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Work starts on new RSC Garden theatre

RSC artistic director Gregory Doran is used to breaking new ground in an artistic sense, but this week he did it literally when he put spade to earth to signal the commencement of work of the new outdoor theatre, the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. He spoke to Gill Sutherland about the new stage and how it came about.

Opening a new theatre is quite an historic moment. How does it feel?

I think it’s going to be a fantastic symbol and I think it’s going to be a great moment of transition for people who don’t know if they want to go back to the theatre yet because of being inside in a packed space, whereas coming into an open-air theatre, you’re enjoying the sense of congregation and one of Shakespeare greatest and funniest plays – but in the outdoors. I think that’s a great transition before we get back inside. And the Met Office says it’s going to be a hot summer.

What are you making of the recovery of the arts sector?

I am proud of this industry for the way they have been so creative in the way they have coped with the challenges. What I think has been amazing is the resilience and the innovation that people have shown, whether that’s online or social media or being innovative about how we approach the whole business of engaging with audiences. That has brought the sector together.

I think there are more than green shoots now – there’s a real sense of opening up.

Initiatives like the online open rehearsals for Henry VI that we are doing next month and the filming of The Winter’s Tale are steps towards reopening. The Garden Theatre will give us a sense of celebration over the summer. Then we hope we will be in the RST in autumn with The Magician’s Elephant.

Gregory Doran breaking ground for the new theatre. Photo Mark Williamson/Herald
Gregory Doran breaking ground for the new theatre. Photo Mark Williamson/Herald

When did you realise you’d have to build an outside space?

We thought of it last summer when we were doing the Shakespeare Snapshots [the outdoor medley of sketches at the Dell] but of course nobody thought Covid restrictions were going to go on this long. At that point we thought we’d be open in the autumn.

So we got together and thought seriously that we had to quickly build an open-air theatre. That way we had certainty and we knew we could open and present to an audience, even if it wasn’t inside.

Some of our sister organisations found that they put money into opening before Christmas and they then lost a lot of money when they had to close again. We thought, this gives us certainty, our audience certainty, and Stratford certainty that there is going to be something here.

I think this pandemic has made us aware how this cultural ecology is meshed together. We are all part of that ecology and we rely on each other. I think we have rediscovered that more so in the last few months.

What was the inspiration for the theatre?

Initially I was spending a lot of time thinking about Henry VI Part 1 and the Rose Theatre and how it connected with its audience. We started plotting, looking at the similar space here, and then thought, actually in terms of an amphitheatre with a thrust stage, that would be a more appropriate arena for this physical space. We looked at the front of the theatre and the Bancroft gardens. But the great thing about this side is that we are not overlooked by residential properties, and we have the river on one side. It’s a beautiful space.

Phillip Breen is directing The Comedy of Errors, but have you directed for the open air before?

I started my career doing it. I remember doing The Winter’s Tale in the open air when I was basically a student. By the time it got to Leontes reaching Hermione’s statute and saying “She’s warm”, the audience laughed because they were so cold.

What are your hopes for it for the future? Will it become a regular thing?

I guess I hope not from one point of view because we want to be back inside. On the other hand, it’s potentially a really great space and we have made provisions to store it and keep it. Who knows – in 2022, with Birmingham and the Commonwealth games, it might interact with that. There are all sorts of possibilities. We are just keeping an open mind about what happens next.

Artist's impression of Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre
Artist's impression of Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre

There is some concern over the gardens. Will they return to their present state?

Oh yes. We will be lifting the lawn and laying some gravel to make sure it can hold the weight of the new theatre. We’re doing some work on the footpath because it has bumps from tree roots, so that will be temporarily closed. Then, when we take the theatre down in October, we will restore the garden to what it was, but we will still keep the gravel bedding so if we need to put it up again we can do.

Financially, has it been a demand on RSC resources?

No, because we had this amazingly generous support from Lydia and Manfred Gorvy, who have been coming to the RSC since 1961. They are the most lovely and supportive couple and they’ve been with us all the way. So that’s been fantastic.

The million-dollar question – how much did it cost?

We aren’t able to disclose that, I’m afraid.

The Comedy of Errors runs from 13th July to 26th September. Visit www.rsc.org.uk.

Read More:

LOCKDOWN INTERVIEW: Comedy of Errors director Phillip Breen

FIRST LOOK: The RSC's new outdoor Garden Theatre revealed

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