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IN-YER-FACE THEATRE

Theatres and directors

Mark Godfrey and Paul Sirett of the Soho

Ian Rickson of the Royal Court

Nick Hytner of the National

Jenny Topper of the Hampstead

Abigail Morris of the Soho

Anthony Clark of the Hampstead


Interview with Mark Godfrey and Paul Sirett of the Soho Theatre by Aleks Sierz

Dean Street in London's Soho, once home to Karl Marx, now has another claim to fame: it's the address of the Soho Theatre Company (STC), whose new building is the first ever purpose-built theatre for new writing. Opening on 14 March 2000, the STC's first season of plays is the culmination of a project which began more than five years ago.

Exiled from the Cockpit theatre in 1995, the STC looked at 150 buildings in Westminster before choosing the Great West End Synagogue at 21 Dean Street. 'It was our first choice,' says administrative producer Mark Godfrey, 'partly because of the location and partly because it was a natural theatre: as a synagogue, it didn't have columns going up the centre. It was built as a kind of performing space.'

The STC - which began as the legendary Soho Poly in 1968 - is the only lottery arts project to buy a building on the open market. 'We'd never bought property before,' says Godfrey, 'so there were some hairy moments waiting for the funds to come through.'

Never rich, the STC came up with creative solutions to raise money for the 3 million freehold. They formed a partnership with a residential developer, who kept the building's top three floors for use as luxury flats, which meant the company could afford the rest.

While the overall project cost was 10.6 million, with 8 million from the lottery, the matching funds were raised by an appeal. 'We've got the most fantastic board,' says Godfrey, and a list of more than 500 donors is displayed next to the theatre entrance. 'It was hard to raise the money, but the idea of a new writer's theatre had such an appeal that it sold itself.'

The STC looked at 20 architects before choosing Paxton Locher, a 'keen and responsive firm' which had never built a theatre before. 'They're a small and youngish practice, great designers who were able to look afresh at what a theatre building can be,' says Godfrey.

The result is beautifully modern, with shining chrome fittings contrasting with American oak floors. The look is cool, airy and relaxing, with the 200-seat black-box theatre perfect in terms of sightlines and flexibility. The theatre building has unique facilities for playwrights to work, as well as space for workshops and seminars.

Equally creative has been the STC's plan to fund the upkeep of the building. The groundfloor bar and basement restaurant has been let to Cafe Lazeez, which 'pays a commercial rent' that covers much of building's running costs. 'The cuisine is an Asian-European fusion, which feels appropriate, and the place welcomes writers and actors,' says Godfrey.

With running costs covered, 'All grants go directly to create new work.' The STC's grant of about 350,000 (London Arts Board and Westminster council) is devoted to putting on plays. 'For greatest accessibility, we aim to keep ticket prices as low as possible,' says Godfrey. 'On Mondays all tickets are 5, and all concessions are bookable in advance.'

The opening season, says Paul Sirett, Soho's literary manager, 'costs only 15 for all four plays, which is the price of a seat in the gods in any other West End theatre. We hope to encourage people to come and see what's going on.' Led by Jonathan Lichtenstein's Station, the first four new plays - the others are by Holly Phillips, Marta Emmitt and Amy Rosenthal - run for a week each, followed by a revival of two plays from the STC's 1998 season.

'One reason for doing four plays is to take the pressure off individual writers; it's not fair to have one writer responsible for launching the building,' says Sirett. Most of the new work is by women, although 'this wasn't a policy: it just happened that the best writers we worked with were women.'

Do the plays share a theme? 'We haven't tried to impose a theme on the work,' says Sirett. 'We just let the best rise to the surface.' There's 'a really eclectic mixture of very different sorts of plays - some linear, some more elliptical.' Sirett says that 'it's not my job to label trends - I leave that to journalists'.

At the start of the year, several newspaper articles - sparked off by delays in the Royal Court's opening - bemoaned the 'death of new writing'. 'Oh that's absolute rubbish,' says Sirett, 'there's a whole pile of plays waiting to be produced. When we and the Court are up and running, audiences will be spoilt for choice.'

