Erica Whyman: ‘We don’t need more women at the top – just more feminists’
If Shakespeare were alive today, what sort of playwright would he be? A James Graham, taking the temperature of the nation with big political dramas, a Caryl Churchill, constantly experimenting with form and language, a Tom Stoppard, turning complexity into clarity with limitless wit? This is the question at the heart of Erica Whyman’s job as deputy artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“Shakespeare was a new writer. He was daring and genuinely experimental with form, he was up for tackling really big, difficult subjects but he was also up for entertaining. What we’re doing is redefining what we hear when we hear Shakespeare – that we don’t think of it as fusty or stuffy or belonging in a corner. His work should be a genuine contemporary inspiration.”
Whyman has been in Stratford for three years now, moving there after a hugely successful seven-year stint at the helm of Northern Stage, and it’s clear that the more demanding a task is, the more she seems to thrive. Even as we speak, due to check out of her hotel in Glasgow before heading down to Blackpool for the next leg of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she’s packing up her bags. But rather than complaining about her own workload, she says: “It’s incredibly tiring for my company.”
Understandably, too: her touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, subtitled A Play for the Nation, involves a different amateur theatre group and a new cluster of school children for every city it plays, so that Whyman and the team are in a constant state of rehearsing, performing, and re-rehearsing.
“It was [RSC artistic director] Greg Doran’s idea. I was on maternity leave. I’d arrived at the RSC full of passion and insistence that we think even more ambitiously about our national relationship, so I take credit for having provoked it, but when I was away Greg said, ‘We should do A Midsummer Night’s Dream with amateur theatre companies around the country.’ Then the education director Jacqui O’Hanlon said, ‘We should showcase the work of our young people’ and then I got a phone call, very shortly after I’d had a baby, saying ‘You should direct it’.”
Talk about a baptism of fire. Whyman estimates that this production, when schoolteachers and amateur groups are taken into account, has about 75 directors. “It’s not associated with the RSC to be as collaborative as that.”
When Doran took over as artistic director in 2012, he was asked which word of ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’ was most important. He chose ‘Shakespeare’. While no one has much to say about the ‘Royal’ part, it seems that Whyman’s job is to look after the ‘Company’ aspect of the RSC – though it could just as well stand for ‘collaboration’. Whyman sees her mission as “making a genuine connection with audiences and doing it by collaborating really well”. Indeed, her three biggest projects – Christmas Truce, Midsummer Mischief and this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – have all insisted on high levels of collaboration, internally at the RSC and externally. “The thing I love about the theatre is really relating to the community in which you live. I didn’t really think that was possible in Stratford – and it was.”
Others may have been concerned about her appointment to the RSC, since she had no particular background in Shakespeare aside from a production of The Winter’s Tale at Southwark Playhouse in the late 1990s, designed to cash in on the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe, just down the road. But no one was more concerned than Whyman herself. Still, she says, that concern quickly disappeared. “Greg wanted someone who had not been inside the RSC, an outside eye. He’d been there 25 years and hadn’t worked outside for a very long time.”
Since 2013 her biggest project has been overseeing the refurbishment and reopening of the Other Place. A few hundred metres along the river from the RSC proper, the big tin shed – once shining silver, and now coated in a layer of coarse red rust – was established in 1974 by the 27-year-old director Buzz Goodbody. The parallels between Goodbody’s and Whyman’s visions are striking: the desire to open Stratford up to new, younger audiences, the awareness of a need for experimental work to sit alongside more traditional productions.
“I’d been directing some pretty out-there work so I guess what people thought – which wasn’t the whole truth – was that I would bring that experimental edge to the RSC. In fact the truth was that I saw a direct line to Shakespeare.” Pretty quickly, however, an experimental edge did begin to creep into the RSC’s programming. Adventurous work had been commissioned in the past – let’s not forget the RSC is responsible for Les Miserables, a three-hour musical based on a 19th-century French novel set during a minor student uprising in Paris – but experimentalism has never been an immediate association.
