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Q&A with Vicky Featherstone on Royal Court programme – ‘We are at the mercy of our writers’

Artistic director of London’s Royal Court Vicky Featherstone. The venue’s executive team led the way in the wake of harassment allegations by drawing up a code of behaviour for UK theatres. Photo: Rosie Hallam

Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone has unveiled a year-long programme of work at the Royal Court, which includes a triple bill from Caryl Churchill and new plays by writers including Alistair McDowall and Al Smith. Here she explains the thinking behind the new programme…

The Royal Court doesn’t normally announce a year ahead. What was the thinking behind this year-long programme?
Often because the work isn’t ready, it’s safer to only announce maybe five or six months in advance, which is difficult for our marketing department. It’s also important for audience development [to have as much programmed as we can], so we decided to try and announce as far in advance as possible so we could communicate to the right people about the work – rather than the people who just look at our Twitter feed or website. It’s also because all of these pieces were ready and it felt important that the writers who were ready should have their work included. We thought we should make a whole year happen, so we weren’t leaving people who had worked so hard over two or three years on a play out in the cold.

Is there anything that ties it all together?
No I don’t think there is. One of the really exciting things about running the Royal Court is that the work we do is a result of having the right conversations with the right writers, and we are always – I don’t mean this negatively – at the mercy of what they want to write. Even if I decided I just wanted to do a year on the NHS or on Brexit, that would be impossible. However, all of these plays feel story-driven and that’s exciting in terms of the moment we are in. Story is universal – the notion of sitting together and listening to a story.

Does programming a year require more from you as an artistic director?
It does. We have a fantastic artistic planning process here. We have a lot of conversations around a programme, so there is a massive amount of work. But for the organisation to get to this point, the effort is immense in terms of scheduling and budgeting. One of the big things is whether we can afford this work – and it crosses over a financial year.

With a year programmed, where does that leave the Royal Court should it need to respond to something quickly?
We have always been able to do that, and I have always done that. We could do something late night or on a Sunday, we are always looking for a rapid-response thing.

One of the names that stands out is Caryl Churchill. What is it about her work that you enjoy programming?
She never lets us down does she? She only writes a play when she has something new to write – something that is going to challenge her in terms of everything she has ever thought about theatre. It would be impossible not to programme her work, because it breaks the boundary every time. These three plays are short – we are not going to make you sit for four hours, though I would love to sit through four hours of Caryl’s work. They are not linked – people will see links in them but none of that is deliberate. They are droplets of theatre perfection – like Beckett shorts. You think: ‘I do not know where you got that idea from and the way you have made it manifest is mind blowing.’

The season seems very diverse, particularly in terms of gender. Is that a conscious decision?
I was first an artistic director aged 28 and I am 52 now, but I have never once counted the amount of women in a season. For me it comes back to – and I hate using this work – who has the power to make those decisions. Gender has never been something I have had to consider. It’s interesting. There are other things I have to consider. There are some brilliant men in this programme too. I feel strongly about that. It’s really important at this moment in time that there is work by everyone.

When theatres announce seasons, people can be very quick to pass comment on Twitter. Do you find people are quick to attack?
I really follow Twitter and sometimes a late night tweet from somebody can challenge me and make me think differently. I love that. Some of the things I have read on Twitter have shifted my thinking, which is brilliant, because how else could I know what that person who would not normally speak to me is thinking? It’s extraordinary. But the quick judgment, and judgment by counting, is tough and can be ruthless. It can be hard to defend and come back from. Sometimes it’s deserved but sometimes it isn’t – it’s kneejerk. One of the things I have learned over the years is that a statement, a defence, will never work. If there is something big you need to have an action – you need to do something.

Do you think you will look to programme another full-year in the future?
I hate routine, I hate people second-guessing what I will do. What is good about this is that we have another year to think about the work we want to develop. What can sometimes happen is, certain writers are very fast and other writers are equally as brilliant but may take years to be able to find the form of their play, and often when we are programming, the writers that are faster and have the work on the table get their plays on because they are ready to go, but it does not mean they are better or worse. What this year gives us is the time to focus on some of the conversations and processes that require more attention to programme.

Royal Court announces year-long programme including Caryl Churchill triple bill [1]