THE BIG INTERVIEW: Vicky Featherstone  

As champions of new writing, the Royal Court plays a vital role in the link between education and the theatre. Here their artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, chats to Susan Elkin

Vicky Featherstone’s middle name might just as well be “new writing”. It has characterised everything this dynamic woman, currently artistic director at the Royal Court, has done. “Yes, I went to Manchester University to study drama and soon realised that I was more attracted to the work of relatively new playwrights and less excited by the classics” she explains. “At the time that meant writers such as Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond, people who deal with the now.”

Describing her relationship with new writing as a “life long love affair” she recalls directing a play by a friend while still at university. “We didn’t understand the new writing scene of course and there were far fewer openings and opportunities than there are now” says Vicky, who did some early work with Max Stafford Clark at Out of Joint, the ground-breaking company he founded.

Born in Redhill in Surrey in 1967, Vicky moved with her family to Scotland when she was a baby. “My background wasn’t at all artistic” she says “My father was a chemical engineer – Class 1 degree from Imperial – and my mum was a nurse. But we moved around a lot because of my dad’s job and I think that makes you very adaptable. I learned early on to think flexibly and learn that nothing is black and white.”

When it came to career choice, her parents were “incredibly encouraging” she recalls. “Their view was that you should be happy in what you do although maybe Dad was a bit disappointed that none of us is a scientist!” (One sibling is a TV producer and the other works in the music industry). She chuckles: “But Dad loves the arts too, so it’s all fine”.

Progress was slow after university. “It was the usual thing. I wrote lots of letters, took a play to Edinburgh and did some fringe pub theatre shows”. She also worked as a script reader for Central TV describing her early years as “three steps forward and two back”.

The first – and probably the most significant – career break was getting a place on the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. “That took me to the West Yorkshire Playhouse when Jude Kelly was in charge. It was a huge learning curve as I absorbed what theatre ‘embedded in a building’ really means. I became involved in lots of new works and made some permanent friends”

She talks modestly of a “slow” start but Vicky’s career has been a pretty meteoric career. At age 27 she was appointed artistic director of Paine’s Plough, another highly innovative theatre company well respected in the industry and famed for new writing. “Yes, getting that was quite something” she says pointing out that she has held an artistic directorship continuously since then – that’s 23 years. She went on to be founding artistic director of National Theatre of Scotland.

And so, to the Royal Court, in London’s Sloane Square in 2013 – arguably the hottest crucible of new writing in Britain – a sort of homecoming because Vicky did a short stint there as unpaid assistant director on one play soon after graduating from Manchester University.

“Today at the Court we try to create an environment which people want to take risks for” she says. “If people actively want to work with us here then that, for us, is success”. She talks excitedly about cutting edge playwrights whose work is staged at the Royal Court, mentioning among many others Cordelia Lynn’s play Lela and Co which the Court staged last year. And she’s very enthusiastic about anatomy of a suicide [SIC – no caps] by Alice Birch which goes on stage in June. At the same time, of course, the theatre is also staging new work by more established living playwrights such as Jez Butterworth and Simon Stephens – so there’s plenty of breadth and balance. “I see the atmosphere of the place as a healthy infection” says Vicky. She is keenly looking forward to several forthcoming big international plays by writers from all over the world too.

Since Vicky arrived there four years ago, the average Royal Court audience age has come down. “It’s now between 27 and 35 overall although it varies between plays” she says. “It used to be much higher and it’s incredibly important to me that we attract younger people. We’ve managed to keep the ticket prices low too which helps – not as low as I’d like but we do our best.”

“given our commitment to new writing … we have the capacity to give our youth theatre new plays to work on and perform”

The Royal Court runs an extensive and far reaching youth and participation programme which underpins its commitment to innovation and younger audiences. “Our youth theatre had disappeared but since I’ve been here we’ve got it going again. Participants come from all over London and, given our commitment to new writing and our projects to develop it, we have the capacity to give our youth theatre new plays to work on and perform”.

Other youth work includes the youth board – working with and advising the Royal Court’s main board – which is now in it’s second year. There is also a Young Agitators Group and a Young Script Panel. “All these young people come from right across London” says Vicky.

“We work extensively with schools too and all the London Boroughs are included in our remit. “Currently we’re running a project in primary schools in the outer boroughs because they generally get less attention and we’re focusing on the schools which have high levels of free school meals. Several times Vicky mentions a specific project with schools in Pimlico and Tottenham, that she’s very pleased about, which is just coming to its culmination.

She is also very pleased with a panel of secondary school drama teachers the Royal Court convenes. “Together they, and we, are making the case for a curriculum which is more representative of life” she says. “We want more plays studied on drama and English courses by women, black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and so on.”

“Everything we do is as open as we can make it”

“Our values are wide open to everyone” says Vicky. “Everything we do is as open as we can make it but of course it’s never enough”. All the work is always managed on a shoestring although the Royal Court is very grateful to the trust funds – Vicky mentions John Lyons, Sackler and Bloomberg as examples – which help a lot but, inevitably that help has diminished as the interest trust funds can accrue has dropped. “Please tell your readers we could do with a few million, please, if they can spare it” she quips.

Of course, fresh from the Oliviers where a play she’d directed had won an award the night before I spoke to her, she’s passionate about education and that starts in school. “And we wouldn’t see the talent you see among the 4000 people gathered in the Royal Albert Hall for the ceremony if they hadn’t had the right start through education” she says. “It’s vital that we resource creative arts education properly.”

Of course, she thinks a lot about education – at home as well as at work. Featherstone has a son 17 and a daughter 15 with her husband, TV script writer Danny Brown. “They’re not obsessed with theatre but love going to it. I’d say they were theatre literate but not giddy” says their mother adding that it’s far too soon to know what either of them might do in the future.

And as for teachers, she’s full of praise and gratitude. Almost her final words in my conversation with her were a message to them. “We really respect you and we in theatre are doing all we can as an industry to preserve those relationships” says Vicky. You do a marvellous job with young people and we really appreciate that. Thank you!”