Neal Foster: ‘Horrible Histories has been on every month since 2005’
Neal Foster has run the Birmingham Stage Company since 1992, originally staging work for adults and children. Georgia Snow finds out how his role shifts between actor, director and writer for the company, which is behind the stage adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny as well as the popular children’s series.
Birmingham Stage Company has been producing Horrible Histories productions for several years now, how did you get involved with it?
We have been doing it for 11 years, so quite a long time before the TV show, which started in 2009. My education director suggested doing the Horrible Histories and it was an idea I really liked. We got in touch with [Horrible Histories creator] Terry Deary, and it went from there. There has not been a month since 2005 that we have not performed Horrible Histories somewhere in the world. It has been a non-stop enterprise. We do it all sorts of places, including festivals such as British Summer Time and Bestival. We’ve done Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and have been all over the world with it. Horrible Histories regularly goes to Dubai, Bahrain, Oman, Hong Kong and Singapore. We have even done the Sydney Opera House.
How do the productions work on such different scales?
We have got shows of different sizes. The big touring shows we have been doing since 2005 have a big video screen at the back. In the second half it becomes 3D, so everyone puts on their glasses and suddenly it’s this great big thing in which the Romans are firing their ballistas into the audience. Those are our biggest shows. In the West End, because we perform in the daytime, we are playing under whatever is on in the evening, so that is obviously a smaller-scale show with just two actors. We have all different sizes of Horrible Histories for different venues and are quite flexible. I think that flexibility has been good for us.
Did you always want to have your own company?
I went to the University of Warwick to study drama for about seven weeks. That was enough for me. I quickly got into Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which was where I really wanted to go, but between those things I started a theatre company, mainly to get an Equity card. One of the ways of getting one back then was to have your own company, so that was why I did it. What I didn’t realise was how much I was going to enjoy the producing side of it, so I carried on doing the company when I was training.
When I, left I wanted to do a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull and persuaded Birmingham Rep to let me do it in their studio. To raise the money for it, I ran around the West End waiting at stage doors and asked well-known actors and theatre figures if I could interview them on stage for a paying audience. I interviewed 13 in all, including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Derek Jacobi. So that’s how I raised the money to put the show on. It was a real tribute to our profession that these people, at the top of their game, with very busy lives, just turned up to do it. Derek became patron of the company, which he still is today. As a 23-year-old actor, I couldn’t have had a better start. The theatres were also very generous.
Why do you describe yourself as an actor-manager when so few others do?
It has been coming back. I would say Ken Branagh and Kevin Spacey are actor-managers. I am determinedly an actor who runs a theatre company. I remember going into Spotlight and asking them to list me as an actor-manager and they took a long time to be persuaded, but it is what I am and it works very well for me. I suppose it’s a bit like being a miner. You only really understand the coalface if you’re really there, and I think there is a lot to be gained from an actor being the one who makes the decisions based on the fact he’s on stage every night.
How did you start producing children’s theatre?
When I first started, we did shows in the Old Rep in Birmingham, which at the time hadn’t had any professional shows in it for 20 years. We did a Rattigan first, then the first Christmas show we did was a Roald Dahl. The theatre hadn’t had anybody produce anything at Christmas for 20 years, but 17,000 people came and I realised there was a demand for good-quality children’s theatre. We started touring our Christmas shows and it became our main source of income. It was only about five or six years ago though that I made the decision only to make shows for children.
As a children’s theatre practitioner there is no sense of me compromising my creativity
Has children’s theatre changed since you started out?
It has completely changed, I would say, especially from a commercial point of view. There have always been fantastic companies dedicated to children’s theatre, but in the bigger theatrical sense, you could count on the fingers of a mutilated hand the companies who were making quality theatre for children. Now it’s mainstream and I hope we are one of the reasons it has become so prolific. The thing about children’s theatre is that you can do incredibly complicated stuff – as sophisticated as work for adults. As a practitioner, there is no sense of compromising my creativity and I love that. The only thing I think I have got over a child is that I am more experienced in life. I don’t think I have got more wisdom, or a better sense of justice, or more idea of what the world should be. I find children constantly surprising and interesting.
CV: Neal Foster
Born: 1967, West Midlands
Training: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1985-88)
First professional job: Four-play season at the Haymarket in Basingstoke (1988)
Agent: Stevenson Withers
Birmingham Stage Company’s The Best of Barmy Britain runs at London’s Apollo Theatre from August 5 to September 3