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Interview: Emma Rucastle, theatre director

14 June 2019

‘Sometimes I look on a play as a kind of mass’

Ever since learning about the Oberammergau Passion Play at primary school, I wanted to be involved in one. The story’s absolutely wonderful for theatre, of course, and “Hosanna” and “Crucify” really, really come to life when shouted by a crowd.

I started properly planning the North Lancashire Passion Play a couple of years ago, but the writing of it only really fell into place when I decided to tell the story using Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, especially, John as characters who could speak and read their own gospel words, and also comment on them to the audience, making connections to life today.

I chose John as the central character because I love the opening and closing words of John’s Gospel, and also, especially, John 19.35.

The North Lancashire Passion Play was devised for three churches: St Oswald’s, Warton, the Ascension, Torrisholme, and Lancaster Priory. It was performed at the end of the Lancaster Churches Together Walk of Witness in Lancaster city centre on Good Friday. It involved a community cast of 24 in total — not all performing in each venue — from eight years old to over 90. It was supported through funding from the Passion Trust.

We performed it to regular churchgoers in the indoor venues, and the general public walking through the city centre. Some of the churchgoers found themselves on their feet being shepherds, though they may have been expecting to sit quietly and reverently. The Walk of Witness audience were very willing to sing, and quite a number of passers-by were interested enough to stop and watch for a time. Some of the city workers eating their lunch watched, and one woman at the end asked for a palm cross from someone.

It was received very well. There’s always a scary moment when sharing writing to be performed, first with the cast and then with the audience. You have to take a deep breath and just do it. In this case, people immediately responded positively and generously.

The most difficult part was rehearsing different groups of people — often small groups in the early stages — in different venues, and getting them to believe in a greater whole. I always knew it would come together; but it must have been difficult for some of the performers to be sure in the early stages. I’m very grateful that they trusted the process.

It was hugely rewarding to see the cast grow together as a team, supporting each other and adapting to some quite challenging situations, such as the illness of the key cast members at a very late stage.

I always knew I wanted to work in live theatre, although I had — and still have — a huge passion for education. I trained as a secondary-school teacher, and taught English and drama in an all-boys school after doing a degree in English and theatre studies.

I left full-time teaching in 2009 to become freelance, and founded ELART Productions for my first commissioned work, which happened to be another church-based project: a series of three plays about St Peter for the bicentenary of Lancaster’s Catholic cathedral. I’d gained an MA in theatre directing, studied in sabbatical terms, and spent a month studying Stanislavski techniques at a drama school in Moscow. But a great deal more about directing is learned through trial and error.

Many ELART shows since that date have been site-specific, on all kinds of topics and from varied genres, and involve a mix of community and professional actors. I also work freelance locally and around the country for a range of organisations, such as the Shakespeare Schools Foundation, the Dukes theatre, Lancaster, and Rotherham Underground.

I’ve developed an interest in all-female theatre through my love of Shakespeare. I did a second MA in women’s roles in Shakespearean theatre. I’ve directed several all-female Shakespeare shows since.

Shakespeare wrote tremendous parts for women, although played originally by boys, and to see them being played alongside other women playing men’s parts is a very interesting dynamic. There’s something very relevant to today where we have so many struggles for equality going on. We’ve had a female Richard III — very interesting, the seduction scene with Lady Anne. There’s something very timely about women having access to this language and power.

All theatre is educational — but specifically, boringly, when I use the term “educational theatre”, I simply mean theatre that takes place in educational establishments, or has young people or those in education as its main audience. But, yes, I try to choose to put on plays that are thought-provoking and with a central, relevant message; so, in that sense, [they are] educational for all.

With amateur actors, I’m always aware that they’re giving up time from their daily lives to take part in the production. I’m hugely grateful to them for that. With that in mind, I try very hard to make the time they spend with me in rehearsal useful, supportive, and fun, as well as gently aiming to stretch them and encourage them to achieve more than, perhaps, they originally thought they would — especially if they haven’t performed before, or for a long time.

Lifelong friendships can be formed, and that new-found confidence can certainly be taken out into everyday life. Many people return to my productions or workshops or get involved in others. They get the bug for life.

I’m also a proud Fun Palace Maker. It’s almost impossible to explain what one of these is but you can look on the website funpalaces.co.uk. Effectively, they’re about putting culture at the heart of a community for a one-day event in October, free at point of access, run by and for the community, rather than any existing organisation inviting the community in.

It’s voluntary, but it’s a very important part of my work, mixing arts and community and science and technology in a rather wonderful way. Our Fun Palace really came to life six years ago, when we found a venue in Lancaster Library. Quite a lot of people came along for drama workshops, a crystal-growing competition, an RSPB interactive nature table, bread-making, singing, and dancing workshops.

I was brought up by my mum and maternal grandmother, who’s now 90 and still living with my mum in the house in which I grew up, in Warton, a small Lancashire village. I also had a close relationship with my paternal grandparents, and they, plus mum, were my main links to St Oswald’s, where my grandfather was churchwarden for more than 30 years.

I happily sang in the church choir, and learned to love theatre through the village drama group, which is still going strong. My daily life now is hugely varied. I live in Lancaster with my husband, and no two days are the same.

My first conscious awareness of God, outside of childhood prayers and Sunday-school stories, was when I was singing in a large choir on an RSCM choir course. I was aware of being part of something much bigger than myself, than all of us — something I couldn’t and can’t adequately express. To this day, I still feel closest to the eternal when singing or performing.

Genuine laughter is my favourite sound.

Self-interested politicians make me angry; and others in power, and people who judge others with no knowledge of their circumstances.

Living your own life to the best of your ability demands constant courage. I hope I’m getting braver.

New scientific discoveries in medicine and other fields give me hope. Seeing passionate people band together for good gives me hope.

I pray for peace.

If I had a few spare hours locked in inspiring surroundings like a church, it would be great to have William Shakespeare to bounce ideas off and help with editing.

Emma Rucastle was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.ELARTproductions.co.uk; @elaru

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