After three years in post as artistic director of Leicester’s Curve, Nikolai Foster is in the curious position of having delivered bigger audiences and record turnover yet receives criticism for programming popular musicals at a subsidised venue, including the recent An Officer and a Gentleman. He tells Matthew Hemley he’s standing firm
Theatre saved Nikolai Foster. The artistic director of Leicester Curve is not being flippant when he says this over breakfast in a London hotel, but is instead telling the story of a particularly difficult time for him when he was a young schoolboy. “It literally saved me,” he stresses.
The 12-year-old Foster did not have much of an interest in theatre, but discovered it by accident when seeking an escape from a campaign of merciless bullying at school. He found both a haven from his tormentors and a world in which he would later build his career.
“I was really badly bullied. It went on for quite a while and it was severe,” he says. “One time I was being chased down a school corridor by a gang and I thought: ‘Oh fuck, this is properly scary.’ It was after school and there was no one around. I was running and I remember seeing this poster for auditions for a production of Oliver! and it had that day’s date on it.”
Thinking fast on his feet, Foster made a beeline for the music block, knowing he’d find other people and safety. What he didn’t know, however, was just how significant that moment was going to be in terms of the rest of his life.
“I literally burst in, with no intention of auditioning and having never really thought about theatre,” he recalls. “I said: ‘I am here to audition’ and the door shut behind me. I was safe. And suddenly, before I knew it, I was playing Noah Claypole in Oliver!. For a little time, I was shielded from those people who had bullied me. I felt like I was liberated. Theatre literally saved me. That day is where my journey started.”
Despite the suffering he endured, the Foster who sits before me is reflective but forthright, gentle but firm, warm, considered and calm. And successful. He has been artistic director at Curve, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, since the start of 2015. He works alongside chief executive Chris Stafford to lead the venue’s artistic vision.
Curve is both a receiving house and a production house, creating and developing work under the banner Made at Curve. “We are both under one roof, and we don’t see any distinction between our own Made at Curve work and the touring programme that we have, which we curate with the same love and passion,” Foster says.
He describes his partnership with Stafford as like being “naughty brothers”, adding: “When I arrived I wanted to learn more about the managerial side of things, as I don’t want to be locked away in a rehearsal room. And that is the key to our success. It’s collaborative and messy and no one feels like they are stepping on each others’ toes.”
He admits, however, that he did not realise how long it would take him to “get the house in order” when he joined, so he could focus on the artistic side of the business. It was, he says, only in the middle of his second year that he felt it happening.
“Curve was very business orientated [before I joined],” he says. “It was strategically led. I wanted to shake that up and make it function a bit more like a producing house.”
Before his arrival, producing work tended to focus on Christmas, but Foster says there is now more of a consistent spread throughout the year. Under his leadership, Curve transferred its first production to the West End in 2016, with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which had a 12-week run at Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Often, though, it’s the venue’s musical output that generates the most headlines. Recently, the theatre has staged its own production of Sunset Boulevard, the UK premiere of Cameron Mackintosh’s national tour of Miss Saigon and a new musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman, now touring the UK.
But while the musicals are the juggernauts of the theatre’s programme, Foster is keen to point out that that drama is of equal importance. “When I came to Curve, one of my mandates from the Arts Council was to develop our drama audiences,” he says. “I don’t know the exact stats of how many plays were being done before, but they were few and far between. And they were seen as challenging, as ultimately audiences weren’t coming.”
During his tenure so far, Curve has staged plays including Our Country’s Good, A Streetcar Named Desire and What the Butler Saw. “We have made sure the audience is exposed to a real diversity of plays, in terms of form and in terms of style,” he says. “And we have carried on from there, doing more plays, and edgier ones too.”
It was a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Cathy Tyson as Lady Bracknell, that made Foster realise the local audiences were hooked. “We knew we had them locked in,” he says, claiming there was a real appetite for the plays Curve was staging, some of them more well known, others – such as Pink Sari Revolution – less so.
Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw was programmed as a natural progression from Oscar Wilde’s Earnest. “Orton was inspired by Wilde, and he took it to the next level, so we knew if the audiences had an appetite for Wilde we could take them to Orton,” he says, adding that everything programmed has been part of a “carefully curated and carefully considered narrative”.
The programming has worked, as demonstrated by consecutive years of record turnover – hitting £11.7 million in 2016/2017 – and nearly a million people seeing Curve’s work in one of its theatre spaces or at a touring production last year.
But critics have publicly questioned whether a theatre in receipt of Arts Council funding should be producing obviously commercial work such as An Officer and a Gentleman.
Foster is diplomatic, but clearly frustrated, when he replies. “I would not be human if I said it didn’t hurt, personally and professionally, as both Chris and I love the theatre,” he says. “It becomes your child, your lover, your husband, wife, whatever, and it’s attacking our child, our life, the thing we have devoted ourselves to.”
