Vicky Featherstone: London calling

She was bullied for being English when she headed the National Theatre of Scotland. Now, Vicky Featherstone is plucking up courage to run the Royal Court. She reveals her plans...

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The Independent Culture

"Why am I leaving?" ponders Vicky Featherstone, standing in the National Theatre of Scotland's HQ and looking out over an impressive panoramic vietw of Glasgow's high-rise skyline. "I'm leaving because Dominic Cooke is leaving the Royal Court. That's the reason. I really would like to stay here, but the Royal Court's been my absolute dream job ever since I started out at Manchester University reading Caryl Churchill plays. I'd be a fool not to have applied for it."

The holiday season has been a transitional time for Featherstone, who takes charge of the Royal Court as its first female artistic director this month. For now, though, her thoughts are preoccupied with good memories – of eight years building from scratch a national theatre. "After devolution (in 1998) the Scottish theatre community decided finally to make a case for their own national theatre," she says.

"They spent a lot of time working out what the model would be – a commissioning model, not in a building, which was about the work, the artists and the whole country.

"I did very crude maths and worked out our initial funding was roughly a pound a person for the population of Scotland," she recalls. "I thought, 'That has to matter.' I didn't want us to create an elite theatre but I also didn't want to create something that was so overtly populist it didn't have a debate merit. The geography of Scotland being so particular and complex was also a real challenge – how could we create work that would fit in the Central Belt and work that would also have a relationship with Shetland or Orkney?"

The ambitious policy she established was to try and do something for everyone – new work, site-specific work, family shows, small-scale, village hall touring work and larger event productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and international festivals. "One of the things for me that's exciting about Scotland," she says, "is that there isn't an elite snobbery about the art form, so in our first year it was fine to do John Byrne's Tutti Frutti alongside Mary Stuart by Schiller."

After two years in the making, the National Theatre of Scotland finally launched in 2006 with an ambitious series of 10 simultaneous, site-specific works across the country entitled Home, in locations like the Northlink Ferry to Shetland and the Caithness glass factory. "But, yes, the really big moment was the first night of Black Watch at the Drill Hall in Edinburgh later that year. The audience response at the end of that first preview… I just thought, 'Oh my God.'"

She accepts the huge international success of Black Watch – it is still touring the world – might have created an expectation of similar scale and subject matter every time the organisation debuts a new play, but from her point of view its effect was to set free the idea that ambition and lateral thinking could bring huge rewards. Artistic successes in the following years would include productions and co-productions such as Roam, Grid Iron's "site-responsive" piece at Edinburgh Airport; the quick-response verbatim piece on the state of the newspaper industry, Enquirer; Long Gone Lonesome, the story of reclusive Orcadian country singer Thomas Fraser; Alan Cumming's one-man Macbeth which transferred to New York's Lincoln Centre; and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, David Greig and Wils Wilson's wildly inventive, pub-set border ballad, among many more.

It's an impressive body of work to oversee and one that has turned the NTS into one of the critical and commercial successes of the British theatre landscape in this millennium. Featherstone, who prior to the NTS was the artistic director of the well-regarded regional touring company Paines Plough, which is based in London, will be hoping to repeat such good work at the Royal Court. "What I am primarily is a new writing director," she says. "I'm at my best when I'm in a room with a playwright trying to unpick an exciting script and I'm looking forward to spending that much time with so many writers."

She expresses admiration for Cooke's legacy and says she expects to go into the job with an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it mindset, although "I expect I'll bring something to it that I wouldn't have if I hadn't left England, which is a strong cultural fearlessness about looking at the stories that need to be told for us to understand the world and the culture we live in. Scotland is good at that."

Does she think England is less inclined to examine its national consciousness? "It's a big nation/ small nation thing, isn't it?" she ponders. "I think often with a bigger nation like England, which has a greater sense of itself – no, that's not right actually – that's never had to question its identity, then people don't. Whereas Scotland continuously questions its identity and relationship to England. But actually England can benefit from some of that, too. The Royal Court has often asked these questions… Look Back in Anger and Jerusalem is another brilliant example."

The fact that Featherstone was born in England – Surrey to be precise – has occasionally been an issue. In a recent interview, she talked about anti-English bullying. An opinion piece four years ago derailed her confidence when it called into question her ability to programme with a sense of due respect for Scotland's theatrical history. "It's not a good way to lead anything, defensively," she says. "You have to lead it because you believe in it and you feel good about it. So for three weeks I allowed that to fester, and then I had a meeting with myself and thought: 'Sort your life out, Vicky. Stop being so indulgent.'" She jokes, however, that the Scottish accent she developed living in Clackmannanshire between the ages of six months and seven years old would have been a benefit had it hung around. As it was, she moved back to England and went on to study English and drama at Manchester University before taking her first directing jobs in theatres around the north of England.

Featherstone leaves a position of relative comfort and control north of the border. The broad consensus seems to be that she is a sharp operator with a keen sense of what the public want to see, but also warm and approachable, with a real love of her artform and its possibilities for change. She contrasts her experience of the political climate regarding the arts in Scotland favourably with that of London. "It feels really… not depressing, but stultifying to be moving back to a country where we have to make a case for the arts once again. It just feels so old-fashioned, but we know that we're right so we will win. I have responsibility for helping to make the case, I can't ignore that, and I think Nick Hytner and Stephen Daldry are showing fantastic leadership. We have to make the collective voice heard."

At the NTS's Glasgow HQ, it's the end of an era: the Tony Award-winning director of Black Watch John Tiffany is also leaving, and Featherstone's replacement, Laurie Sansom, formerly of Northampton's Royal & Derngate, is waiting to take over. She leaves much of the 2013 programme in place, including a version of the Swedish vampire horror, Let the Right One In.

When she talks of taking her family away from life and friends in Glasgow, the emotion is tangible. She has a son, 13 and a daughter, 11 with her husband, Danny Brown. "What have I learned in Scotland?" she wonders. "I've learned that I can be really quite emotional and affected by why we do this. I've learned the huge importance of my family. And I've also learned that, when I was 18 years old studying drama at university and I read A Good Night Out by John McGrath, when I had an idealism about theatre and the effect it can have… I've learned that I wasn't wrong. Scotland has embraced that unbelievably, and it's been thrilling. It's a great thing to take back to London with me."