The STC plans between four and six new plays a year, but the theatre will host many more productions and co-productions. In the attic rehearsal rooms, the company will also stage readings and, says Godfrey, 'hope to produce some lunchtime plays - which is how the Soho Poly first started.' 'We're going to be here for a long time,' adds Sirett, 'and there's going to be a lot of fine new plays.'

Four Plays: Four Weeks opened on 14 March 2000

• More about Soho Theatre: Verity Bargate Award.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Soho Stories' in The Stage newspaper on 2 March 2000

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Interview with Ian Rickson of the Royal Court by Aleks Sierz

If the Royal Court has a unique theatrical tradition, it can be summed up as one of austere beauty: stagings that are pared back, clean-cut, almost puritan. Meeting Ian Rickson, the Court's 37-year-old artistic director, is like meeting this tradition in person. He's dressed in minimalist style, with simple colours - no flamboyant cravats or fussy, frilly shirts.

But if Rickson looks like a roundhead, his artistic policy since the English Stage Company moved back to its refurbished Sloane Square premises a year ago is anything but austere. The keynote is variety, and the Court's new plays have been diverse: Sarah Kane's posthumously produced 4.48 Psychosis, David Hare's My Zinc Bed and Jim Cartwright's Hard Fruit. Caryl Churchill's wonderful Far Away opened here before its West End transfer.

Much of the best work, however, has come from the United States, with young writers such as Kia Corthron, Christopher Shinn and Rebecca Gilman leading the way, and German writers such as Marius von Mayenburg and David Gieselmann taking up the torch of "in-yer-face" drama.

Has homegrown talent dried up? "No, of course not," says Rickson, "but I do think you have to be ruthless about putting on the best. American new writing is like a capsule that has dropped in, and acts as an inspiration for British writers." Conscious, as always, of the Court's history, he points out that in the 1950s George Devine's original manifesto was for the best international work as well as the best of British.

But although Rickson is a passionate keeper of the Royal Court flame, he also says, "I don't want to fetishise the past. I don't want the Court to become a museum." He points out that David Eldridge's Under the Blue Sky, put on last year, was a good example of current writing "which tries to grasp contemporary possibility and also explore the possibility of change".

It's a phrase that seems to sum up Rickson's career. Born in Charlton, south-east London, he got his love of football from his dad, a sports journalist, and his love of live drama from trips to Greenwich Theatre. His mum was an usherette at the Ambassadors theatre, one of the bases of the "Court in exile" in the West End, at the time he was appointed artistic director in 1998.

Rickson studied English at Essex university, and trained as an actor, with Edward Bond as one of his instructors. He then turned to directing, specialising in new work, and developing his particular interest in emotional subtext. Plays such as Joe Penhall's Some Voices, Jez Butterworth's Mojo and Conor McPherson's The Weir exemplify his style, which is based on the three "e"s: energy, empathy and enthusiasm.

I remember Rickson at one of the Court's afternoon play readings, bounding on stage, introducing himself and the cast and then, when no one applauded, urging the audience: "Come on, give something back." He has an appealingly informal, but courteous, style. After a journalist has asked him questions, he habitually thanks them for their trouble.

But Mr Nice can also be a bit sharp occasionally. He doesn't like comparison with his glam predecessor Stephen Daldry, or expressions such as "I bet he's a hard act to follow". Still, he's kept his nerve, telling anyone who wants to stir up trouble that Daldry is "an inspiring person" and that he feels part of the "narrative" of the Court's recent history.

Rickson gets on well with Daldry and Max Stafford-Clark, who gave him his first job at the Court, as director for the Court's Young People's Theatre. His steering of the Court from its three-year residency in the West End back to its refurbished base in February 2000 involved many sleepless nights, but the revamped theatre earned well-deserved praise.

"It was a very volatile period," he says, "with lots of anxieties about money, but the staff was really great, and when we moved back into Sloane Square everyone, I think, felt this great sense of liberation."

