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Blanche McIntyre: 'Directing is an addiction'

Hailed as theatre's most promising newcomer, Blanche McIntyre is embarking on the busiest, and most high profile, year of her career. It's not too daunting when you've been making plays since you were 15 years old, she tells Alice Jones.
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Last year Blanche McIntyre officially became theatre's Next Big Thing when she was named Most Promising Newcomer at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards, a title previously given to, among others, Eddie Redmayne, Rachel Weisz and, back in 1989, Sam Mendes.

The director's breakthrough came in 2011 with two quite unshowy productions at the Finborough Theatre in north London – a revival of Emlyn Williams' Accolade, which the FT declared to be "the production the National Theatre's revival of After the Dance wanted to be" and a new play, Foxfinder, chosen by The Independent's Paul Taylor as one of the shows of the year and described by critics as "first rate", "fabulous" and "little short of flawless". The shows also won her Best Director and Best Production at the Off West End Theatre awards, saw Variety herald her as "the discovery of the year", and everyone else proclaim her the face of the future.

"The awards were a tremendous compliment and it was absolutely lovely to get them," says McIntyre, backstage at the Unicorn Theatre. "But they came on the back of six or seven years of working and not getting anything. So it felt like a thumbs-up for the last six or seven years, really."

In other words, McIntyre is in the finest theatrical tradition of "overnight" successes. As faces of the future go, she has an impressive history. Like most young theatre-makers, she spent her twenties living off couscous and her overdraft, teaching and temping on the side to raise money to put on shows. Unlike most young theatre-makers, that early work included stints with the National Theatre Studio and as an associate director with Max Stafford-Clark at Out of Joint. At 32, her professional CV already includes some 40 credits. So when she says that directing is "an addiction not a decision", you believe her.

She remembers the moment the addiction took hold. She was a schoolgirl and sitting on the second row for Katie Mitchell's take on Henry VI Part 3 at the RSC. She went home and decided to put on her own medieval play. She chose Everyman, the 15th-century morality play about death, for her debut – "Of all the light, easy-to-sell comedies…" – gathered a cast of schoolfriends, commandeered a classroom and got her artist father to build a two-man coffin for the set. "I think the teachers were horrified but about 50 people came to see it. It felt like a triumph. I was 15 years old and I literally haven't stopped. I haven't taken a break since."

If that sounds like theatrical exaggeration, it's not. By the time McIntyre left school, she had three more plays under her belt and directed another seven or so at university, including a Prometheus Bound with 10ft-high, papier-mâché puppets and a production of Bulgakov's The White Guard for which she "hired a bomb" to go off backstage.

She made her professional debut – directing her own adaptation of Master and Margarita – at Greenwich Playhouse in 2004. "Done on a budget of literally £50. We had a bed with a red sheet on it, a wall painted red and three chairs. And that was it," she recalls. "My Dad made a couple of heads in the likeness of the actors so we could bowl Berlioz's severed head across the stage. Once, it actually jumped into the audience's lap, which I was just thrilled about. We kept it as simple as we could."

Simplicity and unpretentious flair are still her trademarks today. For Sebastian Barry's The Only True History of Lizzie Finn at Southwark Playhouse last year, she magicked up a world of dancing girls and seaside romance with just an iron railing, some jam-jar lights and a couple of rah-rah skirts. Her approach, she says, is "instinctive, going into childish". Have the awards put her under pressure to grow up? "What I do feel now is that people will be having a look at the next few things I make. But then I hope that I would feel the pressure to make really good work anyway."

There will be plenty of opportunities to have a look over the next year. Later this month, she will direct a staged reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Grace of Mary Traverse for Out of Joint at St James Theatre. And in June she directs Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party at Manchester's Royal Exchange. Before that comes her biggest job to date, directing The Seagull for Headlong – the company behind hi-tech, up-to-the-minute shows like Enron. Can we expect Chekhov in hoodies? "I thought, 'God should I update it? Should I set it in a bank?'" says McIntyre. "But I think that if what you're saying is that the naturalism of the background is what's important about this play, then you're getting it wrong. Taking a snapshot is not what the play is doing. It's a stylistic challenge he's posing to the audience." Instead, she plans to explore how Chekhov broke the rules of playwriting, using a set "which changes shape and character according to who is on stage".

