Stepping into the spotlight

THE MEMORY that springs to mind from Vicky Featherstone’s infancy in the Ochil Hills is of telling a lie to her teacher. At school in Clackmannanshire, in a classroom full of farmers’ kids, she wanted so much to be part of it all. When they were asked what their fathers did, she didn’t want to say he worked for BP at Grangemouth. In an early act of artistic licence, she made him a farmer.

"I remember telling teacher a lie, and that I wanted to be part of what that community was," she says. Cross-examined, she changed the story, saying he was a farmer at night, after he came home. "I was desperate to have a more interesting life, aged five."

No need for that now. Life for Featherstone has just become very interesting indeed. A wave of applause - not to mention an audible sigh of relief - greeted her selection last week as the first director of the new-born National Theatre of Scotland. If only the reviews of the theatre’s first production could be this good.

At 37, Featherstone is the artistic director of Paines Plough, an acclaimed, London-based touring theatre company devoted to producing new writing. Her tenure has seen the company’s permanent staff double from four to eight and its turnover rise to half a million pounds a year. Productions usually have, at maximum, a cast of seven or eight.

But from 1 November, when she moves to Glasgow, Featherstone will control an annual budget in the region of 3 million. The Scottish National Theatre will have no building of its own - a "theatre without walls" - but will work with existing theatres and companies. "There are slightly less than five million people living in Scotland," she says. "The responsibility personally, per capita, per pound, feels enormous. That is a heavy responsibility to be carrying."

The names being touted for the job were all Scotsmen. For an Englishwoman placed at the helm of a body which it is hoped can inspire a Scottish theatre revival, Featherstone has faced remarkably little grumbling from the old guard, not much beyond the odd letter to a newspaper. Her performance at the press conference announcing her choice showed only a hint of first-night nerves. She joked she might be back sobbing in a year’s time, but said: "I really believe I am fearless about this."

Quizzed on whether she spoke Gaelic, she said she didn’t, but quickly fired back that she is good at languages - she is fluent in French and German. "It’s quite liberating for me that a lot of people haven’t heard of me," she said. "I’m also confident that the people who have will believe and trust in my artistic integrity and my ability to do the job."

She embraced the fact that the new theatre would have no building, and that it would be about putting exciting work on stage. "It has been described as a poisoned chalice. To me it’s the opposite, it’s a gift."

The next day, Featherstone is equally as bold. She talks about using translated work as a possible avenue for getting the National Theatre’s productions under way. She only committed to the job, she says, because she was convinced it would not be a "political beast".

AT THE AGE OF seven, Featherstone left Clackmannanshire, her father’s job taking the family to India then Germany.

From there, the family returned to England, and she wound up doing a drama degree at Manchester University. Her first job was in television, reading scripts at Central Television, a position that lasted about six months. A place on a regional theatre’s young director scheme led her to direct at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Bolton Octagon theatre, and then, for about four years, she did a freelance directing stint. She worked on script development for television, including on Touching Evil and Where the Heart Is, before finding her way to Paines Plough.

If her ties to Scotland are weak, her ties to Scottish theatre - particularly Scottish writing - seem strong. Over seven years, Featherstone is credited with turning Paines Plough into a national and international force in British theatre, particularly in its development of new writing, winning many awards.

The Scottish connection speaks for itself. Next year, the British Council will fund the company to take four productions to Brussels to celebrate Britain’s presidency of the European Union. Two of those plays are by Scottish writers.

The scale of its productions are already a close match for most that are produced on the Scottish stage. Asked to single out a particular inspiration, Featherstone remembers seeing The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Michael Boyd’s production of the Janice Galloway novel, at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

"It was an extraordinary piece because it had real vision and real voice to it," she says. "It opened up the power of what theatre does when something that is apparently so inward looking is put on a stage, with amazing language and dialogue. It was one of those pieces that jumped out of the audience with an incredible power."

In an interview, Featherstone does not shirk addressing one of the thorniest questions she will face - how will a national theatre of Scotland work with existing theatre companies without duplicating, treading on toes or cherry-picking the best shows? Exactly what role would it take, for example, with Dundee Rep, where the artistic partnership of James Brining and Dominic Hill saw the company collect a string of honours at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland?

"If we get to two years down the line and we haven’t done anything in Dundee, because we thought the Rep was great and the area well served that way, that would be wrong. They are a strong example of a healthy place. For me it’s about the work that’s complimentary to what exists and trying to put on work that otherwise would not happen. It’s not about giving money to Dundee for something that would happen anyway." That, she said, is more like the job of the Scottish Arts Council. "It’s a commissioning body, but not about giving pots of money to people, it’s about co-productions and collaboration, and so, therefore, what would I do with Dundee? I would have a meeting with James and Dominic, say ‘What are you thinking about? Who would you like to work with if you could? And how would you like to work?’ and see what the possibilities of those projects are."

The fact is that she is already on first-name terms with Dundee and other Scottish companies. Paines Plough already has one co-production with Dundee Rep in the works. It is producing a new play by David Greig in co-production with the Tron in Glasgow. "I’ve spent a long time coming up to see things regularly, in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh - seeing work that I just thought was interesting," says Featherstone. "I know a lot of Scottish actors. I followed the Traverse on quite a few of their Highlands and Islands tours.

"I can’t imagine how the National Theatre will work if I sit in Easterhouse and people come to me with projects," she adds, referring to the theatre’s planned new offices at a cultural campus in Easterhouse. "It’s about talking to people and the artistic possibilities of what comes out of that. I think it’s organic, being responsive to the people who are creating theatre already in Scotland. Which is why it shouldn’t be intimidating to what already exists."

The Tron’s director, Neil Murray, is as enthusiastic as many others about her appointment. "If I had one question for Vicky, it is because I think the national theatre is about both new work and reinventing the classics for the stage," he says. "Are there are a range of classics that Vicky would love to see reinvented for Scottish audiences?"

Murray is thinking of the loss of Robert David MacDonald, who died earlier this year, mourned as the great translator of European literary classics for the Citz, where he worked with the director Giles Havergal and the designer Philip Prowse. Scottish playwrights have kept doing translations, but with the notable exception of John Byrne’s Uncle Varick, they have not been for Scottish theatres. David Greig translated Caligula for the Donmar Warehouse while David Harrower translated Chekhov for the National Theatre in London. "I think that needs to be happening in Scotland," says Featherstone. "Translations might be a way to get work happening as quickly as possible, looking at stuff that exists in ways that are interesting and relevant.

"Rather than giving the writer the pressure of coming up with the big play, if we say ‘Look at this German classic, that already exists, is there anything you think you can do with it?’"

AT THE SAME TIME, Featherstone is cautious of too much talk about a single opening production - that big splash that could so easily fall flat. "The talk of the first production is misrepresentative of what the theatre needs to achieve. The first production is absolutely vital, but wherever it opens it is going to cut out the rest of the country. It has to be about a kind of spreading programme of works that open within a few months of each other, so everybody has the potential to do something within the first 12 months of programming. That is something I would like to think about."

Her husband, Danny Brown, is a television and film writer. "He used to be a stand up comedian and we met - well, consummated our relationship at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago," she says. Her two children, now three and five, are going to be Scottish children, she adds. "Which is why it is very compatible that my husband works from home. I am very lucky, and he’s over the moon to be leaving London for Scotland."