For the outgoing boss of the National Theatre of Scotland – her craft is not simply an added extra – it is part of the fabric of a nation.
To judge the effect Vicky Featherstone has had on Scottish theatre, one need only look back to the reaction on the day she announced she was leaving the National Theatre of Scotland.
Her decision to quit the organisation she has been with since the very start, that has helped put Scottish arts on the international map with productions like Black Watch, sent shockwaves through the arts media.
Following the announcement in May, barely an article written subsequently did so without the word ‘shock’ in front of the word ‘resignation’.
People took to Twitter to register their dismay in such numbers that her name was trending. Globally.
From next April, Featherstone will be taking over as the first female artistic director of the Royal Court in London, another theatre famous for seeking out new playwrights and putting on new and challenging work.
She spoke to Holyrood about the impact the theatre has had, her decision to quit what she says is “absolutely one of the best theatre jobs in the world” and the position that theatre and the arts hold in modern Scotland.
Featherstone joined the NTS as artistic director in November 2004, putting on the company’s first programme in February 2006.
She had already worked as artistic director of Paines Plough and built up a reputation for discovering the best writing talent as it toured across Britain.
The NTS doesn’t have a home. Its administrative base is in a small, unassuming building on an industrial estate in Glasgow’s Maryhill – the rehearsal rooms around the corner are in a former glue factory – although it does have the Scottish National Opera nearby.
But this lack of a flagship theatre is a deliberate tactic, giving the company free-rein to access spaces big and small across Scotland, which has seen them performing in not just theatres, but arts centres, a drill hall and the SECC in Glasgow.
The award-winning Black Watch continues to be the theatre’s biggest hit in its six-year history, but there have been a host of other productions.
Most recently, acclaimed Scottish actor Alan Cumming performed an emotionally-charged Macbeth at the Tramway in Glasgow; rave reviews were also received at the Edinburgh Festival and beyond for Beautiful Burnout, the tale of a young promising boxer; and other smaller-scale productions have included Long Gone Lonesome, which recounted the life of Shetland-islander Thomas Fraser “one of Scotland’s least known but most fascinating musical heroes.” “The kind of impact that I think we wanted to have, was about a focus for theatre in Scotland,” she says. “Theatre was amazing in Scotland before us, it’s not like we started something.
“I always say we were a continuum of artists and the kind of stories already have been told.
“The impact has been to draw that together. We’ve been part of a blossoming of theatre from Scotland internationally.
“I think a national theatre does raise the bar generally, because it raises awareness, and also, we have better resource than other companies have had before us, to be more impressive, to be able to go further afield with the work that we’ve toured.” As well as promoting “healthy competition” between theatre companies, she said the theatre had had a big impact on audiences.
“The two things we talk about at the National Theatre of Scotland always are artists and audiences,” she explains. “We say we’re artist-led and audience-focused. So the work is always about what the artists want to make but going to the audience.
“An example is in Glenrothes, which is one of Scotland’s new towns and where the majority of the Black Watch regiment are based.
“Fife has got a fantastic arts local council support but, especially when we started five or six years’ ago, [there] hadn’t been a lot of theatre happening there.
“Over the years we’ve gone there with Black Watch twice, we’ve done a massive community programme in Fife, there have been workshops in schools with Black Watch and we’ve gone back with other shows such as Beautiful Burnout.
“There are young people who are coming to see our shows when we go to Fife, boys especially, who’ve been seeing National Theatre of Scotland shows since they were 14. They have come up to us and said, ‘I first went to the theatre when I was 14 and I never realised that theatre could be like this’. Those kinds of impacts are incredible for us, you really are changing somebody’s life in a way – in the way that they see things.”
Black Watch is a continuing source of pride for the theatre. It has been performed on four continents, and that will have upped to five by the time she leaves next year, when it plays in South Korea.
The play, written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, was about members of the famous regiment as they head to war in Iraq and was one of Featherstone’s first commissions.
It has won Olivier awards and has been brought back to Scotland on several occasions. But just what made it so successful?
“The first night of Black Watch at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006 – people were astounded and it was an immediate standing ovation. They were breathless with what they’d seen.
“I thought, my God! What audiences are reacting to is the fact that theatre can be brilliant and can matter. There was a collective sigh of relief that theatre can do that. Because often it doesn’t. That raised the marker; theatre can have a visceral, political effect on a big audience.” She adds: “I also think, sadly, that Black Watch’s success came out of a tragedy and I always feel really responsible about that, in terms of the Iraq war and the amount of soldiers that were being killed needlessly.
