Voices of the Royal Court
Interview by Mel Cooper, October 2001
Ian Rickson spoke to Mel Cooper of the Genesis Foundation at his office overlooking a festively decorated Sloane Square just before Christmas 2001. Looking forward to the International Playwrights Season at the Royal Court with which the Genesis Foundation has a strong and ongoing parternship, Ian shared some of his thoughts on the theatre's commitment to new drama and new playwrights.
History of the Royal Court
In 1888 a Victorian playhouse was built by a theatre practitioner called Walter Emden. He came from a family of actors. There is something about the proportion of the auditorium in what is now the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs with its proscenium, and the perspective given by that frame, that is inspiring. I love to see the human form in that frame. I have always loved the size of the house - it's relatively intimate yet it can also feel epic. Quite simply, it seems an almost ideal space for theatre. To be here now, with specific periods of history behind us, yet to feel part of an unfolding story, is what is truly inspiring.
The First Great Period at the Royal Court (1904-1907)
For most people, the history of the Royal Court is thought to begin with 1956 when George Devine took over the theatre to use as a home for the English Stage Company.
But it has a much earlier period of interest than that. In the early part of the twentieth century, 1904-07, the theatre was run by Harley Granville Barker, who was a very good playwright himself; and also a man of vision about the theatre. He had a rather similar view to the one that Devine brought to the Royal Court later - he was a seer of the theatre of writers. Most of the premieres of Shaw occurred here, as did the first English versions of Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Strindberg. The first ever use of the repertory system was practised here, too.
But after that first great period, the building fell into disrepair. It became a cinema and it sustained serious bomb damage during the Blitz.
Famously, when George Devine finished his initial tour of the site, he phoned his partner and said: "It's a dump - we'll take it!"
And that's the defining moment when the next great period of the Court occurs.
George Devine and the English Theatre Company: Writers at the Core
George Devine was a great theatre practitioner who acted, directed and produced. His partner was Jocelyn Herbert, the key designer of the period and the Royal Court was their baby.
Before 1956, Devine was already established but wanted to set up a theatre company that was unique - something that was very unusual in the 1950s: a theatre that put the writers at the centre of the work it was doing.
In the UK in the early 1950s, there was really no serious competition from television; the film industry was moving along, but didn't spotlight writers; and there was no National Theatre. Of course, one must not forget the earlier seminal practitioners such as Lillian Baylis, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. But their work was focused very much on reviving classics. It was about the actors getting to do wonderful things that would stretch them and excite the audiences.
There was no place that said "How about modern writers and plays?" The English theatre was dominated by the drawing room, by plays such as those by Noel Coward or Terrance Rattigan.
I believe that buildings really do beget movements. It was because Devine put an advert in The Stage saying 'new plays wanted' and committed to a series of writers that the Royal Court movement was spawned.
The Mission of the Royal Court
In the UK before the English Stage Company was founded at the Royal Court in 1956, the theatre in the UK was dominated largely by commercial managements. We were only getting writers like Rattigan and Coward - terrific in their own genre, but hardly at the cutting edge or wanting to be.
There was a real need for writers who chronicled the times, were contemporary in their outlook, and dealt with contemporary issues. There was a need for writers who wrote about all levels of society rather than producing polite drawing-room and boulevard well-constructed plays, however successfully.
For nearly half a century it has been one of the key missions of the Royal Court to produce hard-hitting, contemporary challenging theatre. To that end, the Royal Court's aim is to embrace writers who are doing something progressive with the content or form of their plays.
Today we can programme Rebecca Gilman's new play, Boy Gets Girl, which is very urgent in its inquiry into what modern life can be like in a city, and at the same time do 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane which explodes the play form in its traditional sense.
The whole company has a real sense of commitment to new writing, to helping to bring about the future in the theatre. We have to be sensitised enough to writers to recognize the plays that should be nurtured.
Some of the best playwrights are clairvoyant in some way. They glimpse the future and sense what might be coming. It's our job at the Court to be very open to writers with those kinds of antennae.
Not a West End Theatre
A theatre like the Royal Court has risk running through its identity. You come here feeling as if you might be provoked or awakened or amused or offended. We find doing those things absolutely urgent and important and that's what gives us a sense of purpose.
