Before departing for the RSC, Northern Stage boss Erica Whyman told David Whetstone about the situation she leaves behind.
AS the curtain fell for the last time on The Borrowers at Northern Stage on Saturday, Erica Wyman bowed out – seven years after taking up the reins at the region’s biggest producing theatre company.
She will take up her new post at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as number two to new artistic director Greg Doran, on January 7, allowing her a break of just a week.
Erica – or “Superwoman” as an Arts Council official once termed her – is known for putting in a shift, not only running the Newcastle-based company as chief executive but directing shows as artistic director.
She left on a personal high, respected here and beyond.
When National Theatre boss Sir Nicholas Hytner and film producer Danny Boyle staged a London rally in support of regional theatre, Erica was one of those asked to speak.
Her new job is further evidence of her standing. The RSC, which has had a long and special relationship with the North East, is one of the world’s most revered theatre companies. Erica will be taking care of new writing, spotting those who aspire to follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps.
At some point, you can bet your bottom dollar, she will direct on the stage of Stratford’s recently and expensively rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
In Newcastle she took care of theatre staff, visiting companies and audience members, but also funders and potential funders.
The annual Northern Stage dinner she initiated – a lavish production in which guests dine on the stage – is both reward for past support and a gracious wooing of the local business community.
Philanthropy is one of the Government’s favourite words. Erica, as sociable as she is eloquent, was ahead of the game.
While bidding farewell to staff and supporters, she said she hadn’t had time to be excited about Stratford because she was too busy being heartbroken about leaving Newcastle.
But these are difficult times for the arts with cuts to public funding ongoing and audience members squeezed financially.
My first interview with Erica after she was appointed in 2005 took place in Northern Stage’s temporary home in a business unit in Byker.
The theatre – the latest to benefit from massive investment in Tyneside’s cultural infrastructure – was being rebuilt with the intention, back then, of making it a major British centre for European theatre.
Erica said she had begun to notice the extraordinary change in Newcastle. “I had heard about developments here and some of the really innovative thinking. All that really intrigued me,” she said.
She understood the major cultural initiatives were supported by a lot of people who were not regular visitors to theatres and galleries.
“There’s an attitude that these cultural events and activities are something to be proud of,” she added.
“They express that sense of identity and a confidence in the economy, although I appreciate that part of the backdrop is some serious deprivation.”
It’s different now: different government, very different economic outlook, the Arts Council under pressure and Newcastle City Council’s proposed 100% cut to arts funding threatening to deprive Northern Stage of about £100,000 a year.
It was Erica who first went public on the 100% proposal, having taken advice from the council’s Tony Durcan, director of culture, libraries and lifelong learning.
And in her last interview with The Journal as Northern Stage boss, she was keen to pitch her response to the current situation just right.
“All the chief executives of the major arts organisations are anxious that the impression has been given that we’re in a battle with the council. I think it’s essential that we express that we understand they’re in a really, really difficult position, because they are,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean we’re happy with a 100% cut or that we think it’s right-headed because of the wealth that we generate or the losses that might occur in all sorts of ways.
“What hasn’t happened in the coverage is that the blame hasn’t been put squarely at the feet of national government. The truth is they’ve asked local authorities to make unbelievably savage cuts.”