‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’: Erica Whyman on her remit to focus on new writing at the RSC - Features - Theatre & Dance - The Independent

‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’: Erica Whyman on her remit to focus on new writing at the RSC

Erica Whyman tells Fiona Mountford how she plans to shake things up at the RSC

It should come as no surprise that the job Erica Whyman seriously considered before becoming a theatre director was that of philosopher. Thoughtful, articulate and supremely comfortable discussing abstract issues, Whyman is a model of well-expressed, joined-up thinking. How fortuitous, then, that she has landed a role at one of our key cultural institutions, the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking the post of deputy artistic director to boss Gregory Doran after seven years running Northern Stage in Newcastle.

Her RSC remit centres on the company’s new writing, a decidedly mixed bag in recent years. Specifically, she says with a smile, her focus will be “the other”, not least overseeing the relaunch of Stratford’s much-missed studio space The Other Place.

“I’m interested in making sure we broaden the conversation and remind ourselves as an organisation what ‘the other’ might look like. Who are our ‘other’ audiences, what is our ‘other’ work beyond the classical repertoire and what is the ‘other’ within the classical repertoire?’”

She’s also passionate about “creating dialogue between the Shakespeares and the new work” and helping Doran bring cohesion to a programme that frequently looks high-quality but randomly selected. This year’s RSC festive offering will see Whyman direct The Christmas Truce, a new play focused on the trenches of 1914, to complement productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado about Nothing set immediately before and after the First World War.

Before that we have the intriguing prospect of The Roaring Girls, a season of Jacobethan plays (The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham, The White Devil and The Witch of Edmonton) in the Swan Theatre, with strong female characters at their centres. Three of them are also directed by women; it’s a cleverly crafted response to “people reconsidering what’s happening to gender in our culture” and, more specifically, to the main house’s male-heavy repertoire. In recent years, the RSC has come in for criticism for not employing enough female actors, with some suggesting that it should be gender-blind in its casting and adhere to a 50/50 male-female ratio. “Greg and I both disagree with that, although it’s a perfectly reasonable provocation,” she says.

“When I sat down with the Roaring Girls directors, we talked about the message of the season,” continues Whyman, 44. “Are we saying that 400 years ago there was a healthier playwriting culture around gender? Well, no, because we’re talking about a handful of roles in men’s worlds. On the other hand, the richness of the roles and the ages of the roles would give some of our current playwrights a run for their money, because we don’t see enough middle-aged parts, we don’t see enough women subverting the action or being leading protagonists. So it does have a provocation in it.”

Is gender-blind casting a thing that the RSC might reconsider? “We talk about being ‘blind’ in a number of ways. Is it possible to be colour-blind? Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s preferable to be colour-conscious. Greg and I knock this around quite often and reach different answers depending on the project.”

There will be more “provocation” in the Midsummer Mischief festival that Whyman will curate in a new temporary space at the Courtyard Theatre; consisting of four new plays by female writers, it will set up a “call and response” with The Roaring Girls. It was generated by Whyman wondering, “is it difficult to write plays about gender? Do they fall into the bracket of ‘women’s drama’ and make us want to run a mile? So I set the writers a provocation,” she says, calling on her favourite word again. “‘Well-behaved women rarely make history.’ I think it raises a live question about whether women are required to behave better or differently from men.” I think they are, I say. “I think they are,” Whyman agrees. “I’m very lucky because I’m not really required to behave differently from Greg, but I think if you look at the careers of freelance theatre directors, they’re absolutely required to behave differently.”

Whyman has been outspoken on women’s under-representation in arts management. There is now a decent spread in senior roles, but “where it’s not so healthy is when you look at who are the well-known faces. I think it’s a bit about which roles we value and who’s the star. We perhaps prioritise key men.”

I remind her of a startling comment she made to me last year, when she was pregnant with her first child (by playwright Richard Bean), of how the RSC was the only job she’d held where she could even consider having a baby; before Northern Stage, she ran the Southwark Playhouse and the Gate. She outlines the multitudinous “juggling” demands expected of artistic directors in smaller venues and how it is “terribly important to turn up at everything, because there isn’t anyone else who can represent the organisation”. Now, the buck no longer stops solely with her. “Greg’s first remark when I told him I was pregnant was, ‘If the RSC can’t cope with a woman in a senior role having a baby, then who can?’’’

The theatre community has welcomed the idea that someone of Whyman’s stature, with on-the-ground experience of the challenges facing regional theatres, will be able to use that knowledge on a countrywide platform. Does she think that the RSC and the National Theatre could be doing more to fulfil their national remits? “Loads more and we’re planning to do loads more here,” she says, before going on to talk for a full 10 minutes about a dazzling array of projects involving regional theatres, young people and even amateur companies. Rufus Norris and his incoming team on the South Bank will have to work hard to keep up.

 Did she feel a culture shock on moving to such an “establishment” organisation as the RSC? “My life has been through so much change in the past 18 months that it was a life shock rather than a culture shock,” she says. “There are moments when I think, gosh, it’s hard to make things happen quickly, as we’re a very big organisation. Other things are miraculously more possible. If I want to borrow a suit of armour, I can. I mostly don’t, but if I did, I could!”

The Roaring Girls season is at the Swan, Stratford, from 9 Apr (0844 800 1110, rsc.org.uk)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories