Meet the man who brought through a generation of playwrights at the Royal Court
Last month, after more than eight years at the Royal Court, Chris Campbell left his job as literary manager to join indie publishers Oberon Books. He tells Matt Trueman about working with the ‘swashbuckling’ Vicky Featherstone, bringing through a generation of writers and how Simon Russell Beale pushed him out of acting
Like the lists of monarchs that run down school rulers, theatre history is charted by artistic directors. At the Royal Court in London, the Stephen Daldry era gave rise to the Ian Rickson years; Dominic Cooke’s reign ended with Vicky Featherstone’s coronation. Each tenure has its own distinct temperament. Turning points are defined by turnovers at the top.
Of course, the reality is never as clear-cut as history would have it. So when the Royal Court’s long-standing literary manager Chris Campbell left the building last month, it marked a step change for the organisation. It will mean a new set of eyes on every play under consideration, a new voice in the select weekly script meeting and a new point of contact for playwrights at their spiritual home.
Campbell had been at the Court for eight and a half years; one of the last staff members to pre-date Featherstone’s regime. A generation of playwrights – Alistair McDowall, Alice Birch, Rory Mullarkey, Penelope Skinner, Cordelia Lynn – came through on his watch.
This month, Campbell joins Oberon Books as senior editor. It’s quite the coup for James Hogan’s indie publishing house. When it was announced last year, the move took many people by surprise, playwrights in particular. It is, in no uncertain terms, a step to one side – a jump from the epicentre of new writing, and indeed British theatre, to a spot on its sidelines. At just 58, far from retirement, Campbell’s swapping a say over what lands on a major stage for a choice over how those plays might sit on the page. Why?
“The first thing to say is I had no plans to move on,” Campbell says, stretched out beneath the bookshelves at the back of the Court’s bar. When Hogan called seeking suggestions for the job, he casually enquired whether Campbell might consider it himself. The question caught him off-guard: “A year ago, I would have said no without hesitation. This time, I hesitated.”
So what changed? Not a lot, Campbell says. He simply wanted to leave on a high. “I’m not burnt out or anything, but I could see a point where I would have had enough and maybe, at that point, nobody would be offering me a job.” He loves literary management, but, he says, “there are stresses. You’re dealing with a lot of people’s desire and 85% of the time, I have to say no. You can’t keep doing that forever without closing down, without hardening yourself.”
While he has “no lived experience” in publishing, Campbell could see the appeal of an industry “in flux”. As printing costs have decreased dramatically in recent years, the possibilities of publishing have only gone up. Oberon’s led the charge to shift the sort of script that ends up on the shelves – not just play texts, but devised work, spoken word, even dance. Yet Campbell sees more potential. British theatres might be selling fewer books, but across the Atlantic “people are actually buying more plays”. There is, he suggests, an untapped appetite.
Even so, it will be a far cry from the crucible of the Court. Its two stages need a constant stream of scripts – good scripts – ready to go and, aside from the occasional Court classic, there’s no relying on revivals to bridge any gaps. “It’s new plays all the time here,” Campbell says excitedly. “It never stops. You have to find 12 to 16 plays to produce every year, forever.”
That can be thrilling. Arriving at the Royal Court after six years as deputy literary manager at the National was, he says, “like getting in a sports car after driving a bus. Everything’s faster and bumpier. You’re so much closer to the road”.
That pressure necessitates pragmatism. “We’re not a script-reading service,” Campbell insists. “We’re not here to provide notes. We’re here to find plays that we can put on and writers we might want to work with.” When he picks up a script he’s looking for its potential. “Some people have an instinct for a fresh, theatrical voice. I have that. I’ve had it from the start.”
Literary management on new plays is like skiing – all you can hope for is to stay upright as you hurtle downhill
Given that all the new plays are, by definition, untested, the stakes are relentless and nail-bitingly high. “I started to think of it like skiing,” he jokes. “All you can really hope for is to stay upright as you hurtle downhill.”
And yet, Campbell has always seemed at home at the Royal Court. A former actor, he’s a Falstaffian figure often found at the bar or in the alley by stage door, his motorbike propped nearby, with a glass of red in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His laugh – a smoker’s rasp – carries and, while dandyish, Campbell’s manner is also down-to-earth. Capable of delicious indiscretion, he’s always careful to toe the party line. He speaks good subtext, as all script-readers should. Artists like him and, crucially, they trust him too. “Conversation might be my favourite art. I like talking about plays – it’s why I’ve never wanted to write one. I’d rather respond.”
