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Changing of the Guard: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court

In the latest in our ongoing series of interviews with new artistic directors, we chat to Vicky Featherstone about taking over at the Royal Court, as she prepares to open her first programmed season

Vicky Featherstone

What made you want to be a theatre director?

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in theatre, even though I wasn't part of a theatre family. At first I thought I wanted to be an actor; I went to Manchester University and did English and Drama, and initially did quite a bit of acting. But then in my third year a friend of mine wrote a play that he was planning to direct - it was about the miner's strike, set in Newcastle. There was an actor playing the lead, and his accent was so terrible that my friend said to me, "I can't bear this cos he's kind of playing my grandfather. I'll have to be in the play and you will have to direct it". I'd never been one of the people who were directors; the people who were the directors behaved in a certain way at university and I wasn't one of them. But I directed this play and I thought 'oh my god that's it, that's what I'm supposed to do in theatre; that's why I'm so bossy, that's why I'm not a good actor.' Literally it all just clicked in that moment and that was it.

What was the first production you saw at the Royal Court?

I remember coming down from university and seeing Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels, which had an incredible impact on me. I never came to the Royal Court before I went to university, even though I grew up south London. So I went to university, learnt about the Royal Court and then started coming after that. Before that I'd just been to the Young Vic and the National and a few West End musicals. After university I came to see all of those early Stephen Daldry productions, which had a big influence on my work. And the Royal Court influenced me hugely in terms of the plays that I read when I was at university. Top Girls and Saved and the like.

Why did you want the job of artistic director?

Who wouldn't want this job? If you care about theatre and you care about the world and the stories that need to be told in response to it, and you believe in writers; if you believe in those things then this is the only job to have. I couldn't live with the disappointment of not having got it, so I never let myself imagine doing it. I'm very lucky.

What was the interview process?

Once I got to the interview stage I think I had about two and a half interviews. The half being by Skype, the final round one morning with [chairman] Anthony Burton and [playwrights] Stephen Jeffreys and Martin Crimp. I remember they were all sitting really close to each other so they could all be on my screen, which was really funny.

How do you rate Dominic Cooke's tenure?

I would rate it five stars. Incredibly intimidating for me, because he's done amazingly. Luckily I really like him, so I can celebrate it. If I didn't like Dominic, if he wasn't such a gorgeous, brilliant, affable person I would hate him for the success of his tenure, but I can only celebrate it. Before I started it intimidated me but now I'm here I feel actually it will just be different now, because I'm different. So I feel really positive about it.

What are your most immediate challenges?

A huge challenge is the unknown of what the writers will write at the Royal Court - as a new writing venue, you can't go back to that bookshelf of plays written around the world over the last 2,000 years and get a good director to do them. So the big challenge is to get the writers in the right place to write the plays that will make the Royal Court what it is. That's the biggest challenge. I believe they are up to the challenge, but you don't know.

What's your overriding vision for the Royal Court?

In a way it's quite simple: to create the right environment for those writers to feel stimulated enough to want to move their work forward, to ask the big questions and to appeal to as wide a range of audience as possible. That's an area which I think is incredibly important and actually a duty for a publicly-funded building. So we're trying to get writers from everywhere to talk about stories from all over and appeal to a variety of audiences. Connected to that, another aspect of my vision is about taking work out of the Royal Court. There are some people who will never, ever come to Sloane Square and come to the Royal Court but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to go to them. To try and find work that we can take to them so they are part of this big umbrella; I find that quite exciting.

The first play in the new season is The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas - why did you want to give Dennis Kelly his Royal Court debut?

I first worked with Dennis at Paines Plough, which I ran before I went to establish the National Theatre of Scotland. Dennis was one of our Wild Lunch writers - he wrote one of his first plays Osama the Hero as part of the series - and I've always thought he's an absolute genius. When I got the job I thought 'who are the writers I've worked with who haven't had an opportunity at the Royal Court?' And for me they were Dennis Kelly, Abi Morgan and Jack Thorne [all of whom feature in the forthcoming season]. I'm lucky that since they worked at Paines Plough those writers have become incredibly successful, but I would have worked with them even if they hadn't because I think they're amazing.

What did Open Court teach you?*

It taught me to be absolutely fearless about what the Royal Court is, to continue to be brave, to trust the writers, to ask things of the writers, not just plays but for them to be a community. It's taught me that we don't need to be precious about the building - it has a history, but that shouldn't stop us being inventive. It's also taught me that I'm really looking forward to a four week rehearsal period [laughs]. And the other thing it's taught me is how extraordinary the staff here are, because in order to achieve Open Court everybody has worked outside their comfort zone and everybody has had to work with people in ways they've never worked before. The amount of energy we've created is fantastic and I mustn't let that drop, I have to keep giving them those opportunities. Open Court sprang from asking people 'how do you want it to be?', and trusting that. It doesn't all have to come from me.

Name three things you're excited about in the new season

I was going to say long rehearsal periods! I'm excited about unleashing the Ritual Slaughter onto the stage because it's an incredible play; I'm excited about the audience we're going to get for Let the Right One In, as they might not have been here before; and I'm excited about the conversations that the three plays around what it means to be a Muslim will bring at this moment in time. Keeping to three is hard!

Will you begin broadcasting productions through NT Live?

There's not a particular plan at the moment but we're having conversations with NT Live and when the appropriate piece comes along it may well happen. One of the things Open Court brought in is lots of live streaming and people loved the fact that if they hadn't gone to see a 'surprise' piece they could then watch it online. So there's something interesting about the whole diversifying of our digital relationship, which isn't just about NT Live streaming; but all those conversations are definitely happening.

What's your proudest achievement to date?

My kids. And professionally, creating a national theatre. Definitely. That's the hardest thing I've done.

How will you measure your success at the Royal Court?

I am absolutely my own harshest critic and I really learn from my failures and how they make me feel, so I will measure my success by whether I feel I've moved it on and whether I feel it's become the thing that it needs to be on the next stage of its journey. So it'll be how I feel about that.

Would you like to run the National Theatre one day?

No, because I've run a national theatre. If I hadn't, possibly, but I definitely wouldn't want to run two national theatres, I think that would be greedy and it would probably kill me. But good luck to the next person.

*This interview was recorded shortly before the death of Open Court ensemble member Paul Bhattacharjee in July. Featherstone released the following statement at the time: "We are deeply shocked and completely devastated at the loss of our dear friend and brilliant colleague. Paul has been such an important part of the world of theatre in so many ways and we shall miss him terribly. We can't even begin to imagine the impact his loss will have on everyone who knew him and all of our thoughts are with his loved ones."

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas begins previews at the Royal Court tonight (5 September 2013), ahead of press night on 11 September. For more information on the new season, visit www.royalcourttheatre.com