bought the kit and I am now a Silver Level Professional Mobile Spray Tanner! But of course, that was also freelance, I then because a facilitator for theatre, drama and creative learning company Mortal Fools and started working with them on some of their projects for young people such as: Future Ready, a project they do with Collingwood School in Morpeth. I then started to work for them as a youth theatre practitioner and still am to this day.
Back in June last year, I applied to be a content creator for an online company Latest Deals, they hired me and 4 weeks later, so did their sister company- Latest Free Stuff, with them I make short videos, I do Facebook Lives, run competitions etc. It’s a bit like QVC but in a more modern way!
What is the Brundibár Arts Festival? What’s been your involvement in it?
The Brundibár Arts Festival is the first annual Festival in the UK dedicated to the Music and Arts of the Holocaust. And that topic is something that personally I never learnt much about. I didn’t know about the music associated with the Holocaust and we should, as it’s such an amazing way to keep individuals’ stories alive.
I was part of the Festival last year as an actor in the performance- The Last Cyclist, and this year, myself and Northumberland Theatre Company had an idea- we approached the festival and here I am directing this year’s show!
Brundibár Arts Festival is important because, it shows us some of the great works of art that emerged from such horrific circumstances. We should be educated on these things; the art we see in the festival is often a lesser known story and we’re truly giving it an important platform and telling human stories of creative courage.
Tell me about this year’s production – The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust?
The production is all about The Cook Sisters; two ordinary lasses from Sunderland who achieved extraordinary things. And that’s not me calling them ordinary- they called themselves that. It’s such a gorgeous local story about two young women who saved the lives of 29 Jews, that a lot of people may not know about.
Why is it important to shine a light on lesser-known courageous stories of women like this?
Because often, when you think of wars or fighting or courage, you may think of a male dominated picture. And that’s not the case. For years. We learnt from male dominated history books and it’s time that that was changed.
When I was at school, I can’t remember learning about one woman who wasn’t a wife of a man. Apart from maybe Cleopatra and we glossed over her. – The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust isn’t a story of royalty, it’s about two ORDINARY lasses who were young and passionate, and the things they achieved are worth knowing and celebrating. These women saved lives.
What do you hope people take away from The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust?
I want people to sit, enjoy it and to allow themselves feel – then to go away and learn more about the sisters.
Why should people tune in later today at 7pm to see the production?
If you don’t know the real story of Ida and Louise Cook- you need to watch it! You’ll wanna learn. And even if you do know their story, still watch it- feel proud that you know this story and that you’re a part of it. The performance is littered with music, opera and it’s uplifting. There’s something for everyone.
I’m so excited to tune in later to see your directorial debut! Right so tell me about your role at Mortal Fools?
I started working with Mortal Fools back in 2017 with their first production of Melva and then toured a new version in 2019/20. And now it has been made into Melva Mapletree & the Quest for Barnabas Boggle, an interactive, online storytelling game and one-stop resource to support children’s everyday worries and anxiety
Then I started working as a facilitator for them in January 2020 working with various schools, running the younger Youth Theatre sessions and participating in their audio theatre experience When The World Is Loud back in August. They can’t get rid of me!
Tell me about Melva and your involvement? And the big Q, who is Feggis?
Melva is a show for children (and their parents/carers) and it’s all about mental health! Worries are “worrits” in the show and Melva is dealing with a lot of them and it is giving her anxiety. Melva approaches these subjects in a light-hearted, accessible and child friendly way and it invites young people to talk openly about their own worries and thinking about how they might manage them. Melva also shows that grown-ups get these worries too- and that that’s okay!
Feggis! Yes, one of my roles in Melva (There’s 6 in total- 4 in one scene!) is Feggis the talking, fainting goat. Feggis went to goat school and that’s why they can talk but not write. Feggis helps Melva be calm and chill out- showing her how to breathe! Feggis is an audience favourite and pretty adorable.
Melva Mapletree & the Quest for Barnabas Boggle, Mortal Fools’ interactive, online storytelling game launches to schools TODAY! What was your involvement in the game?
I’ve played it and it’s fun! It did leave me going- Is that really my voice?! And seeing this character, I’ve worked on for three years in animation is so weird, but in a wonderful way! We had quite heavy involvement in the game development, from the very beginning with some of our initial ideas being brought in to the final project, It was lovely for it to be done this way and was so collaborative! The Melva cast are so rooted in the characters and the story, so having a say in this next chapter felt vital.
And you managed to find time in 2020 to write a Christmas show? Tell us more!
Eeeek, This was big! I wrote my very first show the back end of last year- The Elf Who Saved Santa. It all stemmed from a casual chat with Northumberland Theatre Company about a silly Christmas idea I had, to which they said- write it! And I did!
The show centres around Bubblegum, a little elf with a big heart who tries really hard but might not actually be great at what she does- apart from music! It tells the story of Santa feeling lonely, jumpy, grumpy and lost because of everything that was happening in the world and COVID-19- so Bubblegum tries to show him that the Christmas spirit still exists. It touches on some mental health topics too and it shows that even the people we least expect can feel sad sometimes.
What was it like being able to bring something magical (and very contemporary) to families at such a challenging time?
