Terry Grimley meets Birmingham Rep's new artistic director, Rachel Kavanaugh

Rachel Kavanaugh, the first female artistic director in the 93-year history of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is surveying her realm.

"It's great to be here, because I feel it's for real now," she reflects. "When I was coming up during the summer, the days were crazy because I was here for one day a week. There are a lot of meetings at the moment, but it's very interesting because everything is theatre-related.

"Being an artistic director is another skill and another job. I always thought that part of being a good director was creating an atmosphere where people can do their best and not be afraid of making fools of themselves.

"I hope I'll be doing that in this building."

Unlike her predecessor Jonathan Church, she is not taking over a theatre which is out of touch with its public. Church's policy of cranking up the quantity and range of work staged at the Rep has paid off in bringing people back.

"I'm coming at a moment where the theatre and programming of theatre seems to be in many ways successfully reaching audiences," she agrees. "The Rep seems to have developed an identity with an emphasis on large-scale contemporary drama in the main house. I think it would be foolish to change that.

"I did Arcadia, The Madness of King George III and The Lady in the Van here. I've enjoyed doing that and seen it work with the audience, but I'm also interested in continuing the work I did when I did the adaptation of A Doll's House here, so there may be more classics."

She has inherited a programme which will take the theatre well into the New Year, so her own first season will be next year's spring and summer.

"Jonathan, God bless him, has programmed up to the second week of February, and then Kneehigh are coming with Cymbeline. I'm hoping my first season will include a major production of a young contemporary playwright, a classic, and then I hope a major site-specific commission, a community drama.

Those are three things I hope it will include. For the contemporary play I'm hoping to get some well-known actors. We're a big regional theatre and should have some big names."

As for the site-specific show, those for whom the words "community drama" conjure up cringe-making images may be reassured to know that they do for Rachel Kavanaugh, too - it's just that there's no other handy term.

"I thought it was important for my first season to do something that was for Birmingham and that you could only do in Birmingham. If what I want to do comes off, it will be pretty exciting. It's also about the difficulty of getting people into this building early in the summer, when they want to be outside."

Kavanaugh began her career, pre-university, working on Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare season in the Rep's studio, in which one play was directed by her godmother, Judi Dench.

More recently she returned as an associate director, working with Jonathan Church on his revival of David Hare's National Theatre trilogy, as well as directing plays by Ibsen, Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard.

It means she is already fully aware of the demands of the Rep's vast stage and auditorium, which for much its history - though perhaps not so much in recent years - has been regarded as problematic.

"I love the scale of the stage," she says. "I have been very lucky in my experiences of it. I have worked a lot in large spaces - Chichester, Regent's Park, Stratford - as a director. I like the epic nature of the stage here, and I like the fact that we are able to stage these big plays about big issues. I think that's a great thing, and not all reps can do that. I see that as a challenge - and it has to be the most comfortable auditorium in Britain."

Shakespeare, a key component of Bill Alexander's Rep, largely disappeared under Jonathan Church. Will he have a place in Kavanaugh's planning?

"It's a very interesting question. I have done a lot of Shakespeare before, both at Stratford and mostly at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. I've done ten or 11 Shakespeare plays and I would feel very sad if there was no place for it, but we would probably only do it under special circumstances at the moment. We have to be doing something the RSC isn't offering."

The Rep also incorporates one of the few spaces in Britain dedicated to new writing in its studio, The Door.

"I'm very conscious that I'm artistic director of these two spaces, and I'm looking at ways of linking them. Although I think it's important that The Door has its own identity, it's all the Birmingham Rep.

"The more diverse our audiences become the better, and they do seem quite mixed to me. I think it's quite hard to say the audience in Birmingham is one thing. There's an element of something for everyone and I think that means we have many different audiences. The audience for The History Boys was quite different to the audience for Sugar Mummies."

Though she is looking forward to getting to know Birmingham better, she is impressed by how vibrant it seems to be.

"I first worked in the city 18 years ago and it's unrecognisable. I think it's a really exciting city. I don't know it well enough, but because I'm going to make my home here I'm going to have to get to know it a lot better.

"We had two touring companies in the building at the same time recently and the actors from both companies were so buoyed up both by being in the Rep but also by Birmingham. They were saying 'it's a proper city'."