PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Emma Rice

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06 Jan 2010

Director-adaptor Emma Rice
Director-adaptor Emma Rice
Photo by courtesy of Kneehigh Theatre
Today is a red letter day in the 11-year history of this Playbill.com Q&A feature: A Brief Encounter with Brief Encounter.

More specifically, a brief encounter with Emma Rice, the adapter and director of the hit British import, Brief Encounter, based on both the film of the same name and the Noel Coward one-act, Still Life, on which it was drawn. The well-reviewed show, which incorporates both theatrical and filmic techniques, is currently playing an extended run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, following a tour of the U.S. The artistic director of the Kneehigh Theatre Company, Rice brought to work to life through the stunning incorporation of newly created film sequences (inspired by David Lean's 1945 black-and-white screen adaptation), and has also sprinkled the affair, which she calls "a grownup fairy tale," with songs with lyrics by Coward and new melodies by Stu Walker. Coward's poems and other writings are also used for the show. Rice talked to Playbill.com about her instinctual and slow artistic process.

Playbill.com: Why did you want to adapt Brief Encounter, both the play and the movie, for the stage? Were you always a fan of the material?
ER: No, I don't think I knew I was always a fan. I was in the office of David Pugh, who produced this show originally. He was asking me to do Peter Pan at the time. We had a long meeting. At the end, I said, "Look, it's a great idea. Thank you for asking me. But it's not what I'm interested in at the moment." I went to say goodbye and I saw a copy of "Brief Encounter" on top of his television. I said, "Now, if you'd asked me about Brief Encounter, this would have been a different meeting." He said, "You want to do it?" I said, "Yes." Really, from that moment, you wonder why my instinct was so strong.

Playbill.com: You just decided at the moment that might be a thing you'd be interested in?
ER: Yes. I call it "The Itch." If you concentrate too much on the mind and the brain, then you cut out a whole load of other things. I try to work instinctively, and that was a real moment of instinct. It's about then it gets interesting. You wonder, "Why was I not interested in Peter Pan but knew I wanted to do Brief Encounter?" I think the story is about one of fundamentals of the human experience. We try so hard to be monogamous and to be good. And yet, life trips us up, in a wonderful way. Also, all the things of individual freedom are very important to me, and are a strong theme that runs through a lot of my work.

Playbill.com: I take it you had seen the film.
ER: Yes, though not in such an adult way. I don't remember when I had seen the film. I was aware of it. It's often parodied a lot in England. I knew what the joke was about it. But I had no adult, intellectual relationship to it. I think it's just part of the DNA of being British. I felt I knew it on some deep level. And that's where it functions in a similar way to folk tales and fairy tales.



Playbill.com: Did you know right away that you wanted to use both the film and the original play?
ER: I take things very slowly in my work and wait and see what happens. If you physically force it too much, you deny the chance of surprise. I think I frustrate lots of people, because I spend lots of time saying "Maybe. Maybe not." I took a while to read the play. The first period, I just explored my own relationship to what I remember about the material, which is not as factual as reading a script, but it's just as factual emotionally. Then I read the script. And it's marvelous. It's much more compact than the film. It only takes place in the tea room. And it's more balanced. It's much more about the six characters, than just the two. It's much more of a chamber piece, so I definitely wanted to retain that.

Playbill.com: In your work, do you often use different media as you do in Brief Encounter?
ER: There's no formula to the way I work. I think I come from a simple, Poor Theatre background. I do a lot of storytelling. I use film in the same way that I use other sorts of Poor Theatre techniques, puppetry or other techniques. Each project defines how you tell that story. I've never used film in the way I have in Brief Encounter. And I won't again. But I've always used everything. I believe myself to be a storyteller above all. And I don't care what tells a story, whether it's design or music or words or film. I see the story as the thing, not the written word.