RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon and acting artistic director Erica Whyman discuss how the theatre company is steadily bouncing back from the pandemic
RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon and acting artistic director Erica Whyman tell Gill Sutherland about how the theatre company is steadily bouncing back from the pandemic and its surprising plans for the new season.
Let’s start with the bigger picture: did you expect things to be different by now or is this pretty much as you expected it to be?
Erica: It depends how you measure expectations, because throughout 2020 we kept reaching for a clarity on what we could expect - and sometimes we thought we had that based on the science or likely financial help. In a way none of it was right because the pandemic kept unfolding in ways that weren’t clear to anyone.
I suppose the answer is that at the beginning of this year we had to swerve again and say we can’t have a programme in the theatre until autumn so we will build the Garden Theatre. This is the first point in 18 months – I feel quite frightened saying this – where we said what will happen is happening. In February/March we said we would open the Garden Theatre, we will get Matilda open again, we will co-produce Mirror and the Light, and we will put the Magician’s Elephant on the stage. Tonight, we will have done those things and it feels very exciting.
Catherine: And we’ve done so keeping up all the educational work behind the scenes, the digital research and development. It is right that it’s a phased re-opening, the next season of activities takes that further all the time in a building back context.
Actually we are also touring now this week with The Comedy of Errors, so there is a lot going on across the RSC world.
Comedy of Errors seemed very popular and it certainly boosted the atmosphere to have an RSC show back up and running. So it was good for morale but did it make any money?
C: Because we are a subsidised charity the concept of profit is a different one for us so we are balancing budgets all the time to deliver our charitable purposes. The Garden Theatre actually made us more money than we thought it was going to. Audiences clearly really responded to it and we had an incredible amount of new bookers. They were coming fresh to us, about a third had never been to the RSC before, and that bodes really well.
In terms of profit or loss, you weren’t looking at that?
C: You couldn’t. The crucial thing is that is succeeded our expectations.
Obviously during this period you’ve taken out huge loans - £21million. What impact will that have on how you operate?
C: What it has done for us is that it has meant we are able to operate now frankly. We have a cash injection now that means we can rebuild. In four years’ time we have to start repaying £1.5million a year. So at that point we will have to be finding ways to make that possible. We know that would have been possible in a pre-Covid world and we hope it will be in a post-Covid world. We have to hope that audiences come back the way we expect them to, which they are for Matilda for example. Matilda’s going wonderfully. In the past without the loan we would be operating to spend all our income on our charitable purposes now we will spend all our income minus £1.5 million that we repay.
And what if you hadn’t have got it what would have happened then?
C: Well at worse we would have run out of cash. It is hard with what-ifs because what if Covid had happened in a different way? But if we didn’t have the cash now we would not be able to operate to the scale we are. It would be a very different RSC.
E: We had to look in the eye how frightening it could have been for us.
Assuming we are able to continue to control outbreaks and remain open how long do you think it will take to get the RSC back to where it was pre-pandemic?
C: Ooh! Pick a year! Probably into 2023, it might take until that time to get all the theatres up and running again. With The Magician’s Elephant open, we have four productions running across the country and we have all our education work going on so actually it is a very big RSC now.
E: It is important also to say that we will be forever changed by Covid and the challenge, and the opportunity is to make good on that and say what have we learnt and what we can do differently. We are very committed to getting those theatres open and it won’t be until 2023 partly because we want to be confident that we can invest and making sure that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre works really wonderfully in 2022.
You lost a significant percentage of staff and freelances, are you now bringing people back in?
E: It’s quite a hard question because it’s such a mixed picture. I think we have to remain a smaller organisation for some time to come. Not as severely small as we had to become at this beginning of this year. It isn’t clear when it will settle. There’s certainly some recruitment going on, so it is not a freeze.
But will it be pre-pandemic numbers? It feels important to say it might not be. We might be freshly shaped. We are growing already but we will be different.
What about the generation of young drama school graduates – how are you catching up with them?
E: We have one really lovely specific offer. We spend a lot of time with drama schools making sure we are in touch with them, and we are aware of them. There is a programme of auditioning specifically for that generation who have just graduated for the two Henry plays because we wanted to make sure they were included in the productions. I think that is a proper responsibility of ours that we are looking to that next generation of classical talent and understand that they’ve had a really tough time. So we will make sure they are prioritised for this production.
Erica, you are now the first female to be Artistic Director even if it is just temporary while Greg is away – does that feel like a first? Catherine, I know you have been in your position for a long time – does it feel like an interesting time?
E: Well it certainly feels like an interesting time for sure! The challenges and opportunities just keep coming. I’ve been an artistic director of one or another for 22 years and I’ve been the first women in each of those roles. It has an emblematic significance. Do I think it actually changes how I do things? Of course not. I think this is an organisation with a lot of women in senior roles and that is a very healthy thing. We have done quite a lot of work to ensure there is greater gender balance in places where that has been lacking and there is more of that to do. It is a mixed picture it doesn’t feel to me in any way that that it is a radical fact at this point.
Also there is a funny thing, sparing Catherine’s blushes, we talk about the lack of female leadership in artistic directors in these national companies as though they haven’t been led by women for decades. The executive directors at the RSC have primarily been women so one has to ask why is that? Of course it is overdue but I wish it were in better circumstances.