He continues: “When we came in, Curve was in a place of stability, and it was the time to see if we could make a difference and grow on that. Of course [criticism of its new direction] hurts. It’s disappointing people don’t see that journey.”
Addressing An Officer and a Gentleman in particular, he questions why Curve has been criticised for producing a jukebox musical. Foster becomes animated, even fiery. “God forbid a regional theatre that is meant to be about ‘art’ would do a jukebox musical,” he says. “I mean, how shortsighted, as those shows are the future.”
He criticises what he sees as a “narrow group of individuals” who think theatre has to be a certain way. “But young people, writers, theatremakers and audiences say it’s something else and we listen to them,” he says. “We are interested in what the artist and audience have to say, not the critics. It’s the taxpayer that funds us.”
He goes on to say that the critics who attack the venue for its musical theatre choices are the very same who only make the trip from London to Leicester to see the big musicals. “I understand how, nowadays, there isn’t the finance for critics to see everything, but it’s frustrating that the attacks are sometimes very personal and don’t engage on any level with what’s happening here.”
He adds: “It’s disingenuous too, and inverse snobbery, because they come for the big things, like Officer, but they won’t come to see Pink Sari. They shoot us down for doing something popular, but it’s popular work that gets them on the train up here.”
Foster is not afraid to make populist work and is frustrated at the snobbery he feels exists towards musical theatre and its performers. “There is an elitism within British theatre and the feeling of ‘establishment’,” he says. “You really see it when you’re working on a musical.”
When we meet, Foster is on his way to a dance call for a forthcoming production of White Christmas at the theatre. He’s in awe of the talent he has already seen, and at a loss to understand why musical theatre performers are so often pigeonholed.
“If you can express yourself as beautifully as these people do, through dance and voice and movement and acting, then you can do a play, you can do Shakespeare, anything.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Aside from cleaning the village hall on Saturday mornings, it was in the “men’s furnishings” (underwear!) department in Harvey Nichols, Leeds.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Alongside my college studies, I worked one day each week at West Yorkshire Playhouse for a year. I did everything from photocopying press cuttings to assisting the education team and learning how a regional producing house works. Jude Kelly was the artistic director; the experience blew my teenage mind.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
What a complicated and ruthless business this can be at times. This wouldn’t have changed any of my decisions, but when things get tough it’s helpful to remember some sagacious thoughts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My English teacher, Barbara Neate, would have to be my biggest professional influence. When I was 13, she introduced us to plays like The Caretaker and A Taste of Honey. What a travesty it is that teachers don’t have the same freedoms today and that arts are being sidelined in our classrooms.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Auditions are probably the most unpleasant and unnatural part of the process. The best advice I can give is to be yourself; trust the work you have done on the play and your unique response to it. You can never second-guess what a director or a creative team are searching for, so trying to fit into what you imagine this might be is never going to work. Do your research and don’t worry what the director thinks.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I was always interested in the police force. I have a lifelong fascination with Peter Falk’s Columbo. A career as a detective in 1970s California might have been good.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
On the first preview I kiss the stage to wish the actors and crew a safe and harmonious first performance.
Foster’s own background was initially in performing. Born in Copenhagen to a British father and Finnish mother with Russian great-great-grandparents (“I am a real Heinz 57,” he jokes), Foster moved to the UK aged three. His dad was an engineer and his mum worked in a shop.
Based in Yorkshire, his family moved around a lot and often struggled financially. He attended a comprehensive school where, he says, “ideas and diversity of thought were embraced”.
After the bullying incident that led to his starring role in Oliver!, Foster’s newfound passion for theatre was fuelled by an English teacher who introduced him to London’s Royal Court and took students on trips to see Royal Shakespeare Company productions. Foster was able to take part in more theatre productions, and also to produce his own version of Look Back in Anger, on a budget of £400.
The students were encouraged to participate in all sorts of roles, from building sets to marketing productions. But, despite enjoying the theatre side of his time at secondary school, the academic side eventually became too much for Foster.
“I packed A levels in halfway through,” he says. “I rebelled as I thought the system was geared to passing exams, and up until then school had been about learning and being curious and exploring. Now it was just about learning things to pass an exam.”
His leaving school was “terrifying for his parents”, he says, but he then went to Leeds, took a part-time job and enrolled on a theatre studies course at a college there.
Here his eyes were opened to the possibility of applying to drama schools in London to pursue his passion. So after college, Foster joined Drama Centre London. His mum footed the £1,000 tuition bill on her credit card, and Foster took out loans to cover his living costs. “I only finished paying them off in my second year of Curve,” he laughs.
Although he studied acting at Drama Centre, Foster soon realised he was more interested in watching the school’s co-founder, Christopher Fettes, directing other students, including Michael Fassbender.
