On Midsummer Mischief, Part Three – Places Other

*Published on Exeunt*

I miss The Other Place.

Now, that’s a strange thing to say considering I have never actually set foot in any building called The Other Place, in Stratford or otherwise. But, like everyone who has any sort of connection with the RSC, its presence has always been keenly felt during my years visiting the company.

First, a bit of history.

In 1967, a twenty-one year-old Buzz Goodbody joined the RSC, initially as an assistant before later being promoted to an associate role under the directorship of Trevor Nunn. In 1974, in a tin hut which until then had housed a rehearsal room, she helped establish the RSC’s first studio space dedicated to producing new and experimental work. The Other Place, as it was known, was home to the RSC’s radical productions, including dozens of new plays and that now-legendary production of Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.

After Goodbody took her own life in 1975, just before the press night for her production of Hamlet, The Other Place continued to thrive, continuing her legacy of politically engaged and artistically radical work until its temporary closure in 1989.

Where The Other Place meets The Courtyard

The new Other Place building is the same age as me, having opened in 1991 as a more permanent fixture in order to continue the same strand of work.

Then, in 2006 (much to the consternation of a number of Stratford residents) another – much larger – metal box appeared next to the site of the old one, this time in the hue of copper. This monolithic structure would house the Courtyard Theatre, which would be the company’s home for the duration of the Transformation project at the main theatres across the road. It played a major role in the Complete Works season, was the home of Michael Boyd’s Histories Cycle, and became the birthplace of Matilda. It was also where I saw my first ever RSC production.

That copper shed was supposed to be temporary. Now, eight years later, it looks like it may be around for the long-haul, as Erica Whyman plans to revitalise The Other Place and its ethos, starting off with the Midsummer Mischief season this summer. A temporary-theatre-within-a-temporary-theatre has now been built on top of the Courtyard stage, so that the four new plays have a studio theatre in which to play over the coming month. Its official name is “The Other Place at the Courtyard Theatre”, thus pulling together the two strands of this space’s exciting history.

Okay, history lesson over.

The temporary Other Place studio theatre
The temporary Other Place studio theatre

It’s worth noting that the two major subsidised houses in the UK currently have temporary theatres due to redevelopment work. There’s something about having a non-permanent space which suddenly gives the work housed within a sense of frisson, reminding us of its ephemerality and giving the watching audience an increased sense of ownership. Both The Theatre Formerly Known As The Shed and the Courtyard are partly constructed from recycled and recyclable materials, too, meaning they make a political statement in their very make-up. We love temporary spaces almost for their very temporariness, regardless of the quality of work created.

So will we still love the Courtyard/The Other Place (and The Shed for that matter) now that it looks like they may be staying around for a bit longer?

Whyman’s way of solving this problem is to create a festival atmosphere within the theatre, programming only a couple of short seasons annually to retain a notion of the fringe. Midsummer Mischief thus represents a trial run, attempting to work out a way of operating within the general structures of the RSC and inviting audiences to join in on the fun.

As with The Shed, however, there is a danger of the RSC employing an ‘arms-length’ policy with regards to radicalism. Though I am a huge fan of The Shed and believe it to be one of Nick Hytner’s most artistically successful projects during his tenure, it sometimes runs the risk of allowing the management to seem like they’re investing in experimentalism without having to invest in risk elsewhere in the building. It’s something which came to my mind during Blurred Lines earlier this year:

“The Shed, as much as it is an NT space and is very much a part of their programme, is external to the actual building. There’s something interesting in this. It’s almost like the National is happy to support and nurture all these risks and arguments (and thank God they are), but only at a slight remove. It’s ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the “free speech zones” we heard so much about towards the middle of the last decade, and mirrors the way in which late capitalism builds protest into its very structures. The genius of neoliberalism is that subsumes dissent into its structures, making it into a ‘lifestyle choice’ and giving space for argument whilst never really listening to it. In some ways, the National could be seen to be doing the same thing with The Shed, giving room for a different approach in a way which means it doesn’t have to take those ideas on board (though the proof of the venue’s success will, I imagine, come later).”

The argument is, of course, more nuanced than this; larger theatres are simply not able to shoulder the same amount of risk, but directors of the NT and RSC must still be careful not to offload all the experimental work on the ‘temporary’ spaces. As Maria Aberg recently pointed out, “we have to be careful to not make female heavy or gender political work niche… there can be a sense of that actually heightening the sense of other – that there is mainstream work that is by and large made by men, and then on the fringes of it every now and again pops up a sort of exception which is more female heavy.”

Whilst we can applaud the RSC and the National for producing this kind of work, then, it doesn’t allow the ‘main stages’ off the hook when it comes to lack of representation. Though it can be easy for institutions to point to these kind of projects as a sign of things changing, only when the Olivier and the RST present genuine equality can we stop pestering. There’s a dark – comic – truth in the NT Tortoise’s comment on the extension of The Shed’s tenure: “Thrilled @NTShed might last to 2017. Had worried that when it closed the women and Communists might start putting plays on in real theatres.”

The traffic, therefore, must be two-way. One of the reasons for Goodbody’s success with The Other Place in the 70s was that artists working in the main theatres would regularly pop along to the studio for a short run, whilst those who began in the black box had just as much chance of working on the programme in the flagship theatre. The idea of The Other Place starts to become intoxicatingly exciting when you start to imagine the potential collaborations which might be spawned between text-based practitioners and those who prefer ‘made’ work; imagine Action Hero creating a response to Twelfth Night in the RST, or Katy Stephens playing Henry V in the studio. At its worst, The Other Place could exacerbate the divide between ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ theatre. At its best, however, it can remind us that all theatre – and all theatre-making – is essentially made of the same stuff.

The view through the seats of the studio theatre
The view through the seats of the studio theatre

Whilst there are voices in the RSC who believe that The Other Place allows makers and audiences to reappraise and re-view the work of Shakespeare, its worth seems far more nuanced and all-encompassing than this. For me, its true value is the way it allows us to keep Shakespeare’s spirit alive: his infatuation with anarchy and anti-institutionalism; his desire to challenge form; the appropriation of cultural artefacts to tell a story which exists here, now. It’s that now-ness which is crucial to any company, but especially a company like the RSC which, within its very title runs the risk of being stuck in the past (‘Royal’, perhaps, being the most guilty offender of conservatism). Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that a studio space shouldn’t just be a place for ‘experimentation’ and ‘risk’ (both of which run the risk of alienating certain audience members) but should be a wholly integrated part of the seasons themselves, challenging hierarchies and dogmas in a way which allows genuine dialogue.

All this is part of the reason why entering The Other Place at the Courtyard Theatre is such an exciting event. You walk down the road from the RST and Swan Theatres to the site of the original tin hut Other Place, step into the 1991 building which now acts as a foyer but still has a fully exposed lighting rig. You then walk through a door into what was (and, technically, still is) the Courtyard Theatre, wander round a bank of those plywood seats and find yourself in an enclosed, entirely new, and entirely alive new space with 180 seats which is also called The Other Place (built on top of decking loaned to the company by Kneehigh). The knowledge that it’s only around until the beginning of July, that four new playsare going to open a new theatre and that within a month or so they’ll all be gone gives the space a sense of energy theatres like the RST and Olivier can only dream of. It’s the same kind of excitement that surrounds a summer fling, as The Other Place asks us to make the most of the short time we have together.

The revamped foyer
The revamped foyer
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