Although he is no showman, he has a quiet confidence which inspires trust. His playful side came out in November last year, when he replaced the anodyne recorded messages in the Court's lifts with top-flight actors' voices. Now, whenever you use the lift, you can hear Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Harriet Walter or Richard Wilson saying "Going up" or "Doors open".

And, underneath Rickson's urbane exterior, lurks an interest in dark and powerful emotions: his favourite book last year was Thomas Harris's Hannibal. "I found it absolutely compelling," he says. He also had the time to read Zadie Smith's White Teeth, "whose rambling richness wonderfully evokes London".

Away from the glare of publicity, Rickson lives with director Polly Teale, who has just had twins. Now, any sleepless nights are more likely to be due to parenthood than to funding worries.

Worry apart, you can't doubt his commitment to the Court - in 1997, he broke his wrist playing football for the theatre's team. He has an evident passion for new writing, and is well focused on the Court's historic mission. Since he's been there, he says, "playwriting has moved into a position of centrality in the culture", with the Court rediscovering the spirit of 1956. "Our work has to be radical, progressive and forward-looking," he says.

Although his public pronouncements sound a shade New Labour, and there is something a bit New Age about him, he shrugs off such comments. "I don't want to come across as some sort of trendy vicar," he once told an interviewer. "I think that the bleakest of plays can be redemptive because of the howl of change they are asking for."

In terms of taste, "redemptive" was a buzz word for him when he took over at the Court. In Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth, which he has just directed for the main stage, he finds "a touch of redemption" despite its sadness, darkness and pessimism. "It does have a real sense of humanity," he says, "and pays the audience the rare complement of not underestimating its intelligence."

The main problem for the Court, says Rickson, is "how to be radical while at the same time being economically safe". Securing adequate funding has led to controversy. There was a squall when he accepted 3 million from the Jerwood Foundation in exchange for renaming the Court's performance spaces.

Nor has the past year's programming lacked critics. Conor McPherson's The Weir, with its long West End run, was a massive box office success, but Rickson's decision to reopen the Court's Sloane Square premises with another McPherson play, Dublin Carol, was attacked by some critics.

The quality of his first year of programming has also raised a few eyebrows. New plays by old hands such as Jim Cartwright, Martin Crimp and David Hare have been criticised - with some whispers that Rickson was using big names for the opening season even when the work was sub-standard.

"No," says Rickson, "this has been a very harmonious and focused period for all of us at the Court, and I'm proud and excited about the achievements of the past year." He prefers risk to populism. "If you programme conservatively, you always fail."

In the end, you get the feeling that what makes Rickson a good director is not only his passion for exploring human emotions, but also his openness. "I'm quite self-critical," he says. "And, like any other human being, the criticism that annoys me most is the one that is true." He gets a bit touchy if you suggest he wants to stage-manage his public image.

How does he see himself? A director, says Rickson, needs "a stubborn persistence" and "an absolute fascination with people, so that you are sustained by curiosity". Earnest, friendly, likeable and determined, Rickson is a people person in whose capable hands the Court is not only safe, but prospering.

Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth ran until 10 March 2001

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'By Royal appointment' in The Stage newspaper on 29 March 2001

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Interview with Nick Hytner of the National by Aleks Sierz


When the choice of Nicholas Hytner as the new artistic director of the National Theatre was announced, the flagship's 800 staff clapped and cheered - but will popularity be enough to sustain a "white, middle-class, middle-aged male", whose appointment has already been criticised as yet another example of elitist metropolitan cliquery?

As a person, 45-year-old Hytner is open, relaxed, charming and amusing. When asked if his appointment signalled that the top job at National is the exclusive preserve of Cambridge graduates - Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and now Hytner - he says: "I am a member of all sorts of interesting minorities." He's gay and Jewish.

A few years ago, he said: "I've never decided what sex I'm looking for, or what sort of relationship I want." Now he cheerfully answers a question about gay sensibility by saying that "I've done eight shows at the National but only one is Mother Clap's Molly House", Mark Ravenhill's queer history play. Similarly, "only one - Joshua Sobol's Ghetto - was about the experience of the Jews."