At the end of the second year – when the school did its annual “cull” of the students it didn’t think should continue into the third year – Foster received the dreaded blow. “They said to me: ‘You are not concentrating on your acting and you seem interested in everything other than acting. You’re out.’ ”
He adds: “All I could think about was my mother and the fact she had bankrupted herself and the whole thing had been paid for on her credit card. I thought I’d failed and would be going back to my little village in Yorkshire and that it had all been a dream.”
Thinking in the moment, however, Foster had a radical idea. “I don’t know where it came from, but I said: ‘All right, I will come back as a director. I will assist Christopher in my third year and I will learn about being a director, as that is what I am interested in’,” he says.
Foster laughs recalling how Fettes, apparently the man on whom former Drama Centre student Anthony Hopkins based his screen portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, gave him one of his “terrifying looks”.
“I thought: ‘What am I doing? I’ve fucked this all up’,” he says. But miraculously, and despite the fact the school didn’t offer a director’s course at that point, Foster’s quick-witted response worked. “Christopher said: ‘All right’, and I was able to complete my third year.”
During that year, Foster learned more about directing by taking a position as a rehearsal assistant for a show at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. He was later accepted on to the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme, working in Sheffield under Michael Grandage, where he came into contact with the likes of Josie Rourke and Erica Whyman.
One of his first major directing jobs was A Chorus Line in Sheffield, in 2003. It was a fantastic opportunity, but proved something of a setback for Foster when he embarked on a freelance career.
“After I did that, people think you can only do musicals,” he says. “You end up being pigeonholed. At Curve I have managed to break that, and I can do plays and musicals there. But if I was freelance again…” he trails off.
Foster goes on to recall how a “very well-known theatre owner” once told him: “You will never work for me as you only do musicals.” But, Foster insists: “A director who can command a large-scale musical and bring all that together, and tell a story with integrity and vision, and ambition, can also relate that to a two-hander or Shakespeare.”
As it happens, Foster reckons he has directed more plays than musicals as a freelance – a production of Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey in 2013 being a stand-out.
But whatever the genre, he sees the role of a director as the same. “Some of your tools are different, but you are telling a story, and telling it with integrity and with a real sense of how it sits within the world today.”
… Treating performers fairly
We are more and more aware of how actors are treated when they come in to audition for us. We made a snap decision about dance calls for our production of White Christmas. Usually with dance calls, you make a cut there and then, with successful people staying behind to sing. If you have 30 people in a room, then 15 or 20 people know they have failed and have to walk out in front of their contemporaries. It’s heartbreaking. So we decided to invite those who have been successful to come back to sing the next day. It’s small gestures like that. We also make sure everyone gets a card after they audition to say thank you.
… On musical theatre
It’s seen as a second-rate art form. It’s only now that it’s becoming a bit more fashionable, and some of our larger organisations are starting to engage with it as an art form. Look at Broadway. The American musical is seen as the American art form. It’s seen as an elite art form. Not in a snobby way but as one of their national gems. Broadway culture embraces that art form fully and it’s part of the landscape.
… On Curve’s challenges
Curve is enormous. The challenges are huge, in terms of dealing with the co-producers and creating content to allow us to continue as a producing house. If we don’t have income from touring and worldwide, we will not be able to continue. It’s as simple as that.
Foster’s forthcoming productions for Curve include the world premiere of Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual and White Christmas. The venue is also working on a raft of new commissions by artists including musical-writing team Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, playwright Bryony Lavery and composer and lyricist Grant Olding.
As audiences continue to come to Curve, Foster admits the need for more space – in the form of a new planned education hub and extra seats in the theatre – is acute. “This massive state-of-the-art building is bursting at the seams with artists, members of the community and creativity, and we need more space,” he says. “That’s exhilarating and exciting.”
But he hopes that as Curve continues to develop, so too will people’s view of the team running the venue. “On the surface, Chris and I are labelled white, middle-class men – those who are traditionally the gatekeepers of British theatre,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like we are being bundled in with the theatre establishment. But we are not that. It’s not what we stand for or where we come from.”
He adds: “It’s wrong to judge people by the colour of their skin and to make a judgement on what we might be about because of that. One of the things that brought Chris and I together is our background and the class we grew up in. That has made us strong. And it dictates everything we do here.”
Born: Copenhagen, 1980
• A Chorus Line, Sheffield Crucible (2003)
• A Streetcar Named Desire, Clwyd Theatr Cymru (2005)
• Assassins, Sheffield Crucible (2006)
• Animal Farm, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (2008)
• Macbeth, Fort Canning Park, Singapore (2011)
• Beautiful Thing, Arts Theatre, London (2013); Curve, Leicester (2015)
• Annie, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
An Officer and a Gentleman is touring the UK until September 15