Following his appointment in May 2002, Anthony Clark joined Hampstead Theatre as artistic director designate in January 2003, assisting outgoing chief Jenny Topper with her opening season at the theatre's new £15.7 million, state-of-the-art, custom-built venue in north London. At the beginning of July 2003, Clark took over in full from Topper, who stood down after 15 years in the job.

Clark started his career in 1981 as Arts Council assistant director at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre, where for two years, he directed everything from a schools tour of Macbeth to Martin Crimp's first play, Living Remains. In 1983, he joined Tara Arts to direct their first two professional productions and, a year later at the age of 25, was appointed artistic director of Manchester's Contact Theatre.

In 1990, Clark became associate director at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where his many productions included Atheist's Tragedy (for which he won the TMA Best Director award) and the premiere of David Lodge's Home Truths. Seven years on at Birmingham, Clark was appointed associate artistic director, with specific responsibility for launching and programming The Door, the Rep's studio space, dedicated exclusively to promoting new work.

Amongst Clark's recent Rep premiere productions have been Rod Dungate's Playing by the Rules, Sara Woods' Nervous Women, Kate Dean's Rough, Michael Bourdages' Syme (co-production with NT Studio), Ken Blakeson's True Brit, Judy Upton's Confidence, Declan Croghan's Paddy Irishman (co-production with Tricycle Theatre), Moira Buffini's Silence (co-production with Theatre Royal Plymouth), Tamsin Oglesby's My Best Friend (co-production with Hampstead Theatre), Paul Lucas' Slight Witch (co-production with NT Studio) and Kaite O'Reilly's Belonging.

Elsewhere, his freelance productions have included: [Abi Moran's Tender (Hampstead and tour), Dr Faustus (Young Vic), The Red Balloon (Bristol Old Vic and National, winner of the TMA Best Show for Young People Award), The Snowman (Leicester Haymarket), Mother Courage and Her Children (National), The Day After Tomorrow (National), The Wood Demon (Playhouse), Moira Buffini's Loveplay (RSC) and Edward lll (RSC and West End)

Clark is also an accomplished playwright. His original works include Hand It to Them, Gone Egon, The Power of Darkness, Wake, Tide Mark, Green and Matter of Life and Death; his more recent adaptations for young children and family audiences, including The Snowman, The Little Prince, The Red Balloon, Pinocchio, The Pied Piper and Winnie the Witch - have been produced throughout the country include.

What made you want to be a theatre director
in the first place?

I used to write and I wanted to see my plays done so I started directing them. It didn't quite work out the way I thought it would. I always thought I was a slightly better writer than director, but then I started winning awards for productions of my work and not the scripts. And awards opened the doors for interviews as a director. I do miss writing. I tried to keep it up for the first six years and I still dabble - more recently in adaptation work for children, which I absolutely don't want to do anymore though I have been quite successful in that area. I want to do original work and, if I ever have the time, I'll give it a go again. In the meantime, I'm quite happy to encourage others.

Prior to your Hampstead appointment, what would you view as
your greatest professional achievement?

That'd probably be to do with the number of first-time writers I've introduced to theatre, either as a director or an artistic director. I did Martin Crimp's first play and programmed Charlotte Keatley's first. I've directed new work by Sara Woods, Kate Dean, Paul Lucas .... I've done a lot of first plays by writers who've gone on to do many other things.

What was the first production you saw at Hampstead Theatre?

It was in 1983, shortly after I'd just started working, and it was a play called Birds of Passage by Hanif Kureishi, directed by Howard Davies. I can't remember very much about it other than it had Neil Pearson in it and I thought it was terrific.

I had no strong feelings about Hampstead then. At the time I was working at the Orange Tree in Richmond. I knew Hampstead had a strong new writing bias to its programme and I was interested in new writing, so it was a venue that I would I occasionally come to. It wasn't from lack of desire that I didn't come more often, but because I lived on the other side of town and money was short.

