Rapture Theatre finds winning recipe for lunchtime theatre

Last year was not a good one for Rapture Theatre, the Glasgow-based Scottish touring company founded back in 2000 by artistic director Michael Emans, and his partner and co-artistic-director Lyn McAndrew. After the relative security of three years as one of Creative Scotland’s regularly funded organisations, or RFO’s, Rapture was one of the touring companies brusquely informed, back in January 2018, that their hard-won RFO status was being ended, and that after a year of transitional support they would be expected to switch their funding applications to a new Creative Scotland touring fund.

Robin Kingsland in rehearsals for The Browning Version

During their three years of regular funding, Rapture had developed a signature repertoire of solid, respectful productions of mighty 20th century classics, taking plays by Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Michael Frayn to main stages across Scotland, and scoring a particular success with their impressive 2017 production of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. The loss of the company’s RFO status was therefore a blow; and like the other touring companies affected, Rapture had to take stock of their new situation. Some companies fought back fiercely, and had their RFO status restored; others decided to shut up shop for good. Rapture, though, is dedicated to touring as part of its core mission, and therefore felt that it could work with the new Touring Fund, given time; and the company decided to use its year of transitional support to experiment with a new kind of touring.

“It occurred to us that although lunchtime theatre has been a huge success in Scotland over the past 15 years, it’s not a form of theatre that generally goes on tour,” says Emans. “I’d seen a lot of lunchtime theatre when I was training in London in the 1990s, I’d seen lunchtime weekend theatre at East Kilbride Arts Centre when I was a kid growing up there, and of course I’ve been a huge admirer of what A Play, A Pie And Pint has achieved since 2004, both at Oran Mor and in transferring some of its shows to other venues.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“But we thought – what if you just can’t make it into Edinburgh or Glasgow at lunchtime? What if you’re in one of the smaller towns we’ve toured to over the years, and you’re missing out on the whole lunchtime theatre boom? So we started to have conversations with a list of mainly smaller venues around Scotland about whether they would be interested in experimenting with a short series of lunchtime shows this spring; and it turned out that there were far more venues eager to take part than we could possibly fit in to our schedule at this stage.”

The result of Rapture’s negotiations was the company’s current spring touring season of three lunchtime plays, which began in February with JM Barrie’s feminist one-act play The Twelve Pound Look, continued last week with Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, and is set to conclude this coming week with Harold Pinter’s A Kind Of Alaska (1982), about a woman who wakes up after spending decades in a strange catatonic state. The venues involved – the same seven for each week-long production – are the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, the Catstrand in New Galloway, the Eastgate in Peebles, the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy, the Byre in St Andrews, Eastwood Park Theatre on the south side of Glasgow, and Emans’s old stamping-ground, East Kilbride Arts Centre. Each venue is providing a slightly different play-and-lunch package, depending on its catering facilities; so the Eastgate is offering a soup and sandwich sit-down lunch, while the Byre is going for artisan pies. And so far, the Rapture experiment has been a roaring success, in many venues more than doubling its audience between the first production in the series, and the second.

“It’s been great for us,” says Aidan Nicol, who runs the most far-flung venue on the circuit, the Catstrand in New Galloway. “We don’t normally get very large audiences for theatre, but we did pretty well on The Twelve Pound Look, and for The Browning Version we completely sold out. We’re offering a sandwich-box picnic lunch, with tea or coffee after the show; and audiences seem to love it.

“It’s mainly older people who are free to come at lunchtime, of course, and they do like the ‘theatre as it used to be’ element of Rapture’s programming. But it’s a very high standard of work, and we really do seem to be providing something that’s needed – a chance to come out in the daylight, to a show that’s not going to be too long, and that’s also a very sociable lunchtime occasion, for people in a small town or community.”

Emans, too, could hardly be more pleased with Rapture’s success at tapping into a hugely enthusiastic lunchtime audience; and he is also unrepentant about the traditional quality of his lunchtime repertoire so far. As a director, he devoutly believes in giving audiences a chance to see well-crafted, straightforward productions of classics, and to marvel at their strong contemporary resonances; and he also hopes that by returning regularly to the same venues, and building up a measure of trust with audiences, Rapture may be able to expand the repertoire with time.

“We planned this season to move on from Barrie and Rattigan to Pinter’s play, which might be seen by some as more demanding; and we’ll see how it goes. So far, though, ticket sales are looking good; and I’m delighted to say that we’re already talking to venues about doing it all over again next spring – we can’t wait, and we’re hoping that that goes for our audiences, too.” - Joyce McMillan

A Kind Of Alaska is on tour to all seven venues listed above from 25-31 March. For details, visit www.rapturetheatre.co.uk