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Emma Rice: 'I am now a total convert to all things digital'

The theatremaker discusses taking projects online during the pandemic

Emma Rice
© Steve Tanner

Emma Rice is one of the most beloved and established theatremakers in the UK – having pioneered shows such as Wise Children, Romantics Anonymous, Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes and more. All were out-and-out hits that have been seen across the world. Since the lockdown Rice and her company, also named Wise Children, have worked hard to offer live-streamed experiences for audiences – the latest being The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which is available now.

"Dancing on Air" in Romantics Anonymous, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – why do you think flight is a common theme across your shows?

What a great question! I do love the metaphorical idea of weightlessness. I like to imagine that on some level it might be possible to shake off our troubles, even for a moment, and burst into something lighter, brighter and more euphoric.

I have always dreamt that I could fly and love the feeling in my stomach when I wake after one of those dreams. Flying would certainly be my super-power of choice – but the reason I return to it as an image is not literal, it is metaphorical. Flying is an image that I hope brings joy, elation and a tingle in your toes that tells you anything is possible if you dare to hope.

Why was this the show that you knew you had to bring back next?

For me, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is the perfect show – though it's just possible I might be biased! It really does have everything; romance, history, music, heartbreak, beauty, politics and humour. The themes of the piece run deep and every time we re-visit the show, we find new layers, new truths and fresh surprises. It really is the gift that keeps giving - so it felt the perfect post Diwali, pre-Christmas or Hanukkah offering for our audience - and the perfect antidote to the heaviness of lockdown two.

What has it been like collaborating with three organisations – Kneehigh, Bristol Old Vic and Wise Children – all extremely close to your heart?

Well, like all good collaborations, it's been easy and fun. We are not just organisations, we are long-term colleagues and life-long friends. This project has given us all a chance to get together (albeit over zoom) and make something happen. All of us are ‘doers' so we have been in our element; ducking and diving, swerving and sashaying around the seemingly impossible odds of putting on a non-socially distant show during a pandemic! I've loved being back with my Kneehigh pals and being able to play in the stunning Bristol Old Vic. I sent up the ‘bat signal' and my oldest and best friends answered the call. We joined forces and rescued a dream, breathed life into show and created a piece of shared history that we will treasure forever.

How does it feel looking at the show through fresh eyes, and with the knowledge that the majority of the audience's eyes will be witnessing the piece through TV and laptop screens?

I am now a camera geek! I love being on ‘cans' during the performance and being able to talk to our Director of Photography and our camera operators. It is an intense and truly live experience as we work as a team to capture every shot, every moment of beauty and every story beat. I feel much more active as a director that I usually do in an ‘ordinary' show. There is no sitting at the back with a notebook. No! I feel a vital part of the team and yes, I feel as if I am seeing my own show through new eyes. I love to search for close-ups and cheeky details whilst always making sure the arc of the story is being told with power and meaning. It's been a real adventure and one I have loved – which I have to admit has been a complete surprise!

In what ways has Covid made Wise Children all the wiser, and also more ready for play?

Covid has made us more creative, more innovative and blasted us out of our comfort zone. We have gone through some dark times as a team, and I know there will be more to come, but we have found new ways to communicate, new ways to dream and have continued to make things happen – in spite of everything. We are really proud that we have managed to give so many of our precious freelance community work over this period. The online Summer Spread from the School for Wise Children employed 16 freelancers and our live broadcasts 38. We will certainly come out of this wiser, stronger and with a more modern and robust business model. As for play…. Always! Nothing on earth could stop the Wise Children from playing!

Looking to 2021 – how are your hopes for after the pandemic's effects subside and are there new avenues you're keen to explore?

I am now a total convert to all things digital! We will definitely continue to teach online as a part of our School for Wise Children, and we are excited to make our live broadcasts part of our touring programme from now on. What you lose in a digital experience is far outweighed by the amazing and important gains in access; something we are all passionate about at Wise Children Headquarters. The pandemic forced us to embrace the new world and we are smashing down barriers and being able to reach far more people than ever before. Thrilling!