Stephen’s theatrical career began at the newly-opened National Theatre in the mid 1970s where he worked as a translator of modern and classical German plays, until his own original work began to be produced.
In Brighton in the mid 1980s Stephen co-founded the shortlived Thumbscrew Theatre, and in 1987 Alarmist Theatre which continued to produce and tour plays in until the late 1990s. These companies produced many of Stephen’s early plays, adaptations and translations.
Between 1987 and 2004, parallel with the running of Alarmist Theatre and the editing of The Printer’s Devil magazine, Stephen was Writer-in-Residence at Lewes Prison. While working at the prison, he invited a music theatre team from Glyndebourne to conduct a workshop with the inmates. This became an annual event, and led to Stephen’s longstanding involvement with the opera house. He was the librettist for the Glyndebourne children’s opera Misper (1997, revived 1998) and their acclaimed youth opera Zoë (2000). Subsequently he was commissioned with composer John Lunn to write Tangier Tattoo for the Glyndebourne Tour (2005).
In 2000 Stephen began collaborations with Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He provided the libretto for Birtwistle’s chamber opera The Io Passion (2004) and also wrote the text for his carol The Gleam for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve 2003, and for Birtwistle’s oratorio for the Bach Festival in Leipzig 2010 – Angel Fighter. This was reprised in the BBC proms in 2011.
In 2009 the BBC broadcast his radio series The Romantic Road, part travelogue, part biography, in which he revisited the home cities of the German idealist philosophers who influenced his life.
Stephen was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the Guildhall School of Music in 2014, and was made Professor of Dramatic Writing in 2018. With his colleague, Julian Philips, he wrote the libretto for The Tale of Januarie, an adaptation of Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, in Middle English. This was staged to great acclaim at the school in 2018.
Stephen has also continued to work in the field of participatory opera, often in collaboration with Orlando Gough. They have produced three operas together – The Finnish Prisoner (Paddock Productions/Finnish National Opera) in 2007, Imago (Glyndebourne 2013) and Bloom Britannia (Barefoot Opera 2022).
A new chamber opera Raising Icarus, a collaboration with the composer Michael Zev Gordon, was performed in Birmingham in 2022. Amy, an adaptation of Conrad’s Amy Foster, with the composer Rolf Martinsson, is under commission at the Swedish Royal Opera, date tbc.
His Selected Poems (2018) are published by Parvenu Press.