And respond he does. “In rehearsal room readings, he’s always the one with the biggest laugh,” says playwright Rachel De-Lahay. On his first week in the job, Campbell rescued her debut play The Westbridge from the reject pile. De-Lahay only found out five years after it went on. “He’s your number one champion and he makes it clear he’s enjoying the work.” It’s mutual. De-Lahay says playwrights joke about jostling for his attention. “He’s the building,” she says. “I don’t really know what it looks like without him.”
Campbell has always been “an absolutely voracious reader” – on to Dickens and Dostoyevsky in his early teens. “I never went out, all I wanted to do was read.” Born in Belfast in 1960, his family moved shortly afterwards, as tensions rose in Northern Ireland. His father felt “it was no place to be bringing up kids”, leaving his linen factory job to start selling imported textiles in Manchester. “He used to feel people’s garments on being introduced to them – always awkward when you introduced girlfriends.”
Q&A: Chris Campbell
What was your first non-theatre job?
Live-in bar job at the Crown in Buckinghamshire.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Actor in Christie in Love.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Howard Davies and Vicky Featherstone.
If you hadn’t been a literary manager, what would you have been?
A waiter in a French restaurant or a delivery rider. I’d like to ride my motorbike for money.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start?
How quickly you can start to make a difference. I thought you had to wait 20 years to be significant. The people who learn that lesson early become successful very fast. People will take you at your own estimation.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but I wouldn’t like to watch a first preview without a glass of wine.
It’s tempting to find Campbell in that juxtaposition: head in a book, but hands on. Reading, for him, is an active thing. He learned to sail after Swallows and Amazons and, as a scholarship student at Oxford, struggled to stay sedentary. “I had what would now definitely be called a breakdown,” he recalls. “I couldn’t leave what I was reading on the page: Yeats telling you to get out of your study, Beckett saying everything’s pointless. I blew up.” He was sent down – thrown out – after a year, taking off to France.
What felt like “hiding away from the real world” laid the foundations for his future. Working in summer camps, he became bilingual, teeing up his work as a theatre translator, and fell in with theatrical types. One taught him to breathe fire. He returned to England knowing he wanted to act and, after founding a touring company, he began inching into the industry’s centre and the National Theatre, where he worked for 10 years. “I got bored – not so much with acting as with the actor’s life. I say this with great love and affection, but Simon Russell Beale was getting all the parts.” Suddenly, I spot the resemblance: the same icy blue eyes, thin-lipped smile and mischief. “Eventually, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Am I prepared to play Simon Russell Beale’s part in the third cast?’”
Campbell wasn’t, but, having joined and chaired the NT’s script-reading panel, hopped into the literary department under Jack Bradley. There he started to spot his own “small but perceptible influence on programming” as scripts he championed hit the stage. “When what you’re champing at as an actor is the lack of agency, that’s quite dizzying.” He still feels the thrill of such influence today.
Changing landscape of theatre
Right now, literary departments are in flux, with their costs being cut. HighTide and Edinburgh’s Traverse abandoned theirs altogether, while the National merged its literary and studio teams into a new work department. Others have introduced seasonal submission windows for unsolicited scripts. “Those are big changes if you’re a playwright,” Campbell says. “Writers are no longer as central as they once were.”
For him, the primacy of the playwright is still key: “That individual imagination is not an outmoded thing. It swings in and out of fashion, but never goes away.” Hence his insistence on the importance – and the integrity – of the Royal Court. “This literary department matters so much to playwrights. It’s vital that it continues.”
When George Devine retooled the Royal Court in 1952, he declared it “a writers’ theatre”. Today, it is the writers’ theatre. Its literary manager is a pivotal figure, not just internally but across British theatre. Artistic directors call the shots. Literary mangers line them up. They’re lieutenants who lead from behind the lines.
The role was formalised 50 years ago, when Bill Gaskill appointed Devine’s daughter Harriet. Christopher Hampton and David Hare shared the job, each paid £7 a week to read 20-odd scripts. They were, Hare would later say, “entirely powerless” under Gaskill and his associates. In time, playwrights – Ann Jellicoe, Donald Howarth – were replaced by script readers. Mel Kenyon left to become a literary agent, inheriting Peggy Ramsay’s illustrious client list. Graham Whybrow, adored by playwrights over a 13-year stint, remains a Royal Court associate today.
Chris Campbell on…
“If you’re translating for the stage, you have to make it work. There’s no point saying this scene doesn’t work in English. You have to present something someone might produce. When faced with a choice between accuracy and efficacy, I go for efficacy.”
“A lot of younger writers are astounding. It’s one of the great things about theatre. If you don’t get on with people younger than you, get out – they’re going to overtake you and soon they’ll run the Donmar or the Bush.”
…professionalisation of theatre
“When I started in the 1980s, half the actors had been to drama school, half hadn’t. There were no trained directors. You became a director by discovering you were an awful actor or going to Cambridge. Trained writers were a laugh and – nobody knew what trained dramaturgs were. The industry has professionalised. There are arguments as to whether that’s an entirely good thing.”
