Pioneering woman leads London’s Royal Court Theatre into new realms

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Since she took a first degree in drama at Manchester University, then a master’s in directing after she realized she wasn’t cut out to be an actress, Vicky Featherstone — the first female artistic director of London’s hugely prestigious Royal Court Theatre in the heart of upper-crust Chelsea — has seemed to make light of glass ceilings.

As chance would have it, her first job was as an assistant director at the Royal Court in 1990. She then cut her directorial teeth at regional companies until 1997, when she was appointed to be artistic director of London-based Paines Plough, a company with no home theater that specializes in new writers’ plays and touring in Britain and abroad. Within two years, she had turned around its ailing finances and seen its audience numbers double.

Following that success, Featherstone’s next move, in 2004, was a mighty leap up to become founding director of the non-building-based National Theatre of Scotland, where her job combined the roles of director, chief executive and artistic director.

Then, after winning acclaim for herself and the NTS with such works as the multiple award-winning Iraq War play “Black Watch,” by Gregory Burke, and Neil Gaiman’s children’s musical “The Wolves in the Walls,” came her move to the artistic helm of the Royal Court at the age of 46 in April 2013.

In early spring this year, the groundbreaking dramatist and mother of a teenage son and daughter warmly welcomed this writer into her sun-drenched office to talk about her career, her vision for the Royal Court — and the position of women in Britain’s drama world.

I was quite surprised to see from the headlines what a big deal it was here when you became the first female artistic director at the Royal Court last year — after all, Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and Britain has had a woman prime minister. Why did it cause such a stir?

In Scotland, nobody spoke about me being the first woman to run a national theater, but I think the stir was because this is London, and it’s the Royal Court — I think it’s a real pity.

Traditionally, I think a lot of theater in England has been run by men from Oxford or Cambridge, so it’s been a very particular class and intellectual approach. But people who have been on the outside of theater are now starting to get jobs in the center and have more of the power. It’s a really interesting shift that’s happening.

Do you think your appointment indicates an improving environment for women dramatists in Britain?

I think me being a woman here means more women want to write and they trust you so it gets bigger. There are amazing women directors and playwrights here and they’re all starting to feel confident in having positions of power, which is really important, and they’ve got more opportunity than ever before.

Why do think you were selected for the Royal Court job?

I think because of the work I’ve done in the past, a lot of which has been a little bit edgy, and I work with artists in slightly different ways.

Also, having set up the National Theatre of Scotland from scratch, I think they felt I had quite a big view of what theater could be and they were interested in how I could bring some of those ideas here.

In fact, the first thing I did was to bring all 140 writers we were involved with together for something I called an Open Court, and I got them to program the theater for last summer to show people what they could create. Things like that that haven’t been done for a while — but I think that those involved felt it was time to change, too, and to start to make the Royal Court feel a bit more open than it has over the past 60 years.

Where do you want to take the Royal Court?

I think what’s really important here is that the Royal Court is about the plays the writers want to write, so I’m always reactive to that.

But I think there are certain questions you can begin to ask the writers. I feel this theater needs to be quite political; to ask quite political questions about the world, our relationship with other people and the rest of the world and the state of England and the state of Britain. I think we need now more than ever to ask those questions.

Also, the Royal Court has never toured — the work just stays here or goes to the West End or Broadway — and I’m really interested in taking the plays out much further and working in different ways with writers around the country and around the world. For example, we have some (Samuel) Beckett plays that went from here to the West End, and now they’re going to Hong Kong next year.

Though you said you’re interested in addressing social issues, other theaters also want to do that. How will you approach it specifically?

I think we need to find more writers from much more diverse backgrounds and continue to show the multiculturalism of Britain with the work we stage.

Also, I love running an organization and communicating a vision. And for me it’s about putting exciting ideas together that will be a real explosion or an event in theater which nobody could have imagined before — and something which feels really contemporary and now.

For me, the really thrilling thing is that sometimes it can make people think differently about the world, so it can make change happen. But still, I always feel nervous that no one will come — really, it terrifies me.

In general, how do you feel about English theater in a digital age with kids playing computer games at home and all that?

I think it’s very alive and a lot of people want to go to the theater. I don’t think the computer world has been negative for the theater at all. I think people more and more want a live, communal experience. Over the last few years the theater has been well funded, so there’s some fantastic directors and writers and artists and English and British theater are in a very brilliant place at the moment.