Just looking back at the timeline of the RSC how do you think things are now compared with those days at the start politically in terms of male power? It does feel like a big journey since then.
Occasionally on challenging days I think what would Buzz Goodbody think? She definitely would acknowledge there has been a positive change for the better in the things that she was fighting for not just about gender but race and class – including everybody. There was a real struggle for her and her generation. It’s a frustrating struggle because here we are still fighting but I think it is worth acknowledging the progress. Even when I considered coming to work with Greg and Catherine I had an idea of the organisation that it didn’t entirely share my values on inclusion and that has shifted in the last nine years because it is a continuous progress.
Then you look at yourself and then you realise you haven’t gone far enough and you’ve left somebody out and you haven’t made the change required to make people feel safe and welcome. I think of the work that we do with Next Generation Acts the programme we run for young people who come from communities with multiple challenges. There’s a commitment here now that feels really powerful that we serve a whole raft of communities. That’s our role. We do that with our special set of expertise: Shakespeare and theatre-making. We start with how we can serve our community better whether that be in Stratford, or Nottingham, or the audience for Matilda who have a different entry point, and young writers. How can Shakespeare and RSC be a part of their lives?
C: It’s interesting Erica your answer to that question shows that yes of course the RSC has changed in that time but so has society. Fundamentally that’s what theatre is. A reflection of where we are.
How do you see your role for the next few months Erica? As a stand in role is it just a holding thing or will you do anything different?
E: It doesn’t really feel like a holding position. This is a key moment in really restating to the world who were are as we emerge and being clear that recovery will take time but also that we are ambitious for the future and keeping our values in all we do. So before Greg had to take leave, he and I were already talking about how we can engage in a greater level of dialogue with a wider range of artists. So that is something I am absolutely pressing go on with.
I feel excited by inviting artists, who haven’t traditionally made Shakespeare with us to come and answer the question why should we make Shakespeare now? I will definitely be pushing forward with that to invite a raft of new voices into the conversation.
What would I do if I were permanently appointed? Well obviously I can’t possibly reveal that. The 37 Plays (see box out) is very close to my heart and I have been entrusted with it by Greg and it matters that at this moment whilst the energy is on the RST that we are continuing to invest not only in that project but in commissioning writers.
It seems like there’s been lots of great work done to make theatre less elitist but the criticism that always comes with that is that your traditional audience may feel alienated from that – how would you respond to that?
E: I think that we underestimate audiences when we say that. I’ve done a lot of work which has experimented with who’s in it, who’s invited to be in it, what is it saying about the world – the Romeo and Juliet that I made in 2018 is in my head, it was very explicitly about young people right now. I don’t think all Shakespeare has to be set right now and all sorts of things work in different time periods, but I use that as an example because there was nervousness about what a traditional audience might make of it. In the main there was a wonderful response to that piece of work, as there was to Taming of the Shrew imagined in the Elizabethan era. I think making a piece relevant isn’t about reducing the ideas in the play it’s about releasing the idea in the play - let’s find out what is freshly interesting to us in these plays. If we do that we won’t lose audiences. I think that in the end if the work is good and exciting and live and energised then audiences, humans, are much more adaptable than we give them credit for.
There was a series of run in the Herald letter page of people being critical of commercial decisions – do you feel that’s unjust?
C: My response is that somebody has taken the time to write in the paper – we’d prefer for people to contact us directly we are very happy to speak with anyone. Some things people say can be right - we take the best decisions that we think collectively as well as individually at the time. Sometimes in the benefit of hindsight you think goodness I could have done something differently. Equally I think we could do more to explain we have made decisions, so people don’t feel they don’t understand or are alienated. It’s two ways.
It is interesting that one about commercialism because it is really hard to get that right because on the same day you’ll probably get someone saying you’ve gone too commercial.
E: We are a publicly funded charity that has the capacity to earn our own income, and now have public money with the loan, and I think that is hard for people to grasp because it is unusual. I agree completely we could probably do more to explain that. We have multiple imperatives running.
C: I think we are also really significant in Stratford and it matters to get that right and to be really engaged and there’s two sides and we have to be really conscious of that. We always say in our view a healthy RSC is good for Stratford but actually a helpful Stratford is good for us, so we have to all be a part of making that work. There are theatre companies across the world that would fight to be front page in their local newspaper.
On to the season announcement. It’s been understood that you’ve been working your way through the canon, doing each of the 37 plays once, but now Much Ado About Nothing is being performed for a second time. You’ve thrown a curveball!
E: We have! We really wanted to have a big heart-warming comedy in the programme because I think we all need that. Roy Alexander Weise is directing, I know Roy well and I am a big admirer of his work. He is setting it in a kind of Afro-futuristic world very colourful full of invention and technology and a complete world in which romance is easy then it isn’t. That is very exciting.
Then the Henrys. They are long-awaited and I’m very excited to be getting there. They are about a nation is volatility where anything could happen – it’s fascinating piece for now I think. They are fast-paced so even if they are serious that’s pretty exciting for the end of summer.
So how will we know when the canon’s ended now?
You’ll know! We’re very close.