“I’m one of few dramaturg-fire-breathers. My first time, I had a mouthful of kerosene and I was holding a burning stick. My trainer said: ‘Do the spray like you did with the water – because if you don’t, you’ll set your face on fire’.”
“I always read with optimism – otherwise you’re wasting your time. It’s hard to write a play. Most people can’t do it. You have to go in with your mind and heart open.”
…the world in 2018
“The artistic community was blindsided by the events of the last couple of years. We’ve been assuming victory in a culture war for 30 or 40 years. It isn’t over – never mind not being won. What do we do as artists? Do we continue as normal? Because that hasn’t worked. Do we accept we’re a minority and take pride in what we believe? Do we reach out and try to understand?”
…British new writing
“The writing and staging of plays is uniquely important in UK culture, partly in response to the paucity of public discussion. There’s no public tradition of debate. So where are we going to talk about these things? In the theatre.”
Popularity of new writing
Today, new writing is the mainstay of British theatre. “There’s a lot more of it,” Campbell says. “Everyone’s doing it now” – regional theatres, fringe theatres, even the Royal Shakespeare Company. Partly, he blames Shakespeare – the fact “the founding artist of our culture is a playwright” – but Campbell nonetheless sees a new-found confidence. “The writers have changed,” he says. “Harold Pinter has been replaced as the guiding spirit of playwriting by Caryl Churchill.”
The Court is carrying that. Having straddled two artistic tenures, he’s witnessed a philosophical shift. “Dominic had a very clear idea of what he wanted the Royal Court to be and he was very protective of it – of its production values, of its reputation.” His Court yielded hit after hit: Jerusalem, That Face, Clybourne Park, Cock. “Everything was machine-tooled.”
Featherstone is “much more swashbuckling. If you didn’t like it, you could say ramshackle, but it’s not. It’s kind of glorious. She’s much more comfortable with chaos”. He lets out a hoot. “Apparent chaos.”
It feels like a fair assessment. To Campbell, today’s Royal Court is characterised by its “restlessness” – Featherstone’s restlessness, perhaps. Hers is a roving Royal Court, one that has pushed at the possibilities of playwriting rather than resting on old certainties. Form has come to the fore, be it the time-slides of Simon Longman’s Gundog or the rolling mayhem of Rory Mullarkey’s Pity. Not everything works, but it’s rarely dull. Every season sprints off in a whole new direction: an autumn of international plays, a summer led by design in the Site.
Sometimes, that can seem counter-intuitive. “One of the things Vicky often talks about is doing things that other theatres wouldn’t,” Campbell continues. “As soon as we get something that really works, something that’s good, she abandons it to try something else. It’s utterly inspiring to work with her. It really is.” Against such experiments, he’s seen his job as providing stability – “reassuring writers by my presence that the Royal Court still liked playwrights while Vicky was firing off all kinds of wonderful ideas about what else we might do.
“If you don’t naturally go: ‘Oh, hooray: change,’ if you go: ‘Uh-oh,’ as I do, then it can be a bumpy ride. One of the reasons we get on so well is that she wants to change everything and I have to pick the things I think we should keep.”
Chris Campbell’s top tips
• You’re not there to judge the play. That’s a mistake that critics who think they would like to be literary managers often make. It’s not the same job.
• You’ll have to make lots of suggestions to artistic directors that will be turned down. Do not become discouraged. That is actually your job.
• Almost any other job you could be doing would be less satisfying and not as much fun.
One product of their partnership is a changing rostrum of writers – a determined diversification of voices on stage. Debbie Tucker Green has been its most prominent writer – three plays in five years – and next year the Court has only one new play by a white writer programmed. Cynics might see the season as a statement, but even if it is, that’s valid – theatres are public and political spaces, the Royal Court more than most.
“You could say all we’re doing is continuing the policy begun under George Devine,” Campbell says. “John Osborne was a marginalised figure when Look Back in Anger was on. He was the kind of voice you never heard on stage, writing the kind of characters you never saw on stage – provincial working-class people. We’re still doing that, except now it’s Debris Stevenson and grime on a London estate or [Anchuli Felicia King’s] White Pearl and South East Asian women working in cosmetics. It’s still the same mission – and it still works.” At heart, the Royal Court remains the same – however radical its changes, whoever’s leading its charge.
CV: Chris Campbell
Born: Belfast, 1960
As an actor: Toast, Royal Court (1999)
As a translator:
• Right Now, Bush Theatre (2015)
• Suzy Storck, Gate Theatre (2017)
Awards: Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, a French knighthood, given in 2013 for services to culture
Agent: Rose Cobbe, United Agents