What does Oklahoma and Popeye have in common? A visionary South Australian musician with a big heart.
On a 12°C night in May, I met up with Emma Knights at a cafe in Stirling. It looked cosy on the inside but without a reservation this interview had to take place on the porch, al fresco. We wrapped ourselves in blankets to maintain some semblance of warmth. To make the most of our outdoor ambience, we sipped some fresh peppermint tea and ordered sticky date pudding.
Knights’ cheerful demeanour seemed even more settled in our culinary context. She was about to play piano for the closing night of Hills Musical Company’s production Sideshow and she kindly took time out to chat to me about salvaging sci-fi costumes from interstate, and being a lactose-intolerant producer sponsored by a cheese company.
Starting an Arts Business
In 2013, she created Emma Knights Productions soon after touring with Opera Queensland (OperaQ) in Space Encounters. A graduate of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Knights’ vision is to showcase South Australian talents and locations.
Knights has seen a lot of talent in her time as an accompanist, and has endured many conversations with people advising her to move interstate if she wants to ‘make it’ in the industry. She sought out an alternative to buck the interstate trend.
Five years ago, she asked OperaQ about the final fate of the sets and costumes from the three-year tour of Space Encounters. OperaQ intended to throw them away, and this prompted Knights to purchase them with the idea of bringing the production to South Australia and touring it. At the time there was not much happening in Opera Education within South Australian schools. Having spotted a niche, she said to herself, “Hey, I’ll give it a go!”
“You have to be very resilient”
– Emma Knights
In order to source the initial capital for her venture, she planned to raise funds through concerts, but wanted to avoid clichés. She liaised with the owner of the Popeye, a riverboat cruise along the River Torrens, and initially proposed three performances under the banner Floating Melodies.
This alliance proved successful for Knights, and now, five seasons later, it is one of her flagship productions along with Pirates of Penzance also performed on the Popeye. I congratulated her on this career highlight and we celebrated with another spoonful of sticky date pudding.
Floating Melodies is about to expand to Tasmania, and while this is a win for her company, I asked whether or not she would maintain a local focus should the company scale to a national level. She hesitated, then said “This is something I’m fighting with.”
Knights will be accompanying South Australia-based, Launceston-born performer, Michelle Nightingale, representing both states. Knights explains; “[SA] has always been my home, […] there will always be a large portion of my company that will be just South Australian.”
Her SA team consists of her dad, sister, and three part-time employees who help with customer service and marketing for a couple of hours a week.
As an independent, self-funded creative she uses sustainable resources such as plantable paper for her programmes, natural light and locations to minimise technical overheads such as set-building and special effects lighting; her production of Oklahoma! On a Farm is a great example of this.
In her twenty years of involvement in amateur theatre, she saw an opportunity for work between the worlds of amateur and professional shows. She wanted to get younger audiences involved in live theatre while offering “something different and immersive”.
“Be the bigger person”
– Emma Knights
During her time as a business owner, Knights has received some external funding from organisations such as Splash Adelaide and Umbrella Winter City Sounds for her shows Aqua Beat and Haydn Seek. However, a majority of the funding comes out of Knights’ own pocket.
In a market saturated with theatre companies, Knights’ point of difference is her ability to provide paid performance opportunities for local artists who are working towards a professional career in the arts.
Knights has mixed feelings about the concept of performing for ‘exposure’, a term that artists are generally familiar with. As a musician, she has performed pro bono, finding value in the project itself rather than the money. She stresses the importance of performing for free if “the payoff is equivalent to money”.
She has a mutually-beneficial promotional relationship with one of her sponsors, local South Australian cheese company, BD Farm Paris Creek. At this point we have a laugh about her intolerance to lactose, and how her sponsor can trust her with the product.
Highs and Lows
Inevitably, there are some lows that go with being a producer. When I asked her how she deals with adversity, she responded “Be the bigger person. Look at the lesson. Have an open mind.” Knights places emphasis on looking after oneself and knowing when to draw the line. One of the hardest lessons she learned was losing $15,000 after one of her productions had ended.
As she reflected on this experience, I sensed that it was a delicate subject for her; “You have to be very resilient”, Knights said. She described the difficulty of walking away from this show and maintaining a professional attitude. “Especially as an artist, there is a bit of shame in [failure]”, Knights added, finding solace in the fact that 41 performers were paid for their work. It is a rare person who puts people before profit. Knights is such a person.
The bright side to being a producer is that she has exciting projects in the pipeline. All the information can be found on her website and social media outlets under Emma Knights Productions. Shows such as I Love You Because, Aqua Beat, Sconefest, and Hair are among them. In other exciting news, Knights is performing a one-woman show called The Piano Men at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! The show will address issues of inequality in the music industry and feature songs by Knights’ favourite piano men.
According to Knights it seemed “less scary” to trial her show on another continent. Perhaps Adelaide will be treated to The Piano Men soon. She kept me in suspense by hinting (ever so coyly) that she had applied for professional rights to a show for next year. Her face lit up but at the same time she seemed daunted by the new territory.
In addition to her many talents, she has a great sense of humour. When asked if she was a dinosaur or a pigeon person, she responded “What? Is that what you said? [chuckles] I guess The Land Before Time comes to mind.” Her determination to support the work of creatives has contributed to great achievements in her five-year history as owner of Emma Knights Productions, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
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