A pioneering partnership between the University of Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company is poised to breathe new life into an iconic former theatre venue, reports Jenni Ameghino.
When Mary Ann ‘Buzz’ Goodbody founded the groundbreaking studio theatre The Other Place back in 1974, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first female director’s radical vision was to provide, in her own words, ‘a first step towards ending the economic and social barrier’ she perceived between the then RSC and ‘the society that partly finances it’.
An ardent feminist and political activist, Goodbody lobbied her then boss, the RSC artistic director Trevor Nunn, to launch a progressive new venue that would enable local young people to engage with the theatre in a fundamental way, believing that the richness of Shakespeare’s plays were a product of what she described as the ‘social range of its audience as much as from the participants’. He gave her his blessing, heralding a period of vibrant and progressive stagecraft in both classical and contemporary production in which actors frequently ventured off stage to interact with and include their audience.
Originally housed in a former storage shed, The Other Place acquired a purpose-built incarnation in 1991, but this closed in 2005, becoming the foyer of the larger Courtyard Theatre. It has been sorely missed by many theatre-goers who enjoyed the cutting-edge productions it staged, including its creator’s own versions of King Lear and Hamlet. But as you may have seen reported recently, a pioneering five-year collaboration between the RSC and the University of Birmingham is now set to resurrect the iconic venue next year - to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. And it promises to recreate The Other Place as a ‘hub’ for academic research and creative practice.
The project has been borne out of the hugely successful working relationship forged over many years between the RSC and the University’s Shakespeare Institute, a cultural gem housed in Stratford’s historic Mason Croft, the former home of novelist Marie Corelli. Crucially, it will see the University become a founding partner of the new The Other Place and its philosophy echoes that of Buzz Goodbody in providing an opportunity for students to access creative and teaching spaces at the venue, with RSC artists and practitioners providing input to the University’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses. For its part, the RSC will have the chance to work even more closely with internationally renowned academics at the Shakespeare Institute.
Embodying the theme of ‘radical mischief’, the collaboration will include developing a laboratory for theatre artists working with scholars and students in creative experiments that stimulate connections between the arts, the academy and society at large.
The new venue will include a 200-seat flexible studio theatre, two new rehearsal rooms, plus a new home for the RSC’s 30,000-piece Costume Store, giving people access to the extensive collection for the first time via theatre tours. It has all been made possible by generous financial support from private and public funders, including donations from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation and The Backstage Trust, plus a £3 million grant from Arts Council England, as well as the new creative collaboration with the University.
Alongside its new academic identity, The Other Place will be a festival venue for RSC productions, with new work festivals being held twice a year. From rehearsals, research and development and training for artists to being a state-of-the-art location for local amateur groups to practise and perform, the venue will above all be a vibrant hub that, in the true spirit of the Bard, is inclusive and accessible to the local community.
Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, whose enthusiasm has helped to drive the project to fruition, is looking ahead to next year’s launch with relish. ‘One reason the University of Birmingham established its Shakespeare Institute in 1951 was so that it could benefit from the presence of a great classical theatre company and contribute to that company’s work,’ he explains. ‘More than 60 years on, we are thrilled that this collaboration, centred on the RSC’s ideas department, The Other Place, is being recreated in a form that will bring renewed creativity to the theatre and to the academy alike.’
Professor Ewan Fernie, Chair of Shakespeare Studies and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, believes the collaboration presents a special opportunity to bring innovative academic work and teaching into what he calls the RSC’s ‘laboratory for radical experiment.
‘We at the Shakespeare Institute share the RSC’s passion for making The Other Place a driver for alternative ways of doing Shakespeare and contemporary art, and we are passionate about sharing that with our students as well. Everyone involved with this project is keen for The Other Place to be a unique hub for creative and academic exchange that will make a fresh and lasting contribution to cultural life in the UK and beyond,’ he says.
Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC, sees the recreated venue as ‘an exemplary home for theatre artists, and a space where students, our artists, visiting theatre-makers and our audiences can really feel part of the ‘engine room’ of the RSC’.
Buzz Goodbody’s bold ambitions were cut short when she prematurely died in 1975, aged just 28. But just over four decades after her own midsummer night’s dream became reality, if she is watching from the gods she will no doubt be delighted to discover that The Other Place is being reborn.