Feature: Erica Whyman – new stories to tell

When Erica Whyman started as Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, she was excited by the brief set her by Director Gregory Doran. He wanted her to commission new writing and to reopen the studio theatre, The Other Place. In its original form, in the 1970s, The Other Place was a focus for experiment and new writing. The RSC wants to recreate a venue where new work can flourish. Some people might be surprised that a company with ‘Shakespeare’ in its title should be interested in new writing. But Whyman insists it’s a natural fit. as Shakespeare himself was “a real trailblazer in experimenting with form, writing about current affairs, philosophical, political and spiritual ideas.”

Whyman is currently responsible for Midsummer Mischief, a season of new plays at The Other Place which transfers to the Royal Court this month. These four plays are by women playwrights and Whyman has directed two of them herself. The plays respond to the provocation “well behaved women rarely make history”, a phrase coined by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In choosing this focus, Whyman explains she wanted to bring out the rebellious sides of the playwrights. “They’d already demonstrated an interest in gender or an interesting take on gender”, says Whyman. But she also wanted to provoke them and give them permission to write more daring plays. “I certainly think that’s what they’ve done, they’ve really risen to the brief.”

Her prompt was a double provocation. “On the one hand it’s an interesting thought about women now, and whether we’re still expected to behave differently to men, and whether we have to behave badly in order to get noticed. But the other provocation is that their plays don’t have to be well behaved and can experiment with form.” The plays can rebel as well as their writers. E.V. Crowe, one of the Midsummer Mischief playwrights, has said that being in the new The Other Place felt like being in a punk gig. Whyman loves that sense of rebellion and anarchy “and being able to say what you really thought, sometimes with anger, and other times with playfulness… I suppose that’s what we were trying to capture.”

A season written and directed by women, organised by a female Deputy Artistic Director, has inevitably led to a lot of discussion about women and theatre. But Whyman says that’s not the point. “We’ve got Josie Rourke running the Donmar, we’ve got Vicky Featherstone running the Royal Court, and we still somehow think it’s unusual. We don’t think that of men. But until we get over the idea that a woman is an exceptional appointment, we won’t see that progress. I’ve been running theatres since 1998, so it’s not really news to me that women can run theatres. But it is still news, and I would love to see a time when it’s not even interesting.” However she does worry about the lack of female playwrights. She admits that is partly why Midsummer Mischief exists. “I think we’ve got a handful of senior women playwrights, but we don’t have anywhere near enough women writing for our larger stages. I would like to see that change.”

The RSC also has a female Executive Director, Catherine Mallyon. Whyman argues that there is a common misconception that the only rank that matters in the theatre is the Artistic Director. She doesn’t believe that to be true, having done the job of Chief Executive several times herself. “ I know that it is completely essential, and we just pretend those women don’t exist, and it makes me very cross.” She points out that in any other industry we accept women as chief executives. “For some reason in the theatre they don’t count, yet they’ve been running our theatres for years and years and years.”

Some of the most successful plays to have come out of the RSC in recent years have been new writing. Matilda has been hugely financially successful, the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies has been a big critical hit, and Wendy and Peter was a brilliant feminist reworking of a classic. But Whyman is interested in small as well as big scale in relation to new writing. The Other Place allows the RSC to take more risks because it is for a smaller audience so there is less money at stake, “and that’s important, so that we can keep experimenting and trying new things.”

This Christmas will see the opening of a very ambitious work at the Swan Theatre. Oppenheimer, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith, will explore the history of Robert Oppenheimer and the invention of the nuclear bomb. Whyman asserts that there will be equally ambitious work to come. “It continues apace at the RSC. Lots of big new stories to tell.” Whyman’s ambition to engage with new work at the RSC looks set to continue challenging, delighting and surprising us.