Why did you want the job of artistic director at Hampstead?

I wanted to run a theatre again. I became artistic director of the Contact Theatre in Manchester when I was 25, which was quite young to be running a company with a staff of 30 and a 300-seater auditorium, doing a whole range of all sorts of work aimed at people between the age of 15 and 25. I enjoyed that challenge enormously for six years. Then I got invited to go to Birmingham Rep to set up a new writing programme there and to develop their foreign repertoire. For a whole variety of reasons, that took much longer than I'd ever anticipated. By the time I got the programme well and truly established, I was ready to run a company again.

Why at Hampstead? Because it's one of the few designated new writing theatres, and I've always had a particular interest in new writing. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the spoken word is the most direct way of communicating with people. And it is new writing, as opposed to new work, that interests me. There are many physical theatre companies or dance companies who might use, for example, an existing poem as a stimulus text on which to base a performance. I'm not particularly interested in that - it's not that it doesn't have a place, but I'm concerned with what people say to each other in exploring and defining the ways and the world in which they live. And I enjoy the challenge of finding and encouraging new playwriting.

I was also attracted to Hampstead because - so I'm told and I'm beginning to get a sense of it - it has a large and loyal neighbourhood audience. That's quite rare in a big city. One of the things that I enjoy about being involved in a theatre is getting to know the audience and, together, going on a journey with the work that we do, which is as much led by your own artistic ambitions to experiment and develop the form as it is to respond to what you think might be - and I don't mean this in any patronising sense - the needs of the audience. When you start off running a company, or coming in from outside like I've done, and you pitch in with your new season, you don't know whether your tastes and your audience's tastes are going to concur. In time I'd like to be responding to them as much as they respond to me.

How would you rate your predecessor's tenure?

I didn't actually see much of the work during Jenny Topper's time because I was away. But anybody who can run a company for 15 years has done pretty well I would say. Her extraordinary, eclectic mix of programming has kept the theatre buoyant over a long period of time. And, amazingly, she also managed to generate the money and the will to see this new building built.

What do you think of the new theatre?

It's a terrific building. We still have a lot to learn about it, though. Not only how it works in terms of its actor-audience relationship, which I'm very excited about, but also just the nuts and bolts of it. How much does it really cost to run? It's so much bigger than what the company is used to. We must now ask: what do we need to make the most of this facility and how are we going to get there? It's got two auditoriums, it's got these wonderful foyer spaces - it needs to be made accessible to people in a variety of different ways. This is a very different concern than the old Hampstead Theatre, it's a lot more responsibility. I mean, in the old theatre, you could barely fit in the foyer. And now we have a catering operation, and the remit to do work during the day, and our full education programme which has already expanded at a terrifying rate. It is very exciting. The only thing I'm worried about is what the real costs of all that are. Once we've been open a year here, we'll know. I reckon by the end of the financial year, by February/March 2004, the chickens will come home to roost.

What are the most immediate challenges in the job?

Yes, there is the building question. But, as an artistic director, my immediate challenge is to make the work both popular and innovative. The two things don't necessarily go hand in hand. You can do work which will, you hope, attract more audiences - because it's a comedy, because it's a well-made play, because it has a name in it - and you'll probably do that alongside some more robust, more experimental stuff, which may have the critics sharpening their quills. If we want to be a successful theatre, we've got to get the balance right. And if we do get it right, I hope that more artists will want to come and work here.

I have no idea where Hampstead is on people's list, in terms of playwrights thinking, 'if I write a new play, where do I want to send it?' There are lots of opportunities for new writing now, which is great. There's the Bush, the Court, the National, Soho, Birmingham Rep, West Yorkshire. There's new writing at the Almeida and the Donmar now, too. I personally don't think you can ever have too much. I'm not sure where we are on the list, and though I'm not bent on the notion of competing with everybody, I would like us to be considered seriously, and perhaps more seriously than most. Hopefully, writers will come, see the new place and recognise that the opportunities are greater in it; hopefully, they will enjoy both the intimacy and the epic potential of this new auditorium. I'd like established writers and complete unknowns to familiarise themselves with who we are and what we do and then come be a part of it.