One of Whyman’s first projects was Midsummer Mischief, a rapid-response series of short plays by female writers including Timberlake Wertenbaker and Alice Birch. “I couldn’t wait until the building opened. We needed to establish what we meant by the Other Place, by me being here and taking the writing into even more daring territory. There was an intent on being more radical, on reviving the strong political conscience that the Other Place had in the 1970s and also just throwing a little bit of caution to the wind. So we said we wanted plays written really fast.” The Swan or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, she says, work on two to three-year deadlines. “That can be great for really cooking a play, but you’re out of date.”
For Whyman, again tracing that tortuous lineage through four centuries, the unapologetically feminist purpose of Midsummer Mischief was Shakespearean. “I do think he’s a feminist, because he’s interested in difference, he’s interested in the unexpected. I don’t see a huge gap.”
When it’s fully up and running, Whyman will act as a kind of artistic director for the Other Place, in charge of its programming as well as its relationships with artists. “It’s our equivalent of the NT Studio, it’s where the majority of our R&D will happen. We work with 60 or so artists a year making new work, so the whole piece will be under my remit. But in my view it doesn’t work if it is peripheral to the rest of the programme, if it sits in its own box doing its own thing. It mustn’t have a separate identity.” It’s about being “sensitive and sensible”, she claims, in the way it works with the main houses so that there can be “a real sense of energy across the whole campus”.
“What I want is to make work in there which is genuinely edgy in terms of its content, so that we are talking about difficult questions. It seems to me essential that to keep that flame of Shakespeare alive, one thing we have to do is honour the fact that he wrote about the hard things: he wrote about religion, he wrote about war, he wrote about identity. Those are very hard things to talk about now, 400 years later, and really necessary.”
There may seem to be an irreconcilable difference between the way that the RSC’s big stages – the Swan and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – sit alongside Whyman’s aspirations for the Other Place as a seedbed of experimentalism, new writing, and nurturing young talent. Even the couple of hundred metres that separate the rusty tin shed from the towers and gables of the main building emphasise the gap between what these places are trying to do. But according to Whyman’s vision the relationship is much more mutually dependent than that.
Q&A: Erica Whyman
What was your first job? Fitting children’s shoes in the local shoe shop.
What was your first theatrical job? Assisting Nicolas Kent at the Tricycle on Nuremberg, Richard Norton-Taylor’s extraordinary adaptation of the trials.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Your values matter, and you can make the work you want to make by holding true to them.
Who is your biggest influence? Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch – I was their assistant director on a long tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and they taught me how to be radically playful.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions? Be yourself. Of course come prepared, read the text carefully and understand the character, but it’s not TV, I want to know what it’ll be like to share a rehearsal room with you.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? A philosopher. I was serious about it and started a PhD, but gave it up to train in theatre.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No superstitions, but I do like to dress up for press night, to make it feel more like a celebration than a moment of judgement.
“It gives us an opportunity to work with writers and directors who then may go on to the main stages.” The other way they reinforce each other is in getting new audiences to Stratford: “Some people are put off by the idea of coming to see Shakespeare – people think the evening’s going to be long, it’s going to be expensive. So actually getting them there by seducing them with a sharp new play that’s short and affordable might get people in the habit. That means they’ve got a home there, which matters to me.”
It all feeds into Whyman’s vision of Shakespeare in the present day. “I do think Shakespeare can be for everybody. Stratford should be too.” Unity and collaboration are Whyman’s watchwords. They’re themes that take root in the productions she directs and in the way that she intends to run the Other Place. A newly refurbished brick and steel structure acts as a cafe and bar, attached to the old tin shed whose renovated innards still smell of wood and paint. It contains lots of multi-purpose spaces where the public and actors intermingle: rehearsal rooms have viewing galleries so that people can get “a really strong sense of what it is to make a show from scratch, what it feels like for actors to go into rehearsal at the RSC”.