What are his plans for the National? "I will be looking for work right across the spectrum because there is a loyal audience at the National, which is tremendously discerning and good deal more curious than it is normally given credit for. A lot turn up to see Mother Clap's Molly House."

More crucially, Hytner wants "to challenge writers who are at home in studio theatres to think big and address larger themes. I'm absolutely convinced that there are large audiences for confidently presented examinations of subjects we haven't yet seen at the National." At the moment, the door is wide open for performance art and avant-garde dance too.

Although Hytner's been widely quoted as not wanting "to trudge through the canon of British classics", he has nothing against traditional plays. "But we have to be convinced every time we look at an old play that it's worth doing now and that it's alive - we're not a museum."

What he's really passionate about is new writing. The "only way forward is for the National essentially to be a place which produces new work," he says with enthusiasm. And he sees the role of the National Studio as "the new writing engine-room", not just "an outpost".

What about leadership? "When I was at Manchester's Royal Exchange, there were four directors of equal status. That felt like Utopia. Obviously, at the National the buck will stop with me but at the same time I'd love to have a tight-knit group of people alongside me."

Other ideas include invitations to Continental directors, who "will bring a different way of looking at the theatrical repertoire. But the main problem is that to find a way to persuade the European directors I admire to work for a fraction of what they are used to getting."

Hytner is not dogmatic. The ensemble system, which has worked so well for Nunn, is less important to him. "I will be driven by the plays. If a show is best served by creating an ensemble that's what I'll do." What about the National's working conditions? He laughs, "I always look forward to working in theatres where backstage conditions are luxurious, but it never happens." But he promises to "address the quality of life backstage".

"The chief subsidisers of British theatre are those who work in it," he says. "We should be pampering actors - and also the permanent staff, but only when we can afford it", pointing out that the Almeida "was run on free coffee and the odd bottle of champagne - it's an example worth following.

"The National's aim must be to "investigate what it's like to be alive now". It's "an entirely contemporary theatre" and should explore "our spiritual and emotional existence". Hytner's own spiritual and emotional existence began in 1956, when he was born in Manchester, where his father was a left-wing barrister.

Hytner acted at grammar school, but "I realised very quickly that I was no good as an actor," he says. "At Cambridge, I found I could do knockabout stuff, but that I didn't have the kind of concentration an actor needs. I was more interested in the whole event than in just in my character."

As a director, Hytner was inspired "very much by the RSC of the late 1970s and early 1980s". After reading English at Cambridge, he worked in opera. "I was at the ENO at a time when a lot of directors I admire - such as Richard Jones and Deborah Warner - spread their wings in opera houses." His first work as a director was for Kent Opera.

Hytner's directing career shows his extraordinarily versatility. He's at home on stages large and small, plays epic and intimate, "from the unimaginably tragic to the frivolous". His hits include not only Miss Saigon and Carousel, but also The Madness of George III. He's created intellectually searching, visually striking productions of King Lear, The Tempest and Twelfth Night.

He has directed witty productions of Mozart's Magic Flute and Handel's Xerxes. His enchanting Wind in the Willows contrasts nicely with his in-yer-face Mother Clap. Most importantly, he is able to fill the large Olivier and Lyttelton stages with clear productions and vivid images.

Actors love him. In his current production of Mother Clap, they are full of praise for his speed, good humour and assurance. One mentions "a happy rehearsal room"; another points out that he's as quick to praise as to criticise. A third says that "you feel that if you fall, you'll be caught." Hytner radiates confidence.

He may need it. When he takes over from Nunn in April 2003, he'll have to balance the audience's desire for populist theatre - such as lavish musicals - with his as yet untested commitment to new writing. So far, he has directed few new plays, but his praise for Martin McDonagh's work - "he's so generous with what he gives to an audience" - suggests he might work with him again.

If Hytner fails to attract a more diverse public, his confident statements about questioning national identity and bringing in new audiences will sound like empty arts rhetoric, trendy but meaningless. Some subjects - such as reducing ticket prices - remain difficult. "It's a tricky one - we have to find ways of doing it without bringing down the whole pricing system." His hunch is that "a lot of people will be prepared to sit less comfortably if they can get in for less". Be prepared for rows of benches in front of the Olivier stage.