She is currently directing Liar Liar at the Unicorn Theatre. E V Crowe's play about Grace, a daydreaming teenager with a dark secret is the perfect material for McIntyre who ingeniously conjures up snowstorms and raves as they pop into Grace's overactive imagination. Crowe is from the same Royal Court young writing stable as Polly Stenham, Anya Reiss and Penelope Skinner, having made a sensational debut with Kin, set in a boarding school. Does McIntyre feel part of the young, female new wave sweeping theatres? "It's brilliant that people are suddenly starting to assume that there are young female artists who are making exciting work," she enthuses. "I think the best contribution I can make to it is to do the most exciting work, at the highest possible standard. When a male director makes a play no one says, 'It must be very interesting for you, being a man making a play'. If I can help in any small way to get it to the point where people say, 'Well, of course she's a female director, let's just have a look at the play, so what?' – that will be work well done."

Her mother, Helen Fraser, who retired as managing director at Penguin Books in 2009, provided inspiration when she was starting out. "She knew what it was like to bust through where no one thinks you'll make it. She was incredibly supportive because I was going to go and do the same thing." She grew up in London (where she still lives with her younger sister and her sister's husband) in a family of painters and poets. Her father, Grant McIntyre, worked at the publishers John Murray before becoming a sculptor. Her cousin, Charlie Anson, is an actor last seen in Downton Abbey and The Borgias.

Despite her genes, at St Paul's School she was far from the girl most likely to end up in the West End. She was terrible at acting and, worse, terribly shy. "I would turn up to the auditions and they would send me away laughing. Then I realised that directing offered a way in that was just as enjoyable but less personally exposing." She went to Oxford to study classics and to break into the drama scene but "completely failed" to do the latter. "I was quite unconfident and also quite bloody-minded so I went and did all my own shows – in sheds and random cupboards."

Having graduated with a first, she studied directing at Drama Studio London and decided to give it five years. "And if it didn't work out at the end of that, I'd do a job with a pension." Did she have one in mind? "No. Nothing else ever occurred to me. I would have had to sit down and have a proper think."

Fortunately, the artistic director of Changeling Theatre Company, Rob Forknall, spotted her. "He said to me: 'The trouble with you is that your ideas are great but you have no social skills. So you'd better come with me and learn how to actually talk to people." Today, chatty and chummy, she was once unable to look actors in the eye while giving them notes. "Oh terribly shy. Still am. This is all cover."

Cover or not, it's easy to imagine her enthusing a cast about even the most obscure play. If she has her way, she will have to. Her dream is to adapt Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, a sci-fi novel set 2,000 years after nuclear apocalypse and narrated in a made-up language, for the stage.

She has dabbled in playwriting, but her only script – a "profoundly offensive, quite cross, Saturnalian" piece – remains in her bottom drawer. It nevertheless led to a commission from her editor to adapt Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus for film; she submitted the final draft at Christmas.

For now, 17 years on from Everyman and the two-man coffin, directing remains her addiction. "One of the nice things about being a director, as opposed to an actor where you have to wait for someone to ask you, is that you can always say, 'I want to do this play, who's with me?' And chances are, someone always will be." From now on, one imagines, that's a dead cert.

'Liar Liar', Unicorn Theatre, London (020 7645 0560; unicorntheatre.com) to 6 March; 'The Grace of Mary Traverse', St James Theatre, London (0844 264 2140; stjamestheatre.co.uk) 20 February; 'The Seagull' opens at Nuffield Theatre, Southampton (headlongtheatre.co.uk) on 11 April, then touring