‘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)

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