Hytner sees himself "as having no alternative now to taking risks. The way you die is by not taking risks." At the moment, his vision is quite simple. "I don't think the National is a classical theatre that presents new plays to explain the classics, but rather it is a theatre of today that presents a large number of classics."

One insider describes Hytner as a butterfly with nerves of steel - he'll need both lightness of touch and a hard edge to survive one of the toughest jobs in British theatre.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Grand National' in The Stage newspaper on 11 October 2001

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Interview with Jenny Topper of the Hampstead Theatre by Aleks Sierz

Generous lottery funding means that theatre has been mocked as a branch of the building industry. Lots of spanking refurbs - from the Royal Court to the Soho - get more column inches than the work inside them. Jenny Topper, artistic director of the Hampstead, the first specially built London theatre since the National in 1976, may fuss over the hardware, but her top priority is the software - the writers and their plays.

Now, as her new theatre opens, Topper - who hands over to the new artistic director, Anthony Clark, in the autumn - hopes that her last season will restate the aesthetic values she has promoted for the past 15 years of her tenure. 'You must put on work you believe in,' she says, 'but you also have to offer entertainment.'

At the prefab hut in London's Swiss Cottage that housed the Hampstead since 1962, Topper entertained her local audience with 'an eclectic but never boring mix of new plays'. 'Our average has been 10 shows a year - and more than 40 have gone on to transfer.' We're talking serious talent, from Steven Poliakoff to Jonathan Harvey, Terry Johnson to Alan Plater, with actors such as John Malkovitch, Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Jane Horrocks, Maureen Lipman and Rufus Sewell.

The real turkeys - Michael Frayn's Now You Know or Snoo Wilson's Moonshine - have been few and far between. But Topper is not ashamed of her loyalty to writers. They are, after all, part of her theatre's DNA. She's also clear about what she thinks is a good play. 'I love the well-made play that is crammed full of ideas and hides its subversive heart in a cloak of laughter.'

Purists of cutting-edge new writing - who see well-made plays as naff - may sniff, but Topper is unrepentant. She doesn't like 'tiny slices of life or cocky lad's plays'. Understandably, she wasn't keen on the way women's voices were marginalised in the in-yer-face 1990s - although the Hampstead staged its share of shock-fests, 'mad, bad and dangerous plays' by writers such as Philip Ridley and Brad Fraser.

In its old prefab building, the Hampstead was a fringe venue with the reputation of being a middle-class theatre, staging well-made plays of ideas whose action more often took place in studies and patios than in council estates or bedsits. A Hampstead play is one which appeals to a local audience of intellectuals. It's an unspoken truth that many come from the area's Jewish community.

'That core audience have always been there for me,' says Topper. 'And the success of the theatre owes much to their loyalty. They have great theatrical instincts and can make or break a show. But actually I've only put on a handful of Jewish plays.'

How will the brand new building affect the programming? 'My aim is to aid and abet an even more eclectic body of work.' Her first offering, Station House Opera's How To Behave, is a mix of performance, installation, video and tour. 'I started my life in theatre when I worked with Lumiere and Son,' she says. 'The world of performance art and installations had a real hold on my imagination.' Now, in her farewell season, she's returning to those roots.

Although Topper's ambition 'is to put away past notions of what a Hampstead theatre play is', the second play in the opening season, Tim Firth's The Safari Party - directed by Alan Ayckbourn - 'epitomes the well-made play', with a clear structure and a dramatic climax. But Topper denies that such entertainment is old hat.

She's also enjoying the freedom offered by her new theatre, with its choice of different stage sizes, and its flexible seating that holds between 150 and 325 people. An upcoming play by Tamsin Oglesby (US and Them) 'has about 16 locations,' she says, 'so boy am I glad that we now have wing space and the ability to fly in scenery.'

