Michael Billington pays tribute to the legacy of the Royal Court's "Theatre Upstairs." Much more than just a "second space," it was the site of many of the famous premieres in the history of that institution.
A simple 99-seat blackbox, literally the upstairs attic, converted from a rehearsal studio in the early 1970s (and renovated again in 2000) this intimate space reminds us how little is needed in the way of real estate to put on great plays and make theatre exciting.
It has provided a shop window for legions of new writers. It has allowed directors and designers to experiment with space. Above all, it has made risk possible, with its "right to fail" philosophy; this can provoke embarrassment in a big space, but seems perfectly acceptable in a small one.
Right from the start, the Upstairs felt – and smelled – different. From those early years, I recall a weird array of experiences. Howard Brenton's Christie in Love with its murderous hero in a chicken-wire pen full of tattered newspapers; Heathcote Williams's AC/DC, with its simulated trepanning of the skull of the late Victor Henry; the multi-authored Lay By, which graphically explored the details of a motorway rape. Not least there was Caryl Churchill's 1972 play, Owners, which dealt with landlord-tenant relationships and announced the arrival of a major talent I signally failed to recognise.
Playwright Joe Penhall--who saw his first plays premiere Upstairs in the early/mid nineties, then under the Stephen Daldry/Ian Rickson reign--sums up what made this venue so important to emerging writers:
[T]he Royal Court was the only place that realised a new generation of writers was doing something different. Other theatres thought our plays were a bit rough, a bit weird, a bit dark – but that's exactly what Stephen Daldry and Ian Rickson, the artistic and associate directors, were looking for. What really set the Upstairs apart was its much-vaunted right to fail. It embraced the possibility that a play could be a disaster and strapped itself in for the ride.
"Right to fail, right to fail, right to fail... Just keep repeating that. And then ask yourselves: what American theatre companies give playwrights that right now? (In full productions, that is, not readings & workshops.)
And when you consider that ticket prices Upstairs have still been kept to only £10 to £15 (i.e. under $30), it really is tempting to conclude there simply is no equivalent platform in New York at all.