Centre Stage: Neal Foster

Published October 2, 2008

Birmingham Stage Company has come a long way since its humble beginnings. In fact, the company is everywhere you turn in London at the moment. Its popular 3D production of two Horrible Histories is currently playing at the Bloomsbury theatre, David Almond’s Skellig comes to the Shaw in November and the company returns to the Bloomsbury over Christmas with its adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

The man behind the madness is Neal Foster, who started the company 16 years ago armed only with a young actor’s passion and the nerve to ask famous actors for help. One of the only actor-managers in Britain, Foster both directs and stars in many of his projects, as well as overseeing the hectic schedule of the company, which has become renowned for its productions for children. Taking a snatched lunch break, Foster tells Caroline Bishop why he loves creating children’s theatre.

How did you come to start Birmingham Stage Company in 1991?
NF: At that time it was partly to get an Equity card because it was at that period when you couldn’t do [acting] unless you had an Equity card. I didn’t know at that point that it was going to change the rest of my life having set up this company. Then I went to drama school, the Bristol Old Vic, where the principal was very keen for me to keep the company alive. When I came out I did six months rep and then decided that I’d like to start doing some professional productions with the company and of course didn’t have any money. So that’s when I sort of traipsed myself round to all the stage doors of West End theatres asking various well-known actors if they would let me interview them on stage. If they would do it for free and if the theatre would do it for nothing then I could keep the money [from ticket sales] and put on the first show that we did which was The Seagull.

What was the reaction from the actors you asked [which included Judi Dench, Jack Lemmon and Peter O’Toole]?
NF: I think it was a credit to our industry. I think only three people said no. In fact not only did they say yes but virtually all of them picked up their diaries immediately and said when did you want to do it? and pencilled it in straight away.

The way Dustin Hoffman described it was, he saw his younger self standing in front of him saying please will you help me. I think most actors, however successful they were, remember what it was like to start out. I was 23, and clearly trying to get something on.

Did you ever imagine the company would grow to be as well known as it is now?
NF: No; it really is a miracle. We have never been funded. We have been supported by Birmingham City Council but mostly from the word go 97 per cent of our income has come from box office. It’s had to rely on…choosing the right plays and making it good enough that people want to come back and see the next one. But where we sort of secured the financial future of the company and what’s been really exciting is that we began to specialise in theatre for children. Those are the shows that have really taken off in terms of big productions, because some of our tours now run for two years.

Why did you choose to specialise in children’s theatre?
NF: Well I was very fortunate in that one of the jobs I did straight out of drama school was appearing in Fantastic Mr Fox. So when I was thinking what am I going to do at the Old Rep theatre [in Birmingham] for Christmas, I thought I [would] do a show for children.
I’ve always absolutely adored children and I enjoy doing children’s theatre because the characters you get in children’s theatre don’t really exist in contemporary theatre anymore. We’re doing Skellig now, in Birmingham and London, and I’m playing Skellig. This is a man who is discovered in a garage, they think he’s a tramp and he turns out to be an angel. Those sorts of wonderful characters really should be in adult drama but for some reason our writers for adults aren’t writing those sorts of stories with highly theatrical characterisations. They’re great to play because they really stretch you in a different way.

You have done several adaptations of Roald Dahl plays too…
NF: One of my favourite parts ever is Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine, which I’ve played quite a few times. It’s one of the best parts I’ve ever played. It’s the most extraordinary character. I love the whole variety that you can do if you are lucky enough to go from adult theatre to children’s theatre.

Is the reaction of children different to that of adults?

NF: Well I think they are much more difficult as an audience. Most adults have learnt that if they are bored they should just go to sleep. But children if they’re bored start talking and throwing sweets and going to the loo and coughing. So they are a challenge in the sense that you know they are not going to sit quietly if you’ve got it wrong, they are going to make it very clear that you’ve got it wrong. So the task for me is can we hold their attention? We are told that children can’t concentrate for more than half an hour any more, but the fact is time and time again with our shows I’ve seen that you can hold their attention for two hours solid without hearing a sound out of them – unless you want to hear a sound.

You act and direct. Do you prefer one over the other?
NF: Oh yeah definitely acting. But I love the whole process of producing a show because… as an actor what I’ve found, when a show is over, it really is over. You almost wonder whether it ever happened. Within two hours the set is out of that theatre. The whole world that you have been living in is completely obliterated, almost like it was a dream. Whereas if you produce it, you possess it almost like a child; it was yours and it always will remain yours. I love the ownership that being a producer gives you, as well as responsibility. There’s a different sort of satisfaction it can give you.

You’re reviving your 2005 production of The Jungle Book. Is it the same production?
NF: Well I hope it’s an enhanced version. We’ve looked at everything. We’ve addressed the music, costumes, choreography. By general consent we all think it’s a much better show. It’s tighter, cleaner, funnier, more fun. We’re very pleased with that.

And you have a new set of Horrible Histories coming next year…
NF: The new show is World War One and World War Two – very easy topics to do in two hours! Terry Deary creates the scripts – he’s so clever at condensing big subjects and also clever at handling potentially delicate issues and making them still horrible history in the fun way that horrible history works. Children love all the gruesome aspects of it. It doesn’t spare any of the Kings of history, it concentrates on their vile and vicious side, and they love all that.

But also we’ve got Bogglevision. The set is a video screen and in the second half it becomes 3D. When you go to the Spanish Armada for example, the ships are firing cannons into the audience. The effect is fantastic and the kids absolutely adore it. But what’s great is that there is no 3D in the first half and everyone loves the first half and then the second half when the 3D comes on it’s like a very thick layer of icing on the cake. It really adds to the excitement but it doesn’t take over.

You have so much going on. How many people do you have managing the workload?

NF: There’s four of us in the office now turning out the sort of output that I think other companies need 100 people for. I don’t quite know how we do it. We are very good at thinking ahead, making sure we are on top of everything before it hits us. There are always busy periods. But we’ve got five shows before Christmas and we’re sitting in the office and we’ve lots to do but we’re not swamped, which is great!

CB