“The tragedy is that Black Watch is still as relevant six years on as it was when we made it. We wouldn’t keep putting it on unless the story was still the same. The story is still exactly the same – if you look at Afghanistan, dreadfully so.
“It’s come back a lot and every time we really interrogate it. Should we put it on again? Is there an audience for it? Is it becoming vanity? Every time there is a good enough reason. It isn’t just about vanity for putting it on again.” Surprisingly, given the show’s success and having played to hundreds of thousands of people, initially, it was thought it would not even make it on tour.
When we first put it on in a drill hall in Edinburgh, we thought it’ll be on for two weeks and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. Then, as we saw its success and as it kind of moved on, we realised we could just replicate that, but it does need a massive space. We’ve been able to find a lot of those spaces all over the world.” A big show could often carry with it concerns that the huge success could overshadow anything that comes after it – but this is not something that worries Featherstone.
“I think the fact that the National Theatre of Scotland in its first six years has had a Black Watch is a miracle and I think that’s the way we always have to look at it.
“It’s the show that we’ve done that makes us known internationally that’s become our brand.
“I don’t have a problem with Black Watch being the show that’s defined the National Theatre of Scotland in its first six years. The Henrys are the plays that have defined Michael Boyd at the RSC, over his tenure there. There are only probably in each person’s seven or eight years, one or two things which stand out, the things which, internationally, become known.
“However,” she adds, “if you went to Orkney or Shetland and said what is the National Theatre of Scotland known for, they would say Long Gone Lonesome, or a schools project, or if you went to other places, they would say something else. People who were at the Tramway last month would say Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, it’s that thing about perception and reality, there’s a gap between them.
“I’m genuinely proud of everything that we’ve done and I’m also amazed that we’ve had that success with anything with Black Watch.” She admits leaving a company that has already achieved so much “slightly breaks my heart,” but admits the Royal Court is a job she’s always wanted to do and believes that now, or at least next year, is the right time to go.
She said: “When I took this job, I said to my husband, I’ll do the job for five years and then see where we’re at. It got to the end of five years and I love this job so much that there was no thought that I would go.
“But actually, to do a job like this for ten years would be too long. The thing that I couldn’t bear was that people would think that we were going stale or that I was tired and that I should move over and give someone else a chance.
“I think in the end it’s much better for Scotland that I haven’t just given up, I’ve gone to a job that people understand why I’ve gone to that job, rather than because I ran out of steam.” She has high hopes for what the theatre can achieve after she leaves and is keen to highlight the “brilliant” people working there. She adds: “When I leave I will have been here for eight and a half years, I always thought I would be able to go when I was confident that the thing that we created was robust enough that somebody else would come in and take it over and take it in whatever direction they would want.
“It is absolutely one of the best theatre jobs in the world because of the flexibility of not having a building, and the demand that we communicate with as much of the Scottish audience as we possibly can, it’s never bound by an architecture or anything else.
“What I would hope is that an artistic director would come in who wants to be pushing the boundaries of what theatre should be, while wanting to appeal to as many of the Scottish public as possible, with the audience. After that, it’s their thing.” During her time at the NTS she has learned a lot about the way audiences here think – and the differences between the culture in Scotland and elsewhere.
Although she says essentially we are all “world citizens” and that all theatre is “putting stories on a stage about people,” she adds “what’s unique about Scotland in terms of making theatre is the complexity of the country.
“There is an incredible diversity in Scotland, which is a harder diversity to discuss. because if you go to England, which is a much more multicultural country, you can see the diversity on the street.
“In Scotland, the experience that somebody has had in Orkney of growing up is very different to somebody who has grown up in Edinburgh, culturally, but they don’t look any different. So that is a real richness, I think, in terms of story telling.” And she adds, the cultural beginnings of theatre in Scotland are very different to just over the border.
She says a “massive dramatic legacy” in England formed out of the English court patronage. Scotland’s theatre took longer to develop, in part as a result of losing its parliament and the court heading south.
But she says: “Really, it’s a more interesting country where that didn’t take place and the theatre had to grow from the people, because there wasn’t an elitist place for it to grow. There was a big gap in Scotland, where not a lot of theatre was created, between the 1600s and 20th century, really.