Of course, this puts the Royal Court out of step with the West End usually. One must remember that many of the journalists who define what is sexy or exciting come from quite a conservative place. They like the glittering, the safe; they like to recommend things that they know will work. Often these things are the old classics or the great musicals. This is where they can communicate something very solid to their readers about what will work and what will be fun for them to spend their money on.
As to our 'brand' and how we're perceived, I don't know about that. I often find myself here among a young audience who are very engaged and very responsive. They laugh at the jokes and they pick up on obscure references too. I think they are a much younger audience in general than at most other theatres.
Communities of Audiences
There are certainly different audience communities. We are never going to appeal to everyone in the world; you have to be grateful for and serve the audience that is yours.
We're proud that we have an audience with a very young average age. At the same time, they are not absolutely loyal. They don't come to absolutely everything we present. We end up having to earn our audience for each show, just like any other place.
In Canada and the States, theatres often have core subscription audiences who are encouraged to book for a whole season. That's good for the box office but it could mean that you haven't got a lively and attentive an audience show by show. Whereas everyone you are with any night at the Royal Court wants to be there specifically for that show and to find out what the specific playwright has to say. They are therefore live, engaged, dynamic.
Of course, we do have the facility for people who want to subscribe to an entire season; but I wouldn't want to block it in, as they do in some theatres in America, where that represents two-thirds or three-quarters of the audience. It's lovely to feel that some people trust you so much that they want to come see whatever you do, however it turns out - whether it is one of your hits or not. But we have to leave room for the mavericks to get in, for the people who suddenly have an urge to try something new, and so on.
Choosing the Plays
We try to programme plays that we feel are in some special way truly contemporary, challenging or progressive in their nature - and that might be to do with form or content. We are firmly about trying to bring in the future. Whatever that is!
The Almeida Theatre does what they do superbly as a star actor-based theatre; the Donmar is also specifically different. If we all merged into one, it would become terribly boring.
We are the flagship of taking the risk constantly on the absolutely contemporary work and on trying to find the playwrights of the future.
George Devine, in the 1950s and 1960s, outlined what we need to create pylons in the repertoire. Pylons that would be the solid structures in between which we can string risks.
The Pylons for Devine were the classics. The biggest selling show in his first season was The Country Wife by William Wycherley. The Royal Court in those days would revive things like Chekov plays, Shakespeare, or Jacobean drama. The classics were part of the repertoire here to protect the risks and box office. Nowadays our pylons are the new plays.
This has been happening only for the last few years, however. One of the biggest selling shows of Max Stafford-Clark's era was King Lear. The absolute biggest seller of that era was The Three Sisters in a production from the Gate.
I've been a little more austere in my programming of classics. But that policy can be changed at any time if we find we need to. It's just that at the moment I am terribly conscious that whenever I do a classic I am stopping a new play from coming through. What's really exciting is getting writers like Rebecca Gilman down to the main stage.
George Devine and his crew in the 1950s adopted the Brecht saying "We must do every new play like a classic and every classic like a new play!"
But I think the most exciting thing is the idea of this beautiful Victorian auditorium having these new plays which are speaking in new ways yet are presented in the traditional relationship with a proscenium arch.
Upstairs and Downstairs
The Royal Court has two auditoria. The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs has 400 seats and is a three-tiered auditorium, with the traditional stalls, circle and balcony. We also have a smaller theatre, the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, which has 80 seats. That was originally a rehearsal room; and then it became a nightclub for a while, run by the famous restaurateur and raconteur Clement Freud. Then it was opened up as a studio in the 1960s into the 1970s and it's historically been the environment in the building where more innovation occurs.
One thing that has been interesting about my period, is that senior writers, like Caryl Churchill have been produced in that theatre. Far Away began in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs and then went to the West End. We've often taken more risks in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
To mix up the purposes of the auditoria has been a really exciting part of my period here. The Black Box studio auditorium that evolved in the 1970s has tended to neutralize the imagination of playwrights. Many of those black box studios have no inherent atmosphere. What's lovely about the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs is that it is this wonderful found space. It's our attic. You climb the stairs and then you feel that you are entering this transgressive space.
