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Laureation address: Vicky Featherstone

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Laureation by Professor Gill Plain
School of English

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Vicky Featherstone for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Next year, Vicky Featherstone will preside over the 60th anniversary season of the Royal Court Theatre. This is the theatre that brought the kitchen sink into British drama with the ground-breaking 1956 production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and which has worked ever since to keep theatre, and new writing, alive, vital, angry and influential. The presence of a woman at the helm of Britain’s most prestigious new writing theatre would, I suspect, come as something of a shock to the late John Osborne – but, thankfully, much has changed in 60 years, and it is hard to imagine a safer – or perhaps more dangerous – pair of hands in which the radical legacy of the Royal Court might rest.

As artistic director of the anniversary season, Vicky Featherstone will oversee six world premiers, one European premier and an ambitious collaboration with the Berlin Schaubühne theatre. She will superintend plays by Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks and Anthony Neilson, alongside innovative new work by South African, Lebanese and Syrian writers – much of which emerges from the Royal Court’s long-standing international playwrights’ scheme. While all this is going on she will also direct a new play about everyday life in a space station on Pluto. Why not? This is the theatre. This immense programme of activity is, I might venture to say, typical Featherstone. Directing, managing, inspiring promoting new writers, enabling collaborations, and celebrating the visionary possibilities of performance. She is, in short, one of the most important figures in British theatre today.

Vicky Featherstone’s career started with a drama degree at Manchester, after which a place on the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme took her to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Bolton Octagon, and Northern Stage. After this, she worked as a Literary Associate for London’s Bush Theatre, and paused to leave her mark on television, contributing to the development of Where the Heart Is and Silent Witness. The seeds of her commitment to new writing were laid in these years, and came to fruition in her appointment as Artistic Director of Paines Plough. Here Featherstone developed her model of a writer-friendly company, appointing influential figures such as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and building a creative environment conducive to innovation.

Featherstone’s nurturing of new talent and her acute management skills transformed Paines Plough, and her achievements here would have been legacy enough. But then, in 2004, a job advertisement caught her eye. I paraphrase slightly, but it went something along the lines of ‘wanted: visionary genius capable of creating a national theatre from scratch’. And that is exactly what Vicky Featherstone did. From an empty office in Glasgow, she built the National Theatre of Scotland – a theatre made, not of bricks and mortar, but of writers, performers and directors, a team of like-minded people utterly committed to the transformative potential of theatre. Featherstone stated from the outset that her concept of a ‘national’ theatre was nothing to do with defining a nation or representing some generally accepted idea of Scottish theatre. Rather this theatre would be a ‘chance to throw open the doors of possibility, to encourage boldness’. This desire to question rather than accept the ‘national’ was made immediately evident in the new theatre’s launch. A showpiece play with an all-star cast, reasoned Featherstone, would reach only a fragment of Scotland’s population, and would speak only to those already in the theatre-going habit.

Something different was needed to demonstrate, from the outset, what a new ‘national’ theatre could achieve. Featherstone’s answer to this dilemma was Home, ten different site-specific experimental shows performed on the same night by and for communities across Scotland. Home comprised tenements, factories and forests, galleries, halls and warehouses. Its locations included a disused shop and the car deck of a ferry. Home was shaped by photographs and memories, by the imagination of children, by nostalgia and modernity. This was a ‘national’ theatre that embraced the local and the global, recognising that from the microcosm of specific stories theatre can speak across the borders of culture, society and nation. And the power of this vision was recognised in 2006 by the enormous success of Black Watch. Prompted by Featherstone, writer Gregory Burke spent several months interviewing soldiers in a pub in Fife, recording their words and their experiences to create, under John Tiffany’s direction, an extraordinary ‘physical piece of political theatre’. Described as ‘a dose of caffeine delivered directly to the bloodstream’ (Washington Post), the play won every award imaginable. ‘If anyone wondered why we needed a National Theatre of Scotland,’ concluded Scotland on Sunday, ‘this is the answer’.

In the face of all this, it is easy to overlook that Vicky Featherstone is also an award-winning director, and the list of her productions reads like a who’s who of contemporary writing: Abi Morgan, Zinnie Harris, Neil Gaiman, David Greig and, most recently, Lee Hall, whose Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour took this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe by storm. Just as Black Watch triumphed through its visceral translation of young men’s lives to the stage, so Our Ladies brought complexity, humour and humanity to the all too often stereotyped lives of teenage girls. And it brought another Fringe First to Vicky Featherstone’s collection.

Black Watch, according to the New York Times, was a ‘necessary reminder of the transporting power that is unique to theatre’. Theatre is a collaborative medium and it requires vision and energy to assemble the ingredients that enable that transporting power. Over the past twenty years, at Paines Plough, the NTS and now at the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone has been the alchemist at the centre of magical transformations. In her championing of new writing and collaboration, her willingness to experiment and courageous embrace of change, she has demonstrated, time and again, what theatre can achieve.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to British theatre, and her creation of a National Theatre for Scotland, I invite you to confer on Vicky Featherstone the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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