“In Scottish theatre, its renaissance was when the people said, ‘we want theatre’, the form of theatre that came after that – because of that – was variety and entertainment. It’s direct communication with its audience and not an elite form of theatre.
“That has hugely impacted on the way that theatre is made in Scotland now. The audiences in their DNA want to be entertained; [they] feel like they have a right to be there.
“They don’t want to go to something which is about telling them how to behave as good citizens; they’re not interested in any of that. “It’s a much more maverick, much more demotic kind of theatre heritage that I’ve inherited and that’s really exciting for the way we make theatre, it’s where you get shows like Cheviot and The Stag, which is why panto is so successful, which is where Black Watch came from, which talks directly to the audience, That’s what’s exceptional about Scotland.”
Alan Cumming, who is the lynchpin of the new production of Macbeth which has run in Glasgow and has now headed for the US, is an example of this approach to theatre.
The production at the Tramway has given Shakespeare’s play a new lease of life and a life of its own in what is – essentially – a one-man show. Featherstone has high praise for the Hollywood star. “He’s playful, he’s provocative, he’s mercurial, and he’s fearless in front of an audience, all those things I was talking about where Scottish theatre comes from,” she says.
Before coming to Scotland her career included taking a production of Gogol’s The Nose to the Edinburgh Festival and then working as assistant director at the Royal Court back in 1991, after leaving Manchester University. But before taking up her first artistic director role at Paines Plough, she also worked for TV as script editor and originator on programmes like Silent Witness and Where The Heart Is.
Since coming to Scotland she has been impressed, though at the way the current government has put culture at the heart of society. While in England, cuts have been made to the grants for drama and the arts, theatre has been allowed to flourish north of the border.
“One of the things that the SNP has done brilliantly is to genuinely know that a healthy country is a country that has a healthy sense of its own culture,” she says. “They really believe that, that’s not cynical, they’ve demonstrated that at every turn.” She admits she has been surprised by the Government’s involvement with the company.
“We’re directly funded by the Government; I’ve only ever known an arm’s-length policy before, where I’ve run companies that have been funded through arts councils.
“My relation to politics and the job that I do in Scotland is much closer than I thought it would be, much closer than jobs in England or any other parts of the world.
“There’s pluses and minuses for that. It makes you understand, genuinely, what we do is important to the Government and we’re not just a kind of add-on that can be ignored – which is how I think the arts in England feel now as a result of the way that Jeremy Hunt has behaved around them. We genuinely know that we’re an important part of the Government’s policy going forward and that’s remarkable.
“The downside of it is that there is a lot of expectation about our visibility at events to do with the Government, I understand why that is the case, but that’s quite time consuming. But that’s the only downside – time.
“If we’re doing a show in America and the Government has given us some extra money to do international touring, there will be a series of government events around that. But that’s absolutely right, it’s only to be expected. It’s just a time issue and not one that a theatre company is used to, so we’ve had to mature ourselves and sophisticate our internal processes in order that we can sustain that, but that’s exciting.” 2012 is a time when identity is of huge importance, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympics and the ongoing debate on the Scottish independence referendum in two years’ time, discussions about who people are and where they belong have been pushed to the foreground.
Although she says it is not for her or the NTS to come down on either side of the independence debate, she believes the theatre has an important role to play in providing a platform for debate – and this will be something that will be explored over the next six months.
It is something they have put to good use before, including in the production Enquirer, based on interviews with journalists – many of them anonymous – which investigated the media world in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World and elsewhere.
She says: “Theatre is about debate. I think there are various different mechanics that we can put in place to discuss [the independence debate], to look at that and see how people feel about it – how the artists feel, how they respond.
If somebody comes up with an interesting piece of work, as a result of that discussion, that seems worthy of programming, to discuss it in a rounded, interesting way, then we would definitely programme that.” Nothing has been commissioned, as she says that would be like commissioning an opinion piece in a newspaper – you know what view you are going to get in advance.
She adds: “What we want to do is create a platform where a series of debates can kind of bash up against each other with informed discussion and see if things emerge out of that, that earn their place in the programme.
“There are a couple of artists who are fantastic who are incredibly pro-independence, so if they came up with something that they wanted to do, then we would try to find somebody who has the opposite view. So that we would be part of the Yes or No debate.” So do the arts have an important role to play in the independence debate?
“Entirely,” she says. “The artists can define a country. What’s interesting is the artists are really vocal because they know how to express themselves. Artists can be the best friend of something and the worst enemy of it.”