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Emma Vickers: Bringing Whipped Cream With Space Dust

Emma Vickers, Splore Performance Director, talks about her background in the circus, what performance theatre ought to give audiences, and what Splore 2018 hopes to deliver


Emma Vickers began her career in the arts as an acrobat, flying across Europe.  She has toured Europe with performance group Mutoid Waste Company and circus theatre group Generating Company (Genco). Emma has worked in Splore in the past, as a part of the team that brought The Butterfly Zoo—a burlesque cabaret that had a venue theme of a 1930s Shanghai nightclub. As she states in the interviews below, an acrobat's career is short and now has her feet planted in New Zealand, as Performance Director of Splore Festival. As Performance Director, Emma hopes to give platforms to shows that inspire audiences, push boundaries, and ensure that the art and performances at Splore enrich the experience of each festival-goer.

Was there a creative background to your childhood?

Yes absolutely. My father was a TV/Film director, producer and scriptwriter. I desperately wanted to be an actor and he gave me a couple of “extras” roles when I was about 8yrs old, but I wasn’t encouraged as I got older... so I just joined the circus instead!

What is the core belief that forms the basis of the way you work and the choices you make?

I believe that fundamentally, performers are onstage to entertain and provoke emotion. I don't like self-indulgent, ego-driven performance, the look-at-these-tricks-that-make-me-a-superior-human feeling that comes across from some productions. A performer has to give, not take. I endeavour to programme acts that will be perfect for a particular audience and event, not simply because it suits my taste.

Tell us a bit about the journey that led you to working as the Performance Director at Splore.

I performed as a circus aerialist from age 20, learning in London’s National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA), working across Europe in the underground festival scene, moving on to nightclubs and touring theatre productions. I eventually “earned my stripes” with Australia’s traditional touring Weber Bros Circus, and my New Zealand citizenship, because no-one else in New Zealand performed my “flying-rope” act! Alongside performing I learned the essentials of production, this was in the days of throwing unlicensed “raves” in abandoned warehouses for thousands of people with no budget.

In New Zealand I performed for early Splores and wanted to see more physical theatre at the Festival. Amanda Wright (one of Splore’s founders) gave me the opportunity to create and develop this aspect of Splore’s programme. After the really successful Butterfly Zoo cabaret in 2008, I took a hiatus to have two kids, travel back to England for four years, and essentially retire from aerial acrobatics. On my return in 2016 I was delighted to be offered the role of Performance Director by current Director Fred Kublikowski.

What do you want to be remembered for in your work?

For bringing whipped cream with space dust, lime zest, and chilli to an audience—never porridge and milky tea. And for flying through the air on a rope.

What really gets you excited in your role?

Finding genius, fearlessness. And I do mean finding an act that takes physical tricks one step further, flipping them into something unique, but also one that’s emotionally open, taking the audience on a completely unexpected journey, creating a world of escape for that moment. If I lose myself watching a performance, I know it’s a good one. If I can bring it to Splore to share and watch people go nuts over it? That buzz is as good as being on stage myself.

You talk about planning the Living Lounge around a storyline that impacts people—what does this year’s Living Lounge have in store for Splore audiences?

I take the theme and with the genius of designers Ramana Harknett and Naomi Lamb, we create a look with stage dressing and projections to set the vibe. The flow of the acts with a dynamite MC is essential to the electric atmosphere I want to create in the Living Lounge. 2018 is Mystic Ritual. There is so much creative potential and ways to interpret this title it’s been a lot of fun playing with it! The audience will of course, have to wait and see…

What are your top picks for this year’s Living Lounge?

I like for acts to be genre-bending and gender-blending, so we no longer see any performer or performance in a “box” and the night becomes a carnival whirlwind of the unexpected. Empress Stah is the embodiment of this, and is flying in from London with her “laser ass” aerial performance, as is Christopher Olwage, an exceptional ballet dancer and “boylesque” performer from New Zealand. Jair Ramirez brings an aerial circus solo show of Columbian city life via London to New Zealand, and Auckland’s Dynamotion company explode DISCO and dance mayhem across the Festival.

What do you believe is unique about Splore as a festival?

Splore has all the best elements of all the festivals I’ve been to: yes it’s a ridiculously stunning location and always has a diverse and exciting music line-up, but what I love is that it always takes new twists and turns, allowing discovery and delight beyond what is predicted. The producers and programmers care deeply about it maintaining its uniqueness, affordable quality, and integrity. Our Splore community is something we treasure and work hard to please. Again, it’s about bringing entertainment rather than massaging our own egos.

What is the biggest challenge that you see for people seeking a career in the creative sector?

The energy to go on, knowing your worth and sticking to your guns. Knowing when to listen to good advice and being brave enough to take it. Creating and producing a show with everything you have, putting in all your finances, love, sweat and time into it, and then trying to keep it alive, trying to keep your cast paid and trying to get it recognised. toured and rewarded. I have seen so much of this and so many crumple just when they deserve to go stellar, due to lack of financial support. I am beyond delighted when one breaks through and gets the recognition and success it deserves.

What advice would you give someone pursuing a similar creative career or pathway?

Compete against yourself: push and push harder. Stay healthy. Know that an acrobat’s career is brief but glorious! Find an awesome Plan B and have it in your back pocket and bring it out as a Plan A when the time comes, i.e find something you also love doing so that when Plan A doesn't work out or has come to an end, Plan B looks just as good—Plan B is the new Plan A!

Written by

The Big Idea

25 Jan 2018

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