Josephine Balfour Oatts has a natter over email with Emma Rice, former Artistic Director of The Globe about her new company, Wise Children, passion for touring and the clowning schools of Paris.
Josephine: Your previous work as the Artistic Director of the Globe and ongoing accomplishments with Kneehigh have made you a key figure within contemporary British Theatre. How do you feel having arrived at this new phase of your career?
Emma: Well, I’m very flattered to be called that – thank you! I don’t really know what it means to be a key figure in contemporary theatre because it never actually feels like that. I still feel like a struggling artist full of dreams and doubts! However, I do know that I’m enjoying my working life more than I ever have before. I love being in my 50s, because I feel more confidence in myself than I have before – I feel like I’ve done lots and seen lots and I can really trust myself, and I feel others trusting me too. I love running my own company, because I have a chance to put my ideas and, perhaps more importantly, my ideals into practice, weaving them into every area of the way we work. So I’m feeling very lucky and very optimistic at the moment.
What drew you to adapt Wise Children, and how has this story influenced the framework of your production company?
I’ve wanted to adapt Wise Children for years, and in fact wrote the first version of the script many years ago, under commission for the National Theatre. I’m drawn to it for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it’s such a tender love letter to the theatre – to a world of beauty, and pain, and joyful endurance.
The reason I chose Wise Children as my company’s name is probably self-explanatory. These two small words are so fitting. My work, ethos and aesthetic often teeters on the edge of the childlike. I love simple storytelling and encourage an innocence of play from my actors. As we create the work, we try to experience everything as if for the first time and engender in each other the ability to return fresh to the material, our process and each other. We are, in many ways, professional children, and proud as punch to be called so. And we are Wise because we have to be. Whilst holding on to joy and a capacity for wonder, we also need to be clever and canny. We all need to harness, feed and use our wild power wisely – and Angela Carter was the high priestess of that. She provoked me to use the experiences that life had dealt to build my agency, my reach and my potential. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Wise Children!
I’m really interested in your focus on theatres based outside of London. Are you afraid for the future of regional theatre? If so, what do you feel can be done to preserve it?
You’re right that I am passionate about regional theatre, and about touring. I love touring, it’s in my blood, even though it can be exhausting at times. This country has a glorious tradition of travelling players, and it’s something we need to fight to protect. I don’t have all the answers but I do know that I am going to do my best to create a company that can joyfully tour the country and play a part in keeping the tradition alive.
I understand that part of the Wise Children ethos is to develop and diversify casting as well as audiences. Could you explain a bit more about the importance of this, as well as how Wise Children is using the stage to tackle the poor representation of disadvantaged socio-economic groups in the arts?
I’m wary of becoming a figurehead for this issue because I don’t think I’m doing anything that unusual, and I think there are others out there doing more radical things. But achieving greater representation on our stages does feel political and urgent to me.
The people that we present on stage need to represent the people we see on the tube or in the supermarket. It is imperative that a modern company creates access and casts diversely. Those with the power to employ have a duty to use that power wisely and to share it wherever possible – this includes having as many women on stage as men and representing modern British life at every turn. My time at The Globe gave me many things, but the most precious was the chance to meet and work with so many artists from different backgrounds. This personal revolution has opened my eyes to the depth that a varied cast and creative team can bring – not only to the work but to life. I work in an imaginative and storytelling form so there are no barriers to gender parity and diverse casting and no barriers to creating access to all areas of the work. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!
Opportunity and hope seem to run through the veins of this project, particularly with the School for Wise Children.What are you trying to achieve through this branch of your company?
That’s lovely to hear! The School for Wise Children will be a new training model, one that is profoundly linked to the creative process and one that has access at its core. Based more on the clowning schools in Paris than the Drama Schools in London, this school will teach in short intense courses. Some courses will last 2 days, some 2 weeks, some 2 months. I will use the colleagues and artists that I have come to love and respect over the years as teachers. Together, we will start an active campaign to share our knowledge and initiate young artists in our particular brand of devised, collaborative story-telling. Yes, there will be courses for performers. We will explore what is to be a key and creative voice in the process, but there will also be courses for other disciplines. Devising music for theatre for example. Creating text, sound, movement, lights, design. I am exploring all these ideas as I start to make this dream a reality.
So how will this create new opportunities? The idea is that for every place at The School for Wise Children that is paid for, we will identify a talented young person who would ordinarily struggle to get access to professional training. Every year, chosen from these training courses, we will award apprenticeships. These apprentices will work in all areas of the company, onstage and off. They will work with us, devise with us, perform with us, create with us and become Wise Children with us. All my team will teach and all will learn. My hope and belief is that we will create a cascade of training and form a pool of like-minded, highly trained theatre makers to change the world with! It will take us a while to build the business model, but we’re aiming to get there by the end of our first four years.
What can the world expect from Wise Children in the future?
That’s too big a question! You’ll just have to keep watching… Love and loud cheers, Emma x