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Emma Rice on Wise Children: ‘It’s about keeping your innocence while harnessing your power’

Judith Dimant, Poppy Keeling and Emma Rice. Photo: Steve Tanner Judith Dimant, Poppy Keeling and Emma Rice. Photo: Steve Tanner

For Emma Rice, the title of Angela Carter’s novel was the perfect expression of where she was post-Shakespeare’s Globe. She and the executive team at Wise Children tell Matt Trueman where their new company is headed

Emma Rice is thrilled with her new company’s name: Wise Children. “It’s perfect,” she beams, bouncing in her seat with excitement. “It’s more me than me.”

Anyone who has seen Rice’s work may well agree. Her shows have young hearts and strangely sage heads. They’re impish and outlandish, boisterous and carefree, but beneath all their silliness and whimsical charm, the best tap into something soulful and true. Wise Children catches that 100%. “It’s about keeping your innocence and your joy while harnessing your wisdom and your power,” Rice says.

There’s another reason the name fits. Wise Children’s a young company with a wealth of experience – and not just because Rice, who hit 50 last year, has been making theatre for three decades. Her latest venture grew right out of her last: that illustrious, but ill-fated, stint at Shakespeare’s Globe. As its third artistic director, she revved and riled up audiences in equal measure, only to be fired – very publicly and very contentiously – halfway through her first year.

Wounding as it was, the experience has ultimately energised Rice. “I’m changed by the whole Globe experience,” she insists two years on. “It made my heart pop. Wise Children is absolutely made in the wake of what was possible there.”

Losing the Globe gig forced her to take stock. “It was so clarifying to wake up and think: ‘Okay. What am I going to do with my future?’ I had this unique opportunity to start afresh.” Loath to return to freelancing, wary of running another building, Rice dreamed up a company to call her own. In just a few months, she compiled a national portfolio organisation funding application with producer Allegra Galvin. “We had to work our arses off,” Rice remembers. “I never assumed we’d get the money, but I did think if I’ve built this dream to this level of detail, it had to happen in some shape or form.”

Eighteen months later, it’s ready to go. Producers Judith Dimant and Poppy Keeling came on board from Complicite, and Wise Children’s first show opens at London’s Old Vic this week – a freewheeling adaptation of Angela Carter’s final novel, which lends the company its name.

Complicite’s Judith Dimant and Poppy Keeling join Emma Rice’s Wise Children

It’s had a long provenance. Pitched to the National a decade ago, Rice pencilled the project in at the Globe. “Thank heavens it hasn’t landed before now,” she exclaims. “It’s bloody perfect.”

Why so? “Well, it’s all about theatre, isn’t it?” the director says. The story of Nora and Dora Chance, identical twin showgirls who live for the stage, Wise Children unfolds their warped family history. It mocks theatre mercilessly, its dynasties and its hams; but deep down, Carter’s novel celebrates the stage’s grubby, greasepainted charm.

“It has everything I love,” Rice says with a grin. “It’s about the love of theatre, the price of theatre, high versus low art. It captures all of theatre’s romance, but gets its human cost as well.” It’s Rice all over. “Stinky, dirty, truthful writing,” she says. “I respond to every single one of those words.”

The surprise is that Wise Children has taken so long to reach the stage – 26 years since its publication. Written in five ‘acts’ and stuffed with Shakespearean nods, it’s self-consciously theatrical. Like many literary critics, Rice likens it to “a late Shakespeare play” – all twins, terrible fathers and mischief in the woods. “It’s like Cymbeline: everyone recognises their right fathers at the end.”

The cast of Wise Children. Photo: Steve Tanner
The cast of Wise Children. Photo: Steve Tanner

Really, though, Rice reckons it’s all about belonging. She’s put a caravan centre-stage, an expression of “all the temporary homes we make in theatre”.

Home is at the very heart of her company as well. Like Declan Donnellan’s Cheek By Jowl and Simon McBurney’s Complicite, Wise Children will serve as Rice’s artistic abode – critical at a moment when independent artists are squeezed. “It’s great to be in charge,” she admits, “but that comes with a lot of responsibility for the conditions under which people work. That has to be a holistic thing, and it has to come from the top.”

It’s why she wants Wise Children to revolutionise touring. Rice believes in touring theatre, right down to her bones. “It’s an ancient tradition: the strolling player has walked across centuries and continents. But now we see it as a second-rate thing. Everyone wants the London run or the TV broadcast.”

“It’s broken, that system,” says Dimant, Wise Children’s executive director. “On a fundamental level, theatres can’t afford the work.” Nor can Companies: Airbnb has pushed the price of digs up and, with it, the quality of touring life has gone down. Week-by-week tours mean breezing in to a town and breezing out the other side, hardly building audiences, let alone a meaningful relationship with a place. Rice reckons the whole experience is “gruelling” – a carousel of dodgy digs, frantic techs and last trains back to London every Saturday night. “On a bad week, there’s no quality in that. No quality at all.”

Wise Children wants to tour differently: three-week runs en route and, more intriguingly, a cavalcade of mobile homes to accommodate company members on the road. “We call them Tuck-Tucks,” Rice chuckles: “Temporary Utopian Caravan Kits.” The idea is to “tour a creative environment” and offer each touring venue more than the show.

Bettrys Jones, Katy Owen and Mirabelle Gremaud in Wise Children. Photo: Steve Tanner
Bettrys Jones, Katy Owen and Mirabelle Gremaud in Wise Children. Photo: Steve Tanner

Part of that offer is the School for Wise Children, the company’s in-house training wing. At each stop, eventually, Rice and co will lead courses and workshop for local emerging practitioners, making half the places available for free. It’s an innovative model and, Rice insists, a necessary one given the lack of opportunities for ‘alternative’ training.

“The people I love working with are incredibly skilled, but they’ve spent their lives building those skills.” Rice did too – during what she calls her “wilderness” years, living on the dole, working on the fringe and in theatre in education. “I didn’t half build up some skills in that time, but you couldn’t mimic that now. I don’t think any young person could have my career today. You just couldn’t survive.”

Its shape is still being figured out, but the School for Wise Children wants to help fill that gap. Composer Ian Ross worked with actor-musicians earlier this year, and they have an introductory course in the works. It’s canny, a way of widening Wise Children’s pool of potential performers and helping to launch whole new companies and emerging careers. “Wouldn’t it be great if, 10 years down the line, there was a whole brood of Wise Children knocking around?”

Like a lot of Wise Children’s plans, though, that’s still a pipe dream. With four years of Arts Council funding secured, the company’s first task is to establish itself, something Keeling says will take longer than first thought.

‘We have to prove ourselves, show by show’ Producer Poppy Keeling

“We have to prove ourselves, show by show,” the producer says diplomatically. “It’s one thing to say we want to come for three weeks, another to say to a theatre: ‘Here’s our first, really massive, pretty expensive show: how about it?’” Its first tour has landed only two runs of more than a week – in Bristol (four) and York (two). The Tuck-Tucks, like the school, will take some working out.

That’s Rice’s way though. “I always have about nine ideas on the go.” It’s why Wise Children might work: there’s no shortage of possible shows. Rice will make another next year, ready for mid-scale tour, though she’s keeping schtum for now. There are others in the pipeline: a Michael Morpurgo adaptation, maybe, and a South Asian-style Shakespeare, and Romantics Anonymous may well make a return, backers depending.

“You have to capture the right show at the right moment,” says Rice. “The world’s changing fast, and so am I.”

Wise Children runs at London’s Old Vic until November 10, before a UK tour

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