The new building also allows her to stage Stephen Adly Guirgis's In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings: 'It has 12 actors playing 16 characters and we just didn't have enough dressing rooms before.' In fact, Topper is as proud of her dressing rooms and loos as she is of the new curving auditorium. Guirgis is American and Topper has been 'hugely encouraged by the sheer energy of American writing in the past two years - despite the collapse of subsidy there during the Clinton decade'.

In Britain, however, 'we're dealing with a generation that draws its inspiration from television. And that is a terrible place for stage writers to begin.' Also, 'we live in an extraordinarily cynical and brittle time in this country - cynicism is only matched by sentimentality in being the death of good theatre.' She agrees that many young British writers lack ambition.

As one of a handful of female artistic directors, she is conscious that 'feisty women make people uncomfortable. In order to be emphatic, women often have to take their voice up a register - and that can sound strident, which unnerves people.' She says 'people' but I think she means men.

We talk in one of the new changing rooms, and fiftysomething Topper grimaces at the mirror. 'Just look at me,' she says, pointing at the wrinkles. 'Who is that person? I've been losing sleep since the autumn. It's amazing how vulnerable a big project like this makes you feel.' Strains apart, she's clear about her mission. 'You owe it to the writers and public to programme a broad spectrum of work, some of which will appeal to the few, some to the many.' As she pauses to wipe a coffee stain, I'm convinced that both building and plays are in good hands.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Curtain Up for Act Two' in The Independent newspaper on 12 February 2003

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Interview with Abigail Morris of the Soho by Aleks Sierz

Abigail Morris, the inspirational head of London's Soho Theatre, is modest about her achievements. "I never planned my theatre career," she says. "It's been improvised - things just turned up. It's all happened by accident." Perhaps that's true, but chance has a habit of happening to those who know how to exploit it.

Certainly, she was inspired by theatre at an early age. "I sang in Finchley Children's Music Group," she says. "I was 10, and we did Potter Thompson, an opera by Gordon Crosse. It involved the four elements - air, fire, earth and water - and I remember thinking how well the air costumes, which flapped about when the kids moved, represented air."

Morris had a good memory and "I became like an assistant director because I could remember all the moves of the cast". After a rocky start at secondary school in north London, where Morris was a bit of rebel, she went on to develop her lifelong interest in performance. "I fancied myself as an actress," she says, "and did some acting in sixth form."

Then she went to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where she studied Social Psychology. "I also did a year of acting in drama groups," she says. And adds, with a smile about the coincidence, "I directed Tony Marchant's A Big Raspberry, which had originally been staged by Soho Poly."

At Cambridge, she set up a feisty women's theatre company, Trouble and Strife. "There were all these talented young women, but no parts for them, no plays for them," she says. But although she wanted to act, Trouble and Strife wanted her to direct. "You'd be very good," they told her. At Edinburgh, her version of Present Continuous won an award.

At the time, "I was really naive: I didn't know that theatre specialists existed so I used to do directing, designing, lighting and sound - the lot," she laughs. "But it's a brilliant way of learning."

After doing some innovative research into female body images, she graduated with a very good degree in 1987. "I'm quite evenly balanced between the arts and the sciences," she says. "I like the logical, scientific thinking as well as the freer arts way."

In the same year, after success on the fringe, she worked as assistant director to Max-Stafford Clark on Caryl Churchill's Serious Money at the Royal Court. "I also worked as a filing clerk; I was a really good filing clerk," she says with a toothy grin.

After being a visiting fellow at Cambridge at the start of the 1990s, directing the British premiere of Cole Porter's Leave It to Me, she freelanced for the Soho Poly. With Ian Rickson, she co-directed the company's last show at Riding House Street - and then the job of artistic director came up.

"I didn't think of applying," she says, "because at the age of 27 I thought I was too young." But, after some persuasion and two gruelling interviews, Morris was appointed in 1992. Her friends thought she was mad - the company was bust and one of its shows played to 3% audiences.

But, against the odds, she turned the company around. With Mark Godfrey, now the Soho's administrative producer, she managed to convince the Arts Council to fund them for six months. "I persuaded Nancy Meckler to bring a Shared Experience show in," she laughs. "And luckily that first season was a success."