There's a real connection between the environment and the play that's occurring there that creates a kind of charge. Just as when you go downstairs, you feel that this is quite a modern environment and playing space; and yet you also have the ghosts and shadows of previous eras, you have a special feeling of its own upstairs too. I think it's those kinds of fusions and connections that make both theatres exciting to write for and to come and watch plays in.
Championing the New: "It's all about enthusiasm!"
I suppose we do feel that we also have a certain function of educating our public. But we aren't simply parenting. There is a tiny amount of telling the public what might be good for them. If we just gave the public what the West End producers say they want, then we'd end up with a steady diet of only Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revivals or Chicago and South Pacific. I love those things too - but I also feel there has to be something to balance it out and drive us forward to new forms, new statements, new discoveries. We feel we want to make brave, informed choices in the Royal Court that expand the repertoire.
At the end of the day, I feel I want to say to everyone "Hey, we've just found this exciting new play - Plasticine - that happens to come from the Urals. Let us share this with you!" As we are doing in our current International Playwrights season.
Ultimately, it is all about enthusiasm.
You need to find a mix. You need to give enough points of entry and comfort; and yet you also need to push the imagination and expand the interests of the audiences. We have to embrace the modern.
A Question of Subsidy?
Fortunately we are subsidized. Therefore it is arguable that we can afford to take more risks and try innovations that might scare a commercial enterprise. Because we have a certain cushion, we can get away with more.
But the box office matters too. You can never second guess things. Often the things you least expect to do so end up being the ones that capture people's imaginations. The Weir, for example was programmed in a 60-seat auditorium and wound up in a 1000-seat theatre in the West End, and then on Broadway.
We are committed to an old idea: that Art should shake us up. Many of the most amazing pieces of art and playwriting have also been the most combative. So we have a responsibility to find those plays and put them before the public.
The Writing Festivals
UK Young Writers
We have a biennial young writers festival. That comes from a series of processes that we initiate around the country through our Young Writers programme. We go to various places, do workshops, develop plays, encourage people. Then we bring what we have found back into the theatre.
We will take bigger risks in terms of the plays and there could even be a writer who is 12 years old or 19. They have to be under the age of 25. This is a festival that celebrates young writers who have come through a process. Of course we hope that as part of our core repertoire we take risks and programme young writers anyway. I think it would be terrible if we had a cult of youth. One of the most innovative writers of the last decade has been Caryl Churchill, who is in her sixties. Far Away, Blue Heart: these are plays that have really awakened the imagination of other writers and of audiences. I'm wary of getting fixated on the literalism of age. But our specific season for UK Young Writers is to help a particular age group in a specific way through these workshops.
It should also be pointed out that we're not a theatre that cherry picks a little hit from Paris and brings it in and bang, it's in our rep.
International Young Writers
We like to develop and innovate our own work and writers. That's why we also have a biennial International Playwrights season.
We had been working in Germany for eight years before Push-Up, which we are producing now, came through. We have long-term links with Russia. We have been working in Uganda and Brazil for a considerable number of years. I know that Elyse Dodgson, who runs our international programmes, speaks in more detail about this elsewhere.
Now, you can't put a time limit on developing those projects. Gestation can be all sorts of lengths. But we're a theatre that is about process as well as product.
We wouldn't see that work as missionary. Sending playwrights and directors to somewhere like Brazil to help with the workshops, they learn quite as much and get back quite as much as some of the skills they might share. It's a very, very mutual event. Our excitement about the forthcoming Human Rights work in our current International Festival is what it will do to our own writers, how it will shake them up, as well as the work itself. You can't underestimate how a theatrical hand grenade like a new play from a different culture with a different sensibility will impact, what that can do to our own writers.
We have a core of directors here in the theatre - I have associates. I like to bring people in from the outside too. We are talking to some very important directors about coming here because they are already doing work that originated here in their own territories. Peter Brook is just about to direct Far Away, Caryl Churchill's play, in Paris in French. Claude Regie is going to do 4.48 Psychosis. Luc Bondi has just done The Country. All the major auteurs, now in Europe, are doing Royal Court plays. There's a return to text in Europe internationally which is remarkable. Perhaps we can claim to have a measure of influence and success in this.
For more information, email internationalroyalcourttheatre [dot] com