Erica Whyman: From Northern Stage to the RSC

Erica Whyman: From Northern Stage to the RSC

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 18/09/12

The Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Newcastle’s Northern Stage talks to IdeasMag about her new appointment as Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, what she looks for in young directors and why assistant directing is still the best route into the industry…

Do you think that being an assistant director is still the best route into directing?

I was an assistant for a very long time; it’s incredibly good training. 

When it doesn’t work is when people think of it as a shortcut to becoming a director in their own right. It has a lot in common with directing, but requires a different quality of listening and can be incredibly tiring (because at times it’s very boring). You spend a lot of time waiting to be attentive, helpful and ready to say the right thing in the right moment. You never know when you might be called on to step in and take over from the director.

Assisting on touring shows allows you to [take] charge of someone’s work in quite challenging settings: big stages, different spaces week-to-week, working with the kind of technical resources you probably won’t have in your own career for quite a few years – a big rig, flying, all that kind of thing. But making the transition from looking after someone else’s work to making your own can be quite hard.

I’m a big fan of the The Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme. It’s for a particular kind of director – someone who’s interested in running a major theatre or having a strategic, producer/ programming role in the theatre alongside their own work.

The JMK award is great. Being shortlisted for the award is a valuable experience in and of itself. Different kinds of directors are very welcome on the scheme.

Do you think people still need to do Edinburgh? 

I think it’s still an important platform. The reason the Northern Stage project at Edinburgh came about is because, where we are in Newcastle or Leeds, say – where RashDash are – we’ve got a dilemma. Do we try to bring work that we’re excited by to London, where more critics and our peers can see it, even though it’s a very expensive business?

Edinburgh is also expensive, but it’s a very different risk. The Fringe still offers the opportunity for something with no reputation to find a following. I also love the sense of festival: there is a democracy about Edinburgh.

Have you got any tips on what makes a successful Edinburgh show?

You need to think about what a festival audience is after. They’re excited by a sense of event, but doing something quirky for the sake of it doesn’t work anywhere.

Understand that production values are going to be minimal even in a big venue, so be intelligent about design and make a show that suits that. For instance, RashDash made a wonderful set out of cardboard – it was gigantic and spectacular but could go anywhere.

You’re off to the Royal Shakespeare Company in January. Do you have any advice on how young companies can approach Shakespeare? 

I think people should approach writing they’re thrilled by. Sometimes we match inexperience in a director or a performer with inexperienced writers. That can be dangerous. Some of my most formative experiences were working on amazing plays with relatively young directors, like A Winter’s Tale at Southwark. It can be a brilliant experience because you’ve got this really rich, fantastic text. Great texts will teach you.

What do you look for in young directors? Qualifications, contacts or experience?

I’m not all that interested in who people know. It doesn’t tell me anything about whether someone is going to be good at their job. I’m a little bit interested in qualifications – I want someone who is good at research, able to read quickly and absorb information quickly.

By far the most important thing is who you are and why you want to do it. I’m interested in someone with something to say; about what theatre can do and what they can communicate to the audience. Why do they want to make theatre? Rather than, say, write a book or make a film?

If you could go back and give your 18-year-old self some advice, what would it be?

When I was about 18 I was given a great bit of advice, by a much older woman. She said, “It was agony being young. I’m so glad I’m not young any more.” At 18 you can feel like you should know what you want to do and who you want to be. But you don’t. 

Stick with it, don’t give up and don’t think that it should be easier, because the hardest bit is the beginning.


Oh the Humanity! Directed by Erica Whyman is at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 29 September. For more information visit the Soho Theatre website. For £5 tickets, visit the IdeasTap Discounts page.

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