Three years at the unexciting Cockpit theatre, when the company almost changed its name, were followed by a time in the wilderness, after they were kicked out in 1995. Still, finding and converting their present venue in Dean Street, Soho, which opened in 2000, turned the tide. In the first year, she says, "We had 80 per cent audiences."

Yet running this theatre presents unique challenges. For a start, its role is to stage first-time writers - which can be a dodgy box office proposition because, by definition, few people have heard of them. Also, Morris points out, "We are the only company that has a Writers Centre, which costs a lot to run, and doesn't bring in money."

She also has to balance "the really interesting plays" that might not be very popular, but are stylistically or structurally innovative, with more crowd-pleasing fare. "My mission is threefold: developing new writers, producing new writers and developing new audiences. In this building, we have a lovely young audience."

This year, for the first time, Morris has toured one of her plays, Amanda Whittington's Be My Baby. "It was really great, getting out of London and really refreshing to have a different kind of audience, and bringing schools in to see the show."

Now, with the boom in new writing, Morris worries about overproduction. "The new writing scene is really blossoming. I think there is a danger of over-saturation. London audiences, for example, are spoilt for choice and with so many new writing theatres chasing writers there is a finite amount of really good writing out there."

Like you'd expect from someone in her position, she rejects the idea of a "typical Soho play". But her taste is "for plays with a strong story" which are "accessible" and not just for hardcore coterie audiences. "I'm not so keen on the in-yer-face style of play" - although her theatre has staged Alex Jones's Noise and Peter Rose's Snatch.

She has pioneered the short, no-interval 90-minute play, and a good proportion of the Soho's output is by women. "Last year, almost all our plays were by young women," she says. Her biggest successes have been plays by female writers - Diane Samuel's Kindertransport and Be My Baby.

Morris comes across as unpretentious, but very determined. "I'm a person who likes to make things work," she says, and you feel she means it. "I also have a big thing about not letting people down."

To relax, she loves to go swimming. A mother of two children, aged five and seven, she loves the reality check that kids provide. "It keeps your feet on the ground," she laughs. "I was once accused by one of my children of not having a real job: as a director, I never actually do anything - I just tell other people what to do." Theatre, say her kids, is just a "grown up version of let's pretend!"

A practising Jew, who doesn't work on Friday evenings, Morris appreciates the fact that the new Soho Theatre building was formerly the Great West End Synagogue. "We didn't chose it for that reason, but it's immensely fitting: the Hebrew word for synagogue means 'house of meeting' and that's what a theatre is as well."

The worst you can say about Morris is that she's a better administrator than a director. "Juggling two jobs is never easy," she says. "I really like looking at budgets and making them work. But I'm most at home when I'm directing." She also points out that plays she's directed, such as Shan Khan's Office, have won awards and done well at the box office. She also says that people usually only criticise female artistic directors, such as Jude Kelly, for being unable to hack it as both administrators and directors. "I wonder whether, as a woman, people knock you more?"

She's also been accused of keeping too low a profile. "Well, I'm against this cult of the artistic director," she says. "When I'm praised, I sometimes think that it's a fluke - or that it's the actors who were great."

She also draws on her experience of doing a counselling course. "One of theories is that part of you does that which is most scary - as a Jew, what you're most frightened of is being public, being in charge - so that anyone could just turn around and say, 'It's all your fault.'" It's that old fear of being found out.

Yet Morris clearly relishes a challenge. And, although her hands are full at Soho, she also has ambitions. "Because I loved the experience of doing opera, I'd like to direct more music productions," she says. But, being typically realistic, she adds, "I'm not sure when I'd have the time."

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Keeping on the Write Side' in The Stage newspaper on 13 February 2003

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Interview with Anthony Clark of the Hampstead by Aleks Sierz

The bright, new Hampstead theatre in north London opened to widespread fanfares earlier this year. With all the hype and spin about it being the first specially built London theatre since the National, there was a real danger that the building would get all the column inches, and the shows, which is what audiences dig deep into their pockets for, might be overlooked.

