JOYCE MCMILLAN on RAPTURE THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.3.16.
WHEN MICHAEL EMANS was a boy growing up in East Kilbride, in the 1970’s and 80’s, it was the experience of seeing Scotland’s famous touring companies roll up to the Village Theatre, and deliver some memorable “good nights out” to the local audience, that first inspired him to get involved in theatre. “7:84, Wildcat, Borderline – they all used to come,” says Emans. “The shows had such a vibrancy to them, and I just loved the idea of them coming to meet people in their local communities – I think I decided there and then that that was what I wanted to do, to create touring theatre and bring it to people in the places where they live.”
The hallmark of Michael Emans’s career as a director, though, has been something quite different from the radical, cabaret-style activist theatre that 7:84, Wildcat and often Borderline used to pursue, 35 years ago. Instead, as he graduated from the directing course at Rose Bruford College in Kent, and returned to Scotland, he found himself increasingly drawn to a repertoire of substantial classic drama, or tried-and-tested newer plays from Scotland and beyond, presented in a fairly straight-text-based style, with a strong emphasis on ensemble acting.
In 2002, he and his partner, designer Lyn McAndrew, launched Rapture Theatre as a Glasgow-based touring company, working in small-scale venues at first, and presenting classic plays by writers ranging from David Mamet to Gregory Burke, John Byrne and Arthur Miller, who featured in their Miller centenary season of autumn 2015, with productions of All My Sons and The Last Yankee. And it’s the choice of that familiar repertoire, and a relatively conventional theatrical style, that has made Emans a slightly controversial figure in Scottish theatre, particularly when the much-debated Creative Scotland funding round of October 2014 awarded his Rapture Theatre the status of “regularly funded organisation” – although at the very modest level of £125,000 a year – while rejecting applications from more artistically acclaimed and innovative companies such as Stewart Laing’s Untitled Projects.
Yet despite the odd brickbat – and a critical response that is often lukewarm – Rapture Theatre seems to go from strength to strength, battle-hardened by the 13 years of project funding they endured before becoming a regularly funded organisation, and tightly focussed, as always, on building an ever-stronger relationship with the paying theatre public across Scotland, as well as with future audiences, through an extensive programme of schools workshops. This week, they announced that their autumn production will be the Scottish premiere of Michael Frayn’s award-winning 2003 play Democracy, about the relationship between 1970’s West German chancellor Willy Brandt, and his secretary and friend Gunther Guillaume, whose exposure as a communist spy led to Brandt’s resignation; with a cast of 10, the play will rival last autumn’s production of All My Sons in scale, and will tour to 23 venues across Scotland, ranging in size from the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, to the Eastgate Arts Centre in Peebles.
“I think the secret of Rapture’s success is that they offer something our audiences are enthusiastic to buy,” says Julie Ellen, artistic director of the MacRobert Theatre in Stirling, who is asssociate producer of Democracy, as well as hosting its opening performances at the MacRobert in September. “It’s a solid repertoire of proven plays, delivered to a standard that easily matches most of the mid-scale classical work we can bring in from south of the Border; and there is a huge appetite for that.
“After all, our main rep companies in Scotland – the Citizens’, the Lyceum, Dundee – don’t tour, or only tour very rarely. So a touring company providing a programme of strong modern classics, made in Scotland, is clearly filling a gap. Rapture has been really well received here at the MacRobert, and we’re just delighted that they’re coming to us again, with a play that has such modern relevance.”
As for Michael Emans, he remains his genial and diligent self, at the eye of any storms that blow up; the company even survived a real show-must-go-on disaster, last September, when the lead actor in All My Sons had to be replaced just three days before opening night, and the lead actress fainted spectacularly during one of her biggest scenes, taking 10 minutes to recover.
“Well, we had terrific support from the Theatre Royal over that,” says Emans, “and in general, we’re really delighted with the company’s progress at the moment. The feedback on the Arthur Miller season was tremendously positive, from all kinds of audiences – more than 50 school parties saw All My Sons in the five venues it visited, for example. And we’re really excited to be staging the Scottish premiere of Democracy, which is such a timely play – about Europe, about what we mean by democracy, and about the pressures on politicians who are fallible human beings.”
And is Emans worried at all by his company’s self-imposed distance from the creative centre of a Scottish theatre scene often driven by the energy of current writers, and the the pursuit of ever-newer kinds of new work? “Not really,” he says. “We’re increasingly confident of our relationship with our audience across the country, and I can honestly say that the most negative response we’ve had, in recent years, was when some peple were taken aback by the language in Catherine Johnson’s Bay City Rollers show Shang-A-Lang.
“It’s true that Scottish theatre is often all about new work, and we are not about that, although we hope to bring plays that are often new to Scottish audiences. But on the day the regular funding decision was announced – well, I just remember the great atmosphere in the Briggait in Glasgow, where we have our office, alongside Conflux the circus skills company, and Mischief La Bas which specialises in outdoor performance, and the Barrowland Ballet. We all received regular funding on that day, and there we all were celebrating – four companies that could hardly be more different in approach and style, but all making their own contribution to the scene; and, of course, giving each other a lot of support along the way.”
Democracy on tour across Scotland, 2 September-12 October 2016.