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London calling

Vicky Featherstone was bullied for being English when she headed the National Theatre of Scotland. Now she is plucking up courage to run the Royal Court. David Pollock met her

"Why am I leaving?" ponders Vicky Featherstone, standing in the National Theatre of Scotland's HQ and looking out over an impressive panoramic view 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 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 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; 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."

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 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. We have to make the collective voice heard."