How will you measure success at the end of
your initial three-year contract?

By whether or not I've introduced enough new writers that nobody's ever heard of and whether or not I've done work that is generally recognised as significant by both audiences and critics.

What are your highlights from the first season?

All of the first season excites me. It's something I've been working on for a period of time because the handover between Jenny Topper and myself has been quite lengthy. In addition to the subject matter, I'm excited by the formal challenges as a director of three plays, including a new Hanif Kureishi, which is a great treat to be able to do. I've so much enjoyed Hanif's plays for 20 years, since my first experience of Hampstead really, which brings it rather full circle.

It's also intriguing that, in the season programme, we've got a first play (by Drew Pautz) and we've got Gregory Burke's second play - which is an enormously difficult thing, if you've been so successful with your first play, as Gregory was with Gagarin Way, to equal it with your second, and I'm delighted to say that he's achieved that in Edinburgh with The Straits and I'm very glad that he's bringing it here. We've also got new plays from Clare McIntyre and Stephen Lowe, both of whom haven't written for the stage in some time. Writers can kind of fall out of fashion for whatever reason. I think it's largely because they don't control the means of production. That falls to directors and directors are ambitious. So, often, the paths diverge quite quickly in a writer-director relationship and yet you need that support to get yourself started.

I've always been interested in doing work for much younger audiences, too, and not just as a marketing gambit - 'oh yeah, they are the audiences of the future'. Children can be great audiences in their own right. There are some quite fundamental things that I have learned about theatre by doing it for age five up. If we can afford to, I think the way we'll differ in the work we're doing for children is that ours will be original work; I will try and keep off adaptations. In the same way that we'll be providing new plays for adults, so we'll be providing new plays for children.

What comes after this first season is really too early to say. I'll have to cut my cloth accordingly depending on how it's gone.

What would you say to entice first-time visitors to Hampstead Theatre?

Get off at Swiss Cottage Tube, that's the first thing! Don't be duped into thinking you can get off at Hampstead because you'll be late and some of the plays are far too good to miss the first 20 minutes of. Otherwise I would say, the new needn't be a risk. If you want to perceive it as a risk then it's a very affordable one at Hampstead Theatre. If you're under 26, we're offering up to 30% of the seats at £6.50 for any performance this year. That is properly cinema prices. The ambience of the place is worth trying, too. It's a good place to meet, to get together and have a coffee. And the work, I hope, will leave you with something to think about and talk about. Even if you don't get on with it, if you think, it's not to my taste or I disagree with the argument or it could have been a bit more ambitious in the staging of it or whatever, nevertheless, I hope you will say, well, I know why they did that.

- Anthony Clark was speaking to Terri Paddock

Opening this week (29 September 2003, previews from 25 September) at Hampstead is Clark's own premiere production of Clare McIntyre's The Maths Tutor, which continues until 25 October and then transfers to Birmingham Rep. The 2003/2004 season then continues with The Straits (29 October to 29 November 2003); Barbara Norden's children's play Meteorite (4 December 2003 to 3 January 2004) running concurrently with Stephen Lowe's Revelations (10 December 2003 to 31 January 2004); Drew Pautz's All This Stuff (5 February to 6 March 2004); and finally, Hanif Kureishi's When the Night Begins (11 March to 17 April 2004).

For more information on Clark's appointment & his programming at the new Hampstead Theatre, see the following:

  • "Clark Premieres Six Plays in First Hampstead Season" (News, 1 Jul 2003)
  • "New Hampstead Theatre Opens First Season, 13 Feb" (See News, 12 Dec 2002)
  • "Rep's Clark Succeeds Topper as Hampstead Chief" (News, 13 May 2002)
  • "Situation Vacant: Departing Directors, Fresh Recruits" (Features, 10 Dec 2001)