It has been an eventful year for one of the UK’s most innovative and ambitious new independent theatre companies: from a kickstarter campaign to the Best Fringe Venue Award at The Stage Awards 2015 in just twelve months. Adam Somerset catches up with founder and Artistic Director of The Other Room, Kate Wasserberg.
Adam Somerset: The first year in a single word?
Kate Wasserberg: A rollercoaster? Not quite it. I’ll settle for a marathon.
The experience in a sentence?
An entire creative community came together to make something live. And now it is, it’s alive.
This may not be a fair question. Out of all the work, are there two or three aspects that are particular cause for of satisfaction? Professional or personal?
On a personal note that first time that the audience walked into the door for Blasted. And sitting at the back and watching them. And marvel at them. And how much it really was a theatre. That was really special. But I was proud of The Dying of Today. We had run out of money. We had no designer. The actors, the stage manager and I, we made it out of our own hands.
You had an advantage in the casting. A Good Clean Heart from the descriptions had a lot going for it.
It was a great show – Alun Saunders’ play and Mared Swain directing.
Alun Saunders – actors always make a great start for dramatists.
It felt like something new. Bilingual. Very modern. Young audience, young artists, hugely passionate response. That was really special for all of us. It meant a lot to a lot of people.
Hitting a chord with young people. That went on to the Young Artists Festival.
I had no idea what it was going to be like. But it was just joyous to bring this big gang of young people into our building and make work with them for a week.
And then the Autumn.
A couple of international companies didn’t happen, through no fault of theirs. We were left with a gap so we did the Scratch Festival. We thought we would share it, make the space open for other companies to come in, do some research and development, and show it. We had a whole series of discussion, talkback events.
All put together, as it were, on the hoof?
It was great. It generated a sense of community that none of us had really anticipated. And then Alix in Wundergarten for our Christmas show. It’s been a year of spectacular moments. And lows. We’ve had lots of lows. This or that bit of funding didn’t come through. Having to go back all night to work on the budgets to make sure we could pay everybody. It’s scary. That responsibility. But it feels like a coming of age.
I wrote last year- it was about David Greig- that Scotland, the Citizens or Traverse, had an advantage of just numbers. One and a half million people, and they can’t just nip to Bristol or London. I was wondering how the audience had been, I know there are just forty-four seats to fill. But still..
We can make it forty-seven.
So, perceptions of your audience?
We have quite a few students coming to shows, which is exciting.
Students doing theatre?
They really did come to Blasted. And they continued to come to other things. Perceptions of our audience? I think it’s important to say that one of the things that defined us was that we began with a Kickstarter campaign. I was against it at first, the idea of going to people you know and asking for money. But after a really serious conversation we decided it wasn’t about us, it was about a permanent institution we were trying to build.
On the other hand it’s the ultimate test of artistic entrepreneurship. It will certainly tell you whether something new is really wanted.
We began by asking the artistic community essentially if they would back this kind of theatre. And they really did, they tripled our target. So we already had this sense of community. As to the audience they are largely young and engaged. It is mixed, not just artists going to see each other’s work. And they are coming with us, turning out to see a little-known Beckett and Pinter. I think they want a good night out. They enjoy the informal setting. I hope they are not very tolerant. I don’t want them to be too tolerant. I want them to expect the best.
And the new season? It’s umbrella theme is “Insomnia.”
It kind of emerged.
Not in the small hours?
It did. It literally did. It’s a more cerebral season. The first year was really visceral. It was about making a theme of how close you were to the actors. This time I wanted to demonstrate how even in a small space it could be a place of ideas. You can be transported to strange and fantastical places. Even if you are in a room next to a bar. It’s the idea of that moment between dreaming and waking, not entirely conscious. It fits, because we are in a bar, and there is something about night life for us, about not sleeping.
I’m just back from big plays directed by Polly Findlay and Marianne Elliott. It’s not so long back that a woman artistic director had her Chairman taking her to one side with “If you are going to attend board meetings would you please buy a dress.” Emma Rice kicked off her leadership at the Globe with a forthright statement on gender neutrality in casting. Elizabeth Freestone of Pentabus did some calculations on Shakespeare a few years back. Fifteen percent of Shakespeare is written for women, but a good proportion of the parts – doctors, advisers and the rest – is not gender-dependent for the drama to work. Count in those parts that could be cast for women and the percentage would rise to forty-four percent. The South Bank has As You Like It this season. It’s a great show, with a cast of twenty-eight. Three-quarters male. What is the thinking at The Other Room?
KW: To be honest, we are not doing on that as well as I would like.
So the aspiration?
The aspiration is to have equal numbers of men and women across the year onstage and off. But because of the way the shows were dropping in and out and we were scrabbling, the programme ended being male-heavy, actors and writers. Backstage we had only female directors. Titus [Halder director of Silence] is the first male director working at The Other Room.
That seems to me a better way of looking at it. To look at all the activities across the board.
It is and it isn’t. It’s important to remember that what the audience sees matters. If you are all women but you are only putting men on stage you’re reinforcing the idea that men are more interesting than women. We are commissioning a female playwright for 2017 and I hope to do much more of that. It’s something we think about all the time. With Insomnia it’s a much more balanced season in terms of what you see on stage. But the writers are very important. It’s seeing women and hearing women.