Erica Whyman: “If you want to lead, go out and do it.”

Entertainment

 

What was the first show you directed, and why did you decide to pursue directing as a career?

The first show I directed was Frank McGuiness’ ‘Someone who’ll watch over me’; and before that I both directed and starred in Hedda Gabler for the Oxford Theatre Group. Being both the lead and directing turned out a bad idea – I was a much better director than actor! After I finished my degree I went to UCL to do a PhD in philosophy. A friend asked me to direct a piece, with the hunch that I’d enjoy it, and they were absolutely right! About a year later I decided to give up the PhD and train as a professional.

 

What excites you most about ‘The Roaring Girl’ season and the reopening of ‘The Other Place’?

‘The Roaring Girl’ season is a mixture of fabulous but little-known plays, each directed and conceived by a really exciting and inventive female director. We’re using contemporary theatre practice and ideas to inform these productions, so we’re discovering the plays in many ways. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were deeply preoccupied with the change of gender politics and roles, so it’s refreshing to discover how they dealt with and investigated issues that are still alive today. Can women be murderers like Arden of Faversham? Can they take on a man, as Moll Sweeney does in The Roaring Girl, and how do we feel, looking at The White Devil, about the extraordinary misogyny in that play?

The Other Place is the most exciting part of my role at the RSC. It’s a very different kind of theatre for the company, using a different range of artists, and gives them the chance to play, experiment and sometimes fail. We’re vividly showing this in the Midsummer Madness season, which is a series of contemporary female voices writing in response to the Roaring Girl Season. They’re saying what they want to say about the modern world, but in dialogue with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

 

You described the work to be created in ‘The Other Place’ as what Shakespeare would have produced if he were alive today. Are there any modern plays or playwrights that you consider equal to Shakespeare’s?

That’s impossible! I’d say more contemporary writers than plays. No play is equal because audiences, actors and theatre have changed enormously; if Shakespeare were alive today he’d make a wholly different kind of theatre. A possibility is Chris Thorpe: he’s Shakespearian in that he’s not afraid of complex issues or experimenting with forms. His work is much more intimate, but with the same intention and understanding of connecting with audiences. Jez Butterworth is another, particularly for Jerusalem. It has Shakespearean flair, combining both high tragedy and comedy in the same character and play. Another (though I’m biased) is Richard Bean [her partner]. There’s a mischief in his comedy – he’s always taking the opposite view! You can compare it with The Taming Of The Shrew – what’s Shakespeare really talking about there? Religion? Gender? debbie tucker greene’s work is playing with language in a Shakespearean way: its completely her own voice, but really playing with sound.

 

At the ‘Women in the Arts’ Forum in February, you argued that women were unfairly represented in senior positions in the arts world. How do you think young women can help to achieve this?

Be ambitious in a way that serves the whole community, both the culture sector and the wider audience. Many people are so focused on their own careers that it’s hard to know what they want to say about the world or the effect they want to have. Add this to the glass ceilings, and the net result is that there aren’t enough women aspiring to leadership roles early or firmly enough to break through. If you want to lead, go out and do it – there’s no one in your way.

 

If you were the curator of a student drama festival, what would you like to see?

I’d like to see as much passionate commitment to an idea as possible. Don’t try to emulate the professional world to prove you can do it, I’d rather see what you care about. I think we squander those moments early in our career when we can do whatever we want and not care what people say.

 

What is the best story or anecdote of your career so far?

I was a green Assistant Director, working on a tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a wonderfully inventive production; the forest was made of cellotape! During our Liverpool run, Titania (Claire Benedict)’s mum passed away. I put Claire on a train and sorted everything out, then went into the hotel and realised I would have to go on! There was no chance to rehearse or learn lines, but I went on that night in the Liverpool Empire, and it was the most frightening and exhilarating night of life. I’m the only person in the RSC’s history to be Deputy Assistant Director and play Titania! It was an amazing company, and they held my hand and walked me through it.