Roxana Silbert began her relationship with theatre relatively late. She saw her first live performance when she was twenty and decided to take the leap into a professional theatre career at the ripe old age of …29. But she has more than made up for lost time with a portfolio of work encompassing the RSC, Paines Plough and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Installed as artistic director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre since September, Roxana is now looking forward to her opening season in the refurbished building.

Of her new role, she says: ‘When you’re looking for a theatre you might like to run, you’re looking for a theatre you love and a city you love and I’ve known Birmingham for a long time. I went to Cambridge but both my best friends and boyfriend came to Birmingham so I spent almost all my late teens and twenties coming here. The Rep is known as an innovative theatre and my background is entirely in new work. It’s a hothouse and powerhouse for new talent and one of the areas of work I’ve pursued over the past in my career. It’s thrilling to be here.’

It’s a long way from her birthplace in La Plata in Argentina. Her parents left the country during the dictatorship when Roxana was six and her father, a theoretical physicist, took a job at Newcastle University. A few months later the family decamped to Norwich where they settled. Primary school was an unusual experience for Roxana, who was rapidly learning her new language. She recalls: ‘I loved school although I wasn’t an outstanding student. I had a brilliant but very weird primary education where the school introduced Montessori into the state system.

We had no organised classes but would choose in the morning which group we wanted to join; then we would choose our curriculum for that day. We would then self-teach; for example we would follow the maths book and present it to the teacher for marking.

The huge plusses were that it was all about self-motivation, self-education and curiosity and learning. The minus side was that my best friend was brilliant at maths so I skipped the book. When I went to secondary – a bog standard, mixed comprehensive in Norwich – I was so behind and had to catch up very fast.’

University was always in the plan for Roxana who was an avid reader as she explains ‘partly because English was my second language. Reading was my absolute passion. I learned to read English quite late when I was seven but once I started I couldn’t stop.

‘There was no career plan. I was brought up in Norwich in the seventies and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved the big Victorian novelists and thought I might go and live in the moors and be a writer; I thought I might be a journalist, I thought I might be a social worker. I knew I wanted to go to university and it stopped there really.

‘After university, [Cambridge, English Literature] I was a bit lost; I went travelling for a couple of years and I moved back home. I went to the local arts centre to see if I could raise some money to move to London, where all my friends were. They were looking for a community arts worker and nobody had applied. It was a case of ‘get on with it’ in a room with a box of puppets – far removed from what it is like today! I specialised in working with children and adults on the autistic spectrum. The arts centre got an arts council grant and I started to do more and more drama, working with the children and when I was 29 I thought I’d like to give professional theatre a shot.’

Lucky for her that it was the last time grants were offered for diplomas in theatre directing and while ‘quite old’ to start directing, Roxana’s experiences with the children at the arts centre stood her in good stead. She won her first assistant directorship thanks to her movement teacher, the artistic director of Paines Plough.

For today’s would-be directors, the career path is very different but Roxana recommends any new director to try to assist. She says: ‘There are a lot of really good courses but the best way is to get some assisting work – the combination of being supported while experimenting with your own work is a really good route. The great thing about assisting is that it gives you a huge amount of confidence. I had been lucky – I was used to working with children with behavioural problems so going to three actors was easier. The people management skills came in really useful.’

The first play Roxana took on alone was by Robert Young at the Finborough Theatre in London. She recalls: ‘I really got the bug for directing new plays. I realised I’m never happier than when I am in a rehearsal room. I went to the Royal Court and was meeting a lot of young writers who were at my stage as writers so there were a lot of people to hook up with.

‘Working with new plays is partly temperamental – I like things that are new and forward-looking – but partly because a new play has a relationship to the world rather than a relationship to art. I’ve just directed Richard III and it’s all about your relationship to the play and all the other productions that have been made of it.

‘When you work with new plays and younger writers they’re trying to capture something about their experience of contemporary life and that’s what I love. You can have a very creative relationship with the text so you’re working with the writer right from the beginning.

‘When you produce a classic you research it, you read around it, you look at work, you excavate the history of the play and its productions. When you work with a new play you’re part of the creation of that new piece of work – it’s a very different relationship to it. Your job is to make it the best play it can be and the best production it can be; once it goes from page to stage it changes dramatically; for example, you might see you haven’t enough time to do this so you’ll add another little scene.’ The themes explored by young playwrights are vast, taking in growing up, economics and the recession, the environment and climate change. Roxana adds: ‘The themes are quite epic, and apocalyptic. Identity is huge, especially ethnicity and diversity, how we live together as a nation and who we are. There are also a lot of plays – particularly by young men – around fatherhood.’

Now Roxana is focusing on her work at The Rep. The new season in the refurbished theatre promises to be an eclectic mix with something for everyone and opens, without fanfare, with Alan Bennett’s new play People. The theatre welcomes Mark Williams (who she is directing in Moliere’s Tarfuffe) and Martin Shaw in Twelve Angry Men. Celebrated writer Bryony Lavery’s adaptation with Jason Carr of A Christmas Carol will keep audiences warm over the festive season and there is local talent in the shape of jazz musician Soweto Kinch.

Roxana adds: ‘We have new writer Kate Tempest with her play Hopelessly Devoted – A Love Story of Extremism as part of our plan to celebrate home grown talent and we have a huge community programme, including our funding new writers for a year.’

For full details of the programme visit

A few of my favourite things

FAVOURITE play: You always love the play you’ve just done so Galileo by Brecht in a new version by [Mark] Ravenhill

FAVOURITE Shakespeare: Richard III

FAVOURITE book: Pride and Prejudice

FAVOURITE music: I’m a classical fan.

FAVOURITE TV: I watch a bit and I’ve loved Broadchurch with David Tennant.