Not if the new artistic director, diffident 45-year-old Anthony Clark, can help it. He has a good record for promoting new writing: an impressive cv includes Martin Crimp's Orange Tree debut; Tara Arts' first two shows; and the 1997 launch of The Door at Birmingham Rep, dedicated exclusively to new work. But as he unveils his first Hampstead season, there's no avoiding the hard questions.

The new building has a staff of about 40, including part-timers and catering, and its seating - about 325 - is roughly double that of the old prefab it replaces. This means that even if each show did 100% business in terms of the old Hampstead theatre, it would only be doing 50% business in the new space. So, is the new theatre viable?

Clark looks thoughtful. "Yes, it's viable as a theatre, but the real question is: is it viable as a new writing venue?" So how do you fill it? "First, it's got to have plays that people are interested in. Second, I have to lead the audience - by showing them what I like. If they don't come, then I have to find out what the audience wants and see if I can deliver without compromising my artistic beliefs," he says candidly.

He wants writers to "feel it's a home for their work". The theatre now gets 1,500 scripts a year, "an increase due to the new building - and with the new regime of course everybody resubmits their work," he laughs, before paying tribute to the work of literary manager Jeanie O'Hare.

The new season opens with Clare McIntyre's The Maths Tutor, and includes new plays by veterans Stephen Lowe and Hanif Kureishi, as well as Gregory Burke's The Straits, his follow up to Gagarin Way - but isn't this all too bland and predictable? Clark looks at me severely over his specs. "Have you seen the plays yet?" he demands. "Wait before you judge."

Aren't these writers old voices rather new ones? "That's ridiculously ageist, and implies that new writing is purely a cult of the young. And no, it's not - that's just one stream. Nobody would say that Caryl Churchill or Harold Pinter or David Hare don't write new plays."

Okay, then, is British new writing any good? "New writing is the most direct way that theatre can talk about the times in which we live," he says, a touch indirectly. "Most new writing, even if it's bad, is someone wrestling with real life." When I ask if new writing is in crisis, he gets animated. He doesn't think of plays in tabloid terms: "I'm more worried about finding the next new play that I want to see. Every time I go to the Royal Court, Soho or the Cottesloe they're completely sold out - there's a great appetite for new plays."

Maybe there are just too many of them? "Nobody says there's too many new films, or too many new records, or too many new novels - it's ridiculous. The challenge is to make new work culturally important. It mystifies me that new writing is considered risky whereas everything else that is called 'new' is okay."

One of Clark's ambitions is change audience perceptions. We talk about the idea of the well-made, middle-class "Hampstead play": "It's a strange idea. I mean, the plays I've directed here, such as Abi Morgan's Tender, weren't so-called Hampstead plays. And I was amazed when I went to an aftershow discussion: the audience overcame my prejudice towards them because they responded in an extremely empathetic and vigorous way."

Hampstead will stage eight to 10 plays a year, but will it put on difficult, innovative drama that may turn people away? "All new writing is a challenge," Clark says evasively, then concedes: "Okay, maybe some work is more challenging. But I don't think of it in those terms. I don't want to make some plays secondclass citizens: I don't want to feel that I ought to do a play just because it appeals to the professionals."

Clark doesn't want to offend his old audience, but he's also looking for new bums on seats. Inspired by the National's 10 a ticket season, Clark is running his own cutprice scheme, in which every week 650 seats are offered for 6.50 to under-26-year-olds and anyone on benefit. The over-60s, however, pay 9.

But will people come to a venue that's not in central London? "There's always been confusion about the name: it's called Hampstead but you have to get off at Swiss Cottage tube station. In the past, there were always latecomers who had got off at Hampstead. I'd like the Jubilee Line to tell more people about us."

Finally, Clark admits his taste is on the line: "Maybe I've got it all wrong - maybe my taste will not appeal." Still, at least he knows his own mind and has a quiet, tough certainty. "The more new writing there is, the better it is."

The Maths Tutor opened on 29 September.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as ‘In His Own Footsteps’ in The Stage newspaper on 11 September 2003.

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