Although the building opened in February, the first programme – a summer festival of new writing – is yet to be announced. The only clue Whyman gives is that there’s a strong theme of dubious leadership, “the state being in a shaky place and not knowing how to run a country. It’s on all of our minds.”
Running a building, on the other hand, is something Whyman knows very well. She was artistic director of the old Southwark Playhouse from 1999-2001, before heading up the Gate in Notting Hill for three years. And yet her career in theatre almost never happened. After studying French and philosophy at Oxford, despite travelling to see as much as she could at the National under Richard Eyre’s tenure – “I saw my first Shakespeare at the National: Juliet Stevenson and Fiona Shaw in As You Like It, it was pretty spectacular” – Whyman started a PhD in philosophy at UCL. “I wanted to be a philosopher. I was absolutely sure about that. But I found myself acting and directing, and it wouldn’t go away.”
Torn between acting and directing, it was when she trained with Philippe Gaulier in Paris that she settled on the latter. “I was very inspired by Philippe, but I found that I didn’t want to get up and be tortured by him, I wanted to sit next to him and watch him do it.” The seeds were planted of “not acting”.
Whyman credits her success to “a series of extraordinary opportunities” but she has been vocal in the past about the lack of recognition for women in theatre. It’s not necessarily about having women in the top roles – “women have been running theatres and companies for longer than anyone is prepared to recognise” – but, according to Whyman, it’s about the journey. “What’s tough, and remains as tough as it was – if not a little bit worse – is early in a career facing years and years of not earning any money, of having to fight for airtime. It makes it quite a macho environment. I see more talented women than talented men giving up.”
Erica Whyman’s for aspiring directors
• Keep asking what you want to say about the world and what effect you’d like to have on your audiences.
• In the end only the actors and audience can influence the success of an evening. Your usefulness is time-limited so exercise humility.
• Don’t give up if it feels as if backs are turned on you – the most interesting theatremakers have been ignored and misunderstood.
“It’s always great to see women in leadership roles because organisations change their temperature and think slightly differently, but we don’t necessarily need more women at the top of organisations. We need more feminists.” Too many people fall by the wayside, says Whyman, despite making great work, because no one cares. “They’re not shouting loud enough, they haven’t got sharp enough elbows, they haven’t got somebody famous in it, they’re making it in Huddersfield and so they’re discounted from the very narrow conversation we have about what is of value. That’s where I worry.”
Tactfully declining to name him, Whyman tells me about a “distinguished male director” who recently said to her “‘this is a phase that all minorities go through’”. She laughs about it, but the ardour in her voice reveals the strength of her conviction. “There is crazy prejudice in the theatre, as there is in all walks of life. Everybody’s prejudices across the board have an effect on the choices we make. We have to consciously correct those prejudices. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope it will happen.”
So what is Whyman most proud of having achieved in her three years in Stratford? A subtle shift in institutional thought? A growing relationship with the rest of the nation? She cuts me off with a laugh: “I had a baby. So the obvious answer is doing this crazy, brilliant job and being a mum.”
A few days after our conversation, I’m led around the Other Place, including the RSC’s 60,000-item costume store, still only half full, with racks being added to and huge crates unpacked all the time. It strikes me that this room sums up the Other Place’s relationship with the rest of the RSC: ruffs, smocks and lavish gowns, the arch decadence of tradition, stuffed into a brand new, bright white room, still smelling faintly of paint. It’s an exciting juxtaposition. A name tag pokes out from under the collar of a white chemise: “Susannah York” it says in faded ink. There’s history here, among these musty clothes. Whyman’s role is to make sure that there’s a trailblazing future too.
CV: Erica Whyman
Born: 1969, Harrogate
Training: Philippe Gaulier, Bristol Old Vic
Landmark Productions: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 2011, Midsummer Mischief, 2014, Hecuba, 2015
Awards: Theatrical Management Association award for theatre manager of the year, 2012