We got some brilliant feedback, which was so rewarding with it being my first show! It was filmed and put online; not getting that initial audience reaction like you get in a live show, just left me unknowing and worried that people wouldn’t like it! But it was well received with some people even saying it helped their children understand adults’ emotions better.
I think it gave everyone some much needed relief at this odd time. I think it’s important that there was something out there to help families have conversations about their emotions at the moment. Life is weird and none of us REALLY know what we’re doing- so talking about it can offer a bit of relief. I’m pleased I was able to help some people do that.
You’re a gigging actor, theatre practitioner, writer and now Director – what’s the impact been of COVID to you personally? Has it made you “pivot” at all?
COVID-19 definitely made me re-think some things. I had two tours cancelled and multiple shows- like many others! I was fortunate enough to be working online for the Mortal Fools Youth Theatre when this first started- so that kept me busy. I’m not going to lie to you though, I’m sick of the sight of Zoom! I can’t wait to never use it again!
Because of COVID- I applied for the content creator job- something I probably would never had had time for, as prior to the pandemic I was working at the O2 Academy Newcastle and the Airport. (Both of which I’ve now been made redundant from) So now I spend Monday-Friday (usually) filming, editing, being on social media and it’s taught me so much! I’ve done multiple social media courses, I’ve became a Mental Health First Aider, I even did an Excel course! I guess having all this time made me want to better my skills. I’m now pretty capable in editing and have done a few fellow actors showreels, I’ve learnt how to use greenscreens and done a lot more VoiceOver work. It’s made me adapt and grow the skills that I maybe didn’t use so much.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given the jobs that I have had during this time. But I’ve also worked my arse off for them and created my own work- I ain’t waiting for anyone else, I’ve gotta make work for me!
What do you think the theatre landscape will look like beyond COVID?
Well, this is a question and a half! I think streamed performances will be common, and to be honest I don’t really know about the wider landscape. I’d like to think there’d be more appreciation for theatre, and for artists. Because people have gone so long without them. Maybe people won’t be on their phone during a performance anymore or look down on our jobs and stop saying “yeah but what’s your real job? or “what else do you do to support that?”.
2020 has oddly been the first year I’ve been able to support myself financially solely by being a creative! From a professional perspective, I think casting directors are being more lenient with self-tapes and imperfect zoom backgrounds. If I was being sickly positive, I’d say this has forced us to use our brains in a different way, a new way of accessing and making theatre- and that’s not a bad thing. That being said, I cannot bloody wait to be sat front row in an auditorium again!
One hope personally in 2021?
I want to achieve a better work/life balance. 2020 was an odd year and I don’t think I took enough time for me, when realistically that’s all I had to do. I’ve set boundaries and I’m hoping to stick to them, 2020 has taught me that ultimately family and friend comes first. They are the people who matter. There’s no point being consumed in work if you’re not happy with yourself at the end of the day. I want to get that happiness back! I also want to do music more; I play ukulele and guitar and I was gifted a piano early last year- I don’t play or sing half as much as I used to and I miss that.
Work life balance….what is that!? You work on social media like me…..social media is a brilliant place but also TOXIC AF. How do you manage trolls? Any advice to aspiring content creators in this area?
Oh my goodness! Learn and accept that people can be stupid and are bored right now so have time to type silly comments! I’ve had hate because I ordered a medium meal at McDonalds instead of a large! Or that I wore the same top 2 days in a row! (Most of the hate came from middle aged white men).
I usually laugh at it, but sometimes- especially if it’s a wide viewed video- the hate can come thick and fast. I did a 60 second video on Doritos once and I never knew people could get so angry about those chilli heatwave triangles of deliciousness!
MY advice is to sit in the sadness for a minute, then try to brush it off- ultimately those people don’t know YOU and you wouldn’t want them too. It’s worth noting that whenever I’ve had those comments- there’s always a stranger or 5 sticking up for me, which is so beautiful.
Wider career advice wise, LEARN EVERYTHING! If you can film, edit, voice record, do admin, graphic design, know the best times to upload on different platforms and understand algorithms- even just basic on all of that- that’s AMAZING! You can never have enough skills; social media is ever-changing and it’s changing fast! The quicker you can adapt and keep up- the better. But also, don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s enough people trying to do that for you! Keep that chin up and be you, unapologetically!
Any other new projects/happenings on the horizon for Eilish in 2021?
Aside from Heroines! Melva is coming back! We’re filming the show (oops, am I allowed to say that?!) and I couldn’t be more excited. I also have my first Adult Panto tour booked in for this year March-July (fingers crossed) where I’m playing two characters- I’m starting to see a multi-character theme here. I’m beyond excited for the show and we’re playing in some gorgeous venues like the Darlington Hippodrome! I’m still writing, as and when, and who knows, those thoughts could become another show! There are a few things pending which I know I’m DEFINITELY not allowed to talk about- so, if you’re interested- WATCH THIS SPACE!
Ohhh we will Eilish….. we will be watching. (Sounds a little bit creepy…..). Make sure to watch the premiere of The Cook Sisters: Heroines of the Holocaust later today at 7pm. This production is free to watch and streamed live over on Gosforth Civic Theatre Facebook page and is part of Brundibár Arts Festival.