Obituary: Michael Emans, director who founded acclaimed touring company Rapture Theatre

Michael Emans, theatre director. Born: 27 March, 1971 in Glasgow. Died: Edinburgh, 18 July, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 50.

Michael Emans was a champion of Scottish theatre
Michael Emans was a champion of Scottish theatre

MICHAEL EMANS, who has died at home in Edinburgh at the age of 50, after being diagnosed with cancer some years ago, was a passionate, generous, and formidably hard-working theatre director, and a true champion of theatre in Scotland, working tirelessly to bring powerful professional theatre to communities across the country.

He founded his own touring company, Rapture Theatre, almost 25 years ago, when he returned to Scotland after training at Rose Bruford College in London; and since 1999, he and his life-partner and co-artistic director, the actress and designer Lyn McAndrew, have created and toured dozens of productions, often of modern classics previously unseen or rarely seen in Scotland, to venues of all sizes, from tiny village halls and arts centres to the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

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Michael Emans had a strong affinity for the work of the great American playwrights of the 20th century, staging relatively little-known Arthur Miller plays including Broken Glass and The Last Yankee, and in 2017 creating an acclaimed version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, for which actress Sara Stewart, as Martha, won a CATS Best Female Performance nomination. Rapture Theatre also toured plays by Tennessee Williams, Bryony Lavery, Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, Gregory Burke, and Patrick Marber, among many others, and in 2011 staged a memorable production of Catherine Johnson’s Bay City Rollers tribute musical Shang-A-Lang.

In 2019, the company toured both Patrick Marber’s football drama The Red Lion, and Bruce Norris’s searching drama about racial attitudes in the United States, Clybourne Park; and that year, Rapture also launched a hugely successful lunchtime theatre initiative, touring three short dramas to local and rural venues across the Central Belt and the south of Scotland, which Michael Emans felt could benefit from the same kind of Play, Pie And Pint initiative that had been such a success in Scotland’s cities.

That careful, caring attention to the needs of audiences and of touring venues was a striking hallmark of Rapture Theatre’s work, as Emans and McAndrew spent hours every week chatting to audience members and venue organisers, before and after their shows - a habit Lyn McAndrew says they learned from the legendary Giles Havergal, when he was artistic director at the Citizens’ Theatre.

Michael Emans also worked at the Lyceum Theatre in the early 2000s, as an assistant director to then artistic director Mark Thompson; and he and Lyn remained huge theatre enthusiasts, seeing almost every major show staged by Scottish theatre companies, and often travelling south to London, or to their beloved Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Michael just loved theatre,” says Lyn McAndrew, “and above all he loved actors – watching them, working with them, helping them to give their best performances. He chose the name Rapture Theatre because he liked both meanings of the word – both joy and ecstasy, and the idea of transcending ordinary existence into a higher realm. He thought theatre could be transformative in that way, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Michael Emans was born in 1971 in Glasgow, the first child of Anne and William Emans. The family moved to East Kilbride, where Michael soon became the eldest of a family of seven. He fell in love with theatre as a child, at St Leonard’s Primary and then St Bride’s High School in East Kilbride; he always wanted to direct, rather than act or write, and by the time he was 15, one of his schoolteachers, Jim Wardhaugh, was lobbying for him to be allowed to join the amateur EK Rep company, which normally had a lower age limit of 18. After school, he spent several years at Clydebank College brushing up his qualifications, and in 1992 enrolled at Rose Bruford, then one of the few UK drama schools with a dedicated directing course.

After his return to Scotland, he worked tirelessly at various jobs – in a supermarket, a cinema, and even as theatre critic for the East Kilbride News – while trying to get his theatre career on track; and in 1999, looking for a someone to play the role of a cabaret singer in an inventive pro-am production of Macbeth, he found himself casting Lyn McAndrew, whom he had seen in some Glasgow student productions.

The two became a couple almost immediately; and together, they rapidly moved Rapture Theatre on to a fully professional footing. At first, the path towards secure funding was a difficult one, as Scottish Arts Council policy at the time dictated a strong preference for new work over productions of modern classics; then in 2018, when Rapture Theatre had finally become one of Creative Scotland’s regularly funded companies, they were one of the organisations abruptly told that they had lost that status.

Yet the idea of giving up and folding the company was never likely to cross Michael Emans’s mind. It soon emerged that the new funding model to which Creative Scotland was moving suited Rapture Theatre; and in the run-up to lockdown, the company’s increased work-rate seemed to suggest both a company finally coming into its own, and a director, in Michael Emans, who still had decades of much-appreciated work to contribute to Scotland’s theatre scene.

By that time, though, Michael had been diagnosed with cancer, a diagnosis he shared with no-one except close family, since – in Lyn’s words – he never wanted the story to be about him. “Michael’s loss to Scottish theatre will be profound,” says the veteran Scottish actor Michael Mackenzie, who appeared in his 2019 production of The Browning Version. “He was such a kind, nice, decent man, with a lovely infectious joy in making and seeing theatre, and he will be so missed.” Sara Stewart wrote of her shock and sadness at his death, remembering Michael Emans’s kindness, gentle humour and intelligence, which, she said made him “a joy to be directed by”.

And Michael Emans himself left these words, which he asked should be read at his funeral. “From the start of my life, all I have ever wanted to do was create theatre. There is a life force in me that draws me to a play, and then makes me want to take it to an audience. I have always believed that theatre is for audiences, and that it is there to lift their spirits; and when it succeeds, you can’t get a better feeling than that.”

Michael Emans is survived by his much-loved family, and by his life’s partner Lyn McAndrew, who will continue to run Rapture Theatre along the lines they developed together, launching a new lunchtime touring season this autumn.

And he will also be deeply mourned by a Scottish theatre community to whom he was a champion, supporter and friend; a man of the theatre who worked with a unique combination of kindness, warmth, and dogged, unswerving determination, to create the theatre he believed audiences across Scotland deserved, and would love, as much as he loved it himself.


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