Fearless director hits the stage running

VICKY Featherstone thought long and hard before she applied for the post of first director of the new National Theatre of Scotland. She had followed, from a distance, the long and fraught history of the project, and when it became a reality her immediate reaction was, "this is incredibly innovative, this could be a breakthrough for the theatre... there is no way it can work".

She put the idea out of her mind. But she could not resist reading the advertisement for the post, and was immediately captivated. "I thought the vocabulary of the board was fascinating. I thought they spoke the language of true creativity. It was radical, it was challenging. I applied."

The board members were every bit as captivated by her as she was by them. The fact that she had not a drop of Scottish blood in her veins worried them "not one iota", according to their chairman, Richard Findlay.

"We were looking for someone who was the best person to take Scottish theatre forward - Romanian, English, we weren’t concerned. Everything she said struck a chord with us. Her ideas were exciting and vibrant. We wanted someone with an international dimension. I think we’ve got that."

One theatre director in Scotland with whom she has worked described her as "fearless." There is certainly nothing timid about her plans. For a woman whose experience has mainly been in small cutting-edge dramas, she is determined to hit the stage running, with big productions that will build audiences and are good enough to tour internationally. And she wants to do it as soon as she can.

"There have been so many years of expectation in Scotland," she said. "I want to make the experience something that audiences benefit from, that makes people want urgently to go to the theatre. It has to be work that is remarkable and life-enhancing, and it has to be about setting high standards with the first big plays. I see it as my responsibility to put the most exciting work on stage that I possibly can."

Within a year of starting, in November this year, she would like the NTS to be announcing a programme that includes several large-scale shows a year. "I mean work that is broad in its appeal and innovative on stage, that brings in interesting ways of working. Some of it will be new, but we will do classic plays if they have a new spin on them, plays that will tour around Scotland and be strong enough to tour internationally."

If this means setting up co-productions with theatre groups abroad, she will do that. "This is my vision," she said. "I want the scale of show that Britain today rarely exports. But I think the place to start is home. I believe good theatre in Scotland should explore the psyche of the nation, and when that work is created well, it will be universal."

Married, with two children, Featherstone, 37, was discussing the new appointment after a typical working day. She had spent the afternoon at a play-writing workshop for young children in London, before returning to her Stoke Newington home to put her children to bed. She can’t wait for the move north. "Just think, they’ll grow up as Scottish kids, isn’t that great?" she said.

Featherstone can trace her own interest in the theatre back to her childhood. Brought up partly in Scotland and partly abroad, she was introduced to drama by her father, a scientist with BP, who had acted at university. He took her to the National Theatre in London to see Ian McKellen playing Coriolanus. They were part of the audience that sat on the stage itself, and she was entranced.

"I didn’t understand the play, but I didn’t need to. It was the experience that counted. It made me want to do it myself."

Moving from country to country, she picked up fluent German and French, and studied drama at Manchester University, before going on to work in television, then with the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Later, in London, she collaborated with writers like Sarah Kane, Abi Morgan and Gary Owen. Her company, Paines Plough, has a reputation for producing some of the best new writing in British theatre today, and she has worked with most of the young Scottish playwrights, including David Greig, Douglas Maxwell, Gregory Burke, Mike Cullen and David Harrower.

But she is also aware of the wider tradition of popular theatre in Scotland. Philip Howard at the Traverse, called her "a showman", and she made it clear that she wants to explore the kind of theatre that reaches a wider Scottish audience, which warmed to actors like Jimmy Logan and Rikki Fulton, and whose taste lies in music hall and pantomime.

"In some ways," she says, "Scotland can beat England hands down because of the language, the sense of identity and the culture, which can take universal plays and turn them into something that is all its own."

She is thinking of the adaptations of classic plays by writers like Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead. "They may not all export, but we should be fiercely protective of them."

How will she work with Scotland’s notoriously touchy theatre companies, who may be eyeing this new and untested creature in their midst with a mixture of envy and suspicion?

She is fully aware of the risks, but believes her past experience will help. "I will rely on my personality and the way I work with people and put them together," she said. "It’s not simply a case of meeting everyone and saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ - that’s too black and white. It’s about finding ways of putting people together to come up with ideas, and then supporting those ideas, making a series of connections that create chemistry."

As for big-name actors, like Sir Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor or Brian Cox, she is diplomatic. "I would only consider them if they were right for the play," she says. "But of course, if I could have Sean Connery acting in a play by Liz Lochhead, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, and opening in Inverness, that would be fabulous, wouldn’t it?"

She is more concerned, however, with the new generation of Scottish actors who have gone straight to Hollywood, bypassing the Scottish stage. She cites James McAvoy, currently filming The Chronicles of Narnia, as one example. "We’ve missed out on people like that. Now if we can create a theatre in Scotland that will bring him back, then we will be getting somewhere."

She is fully aware of the huge expectations that surround her appointment. "I take this responsibility very seriously, " she says. "I am not intimidated or fearful, but I am aware of the potential that’s been given to me. It’s incredibly humbling. This is a radical departure for theatre in Scotland. I hope I can live up to it."