As Sean Foley announces his first season as artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, he tells Matthew Hemley about his vision for the company
The season opens with a run of two new musicals, including the UK premiere of Something Rotten!. What was the thinking behind this?
Overall, we are looking to present shows that are popular theatre art forms, and comedies and musicals are definitely part of the brief. Birmingham Rep’s main stage is the sort of stage that will take shows that have – in some way – a direct address to audience. It doesn’t take so much to what you might call 19th-century classics or naturalistic plays. What we have developed is the idea of playing artistically ambitious popular theatre in our main house. One of the key things that everyone running the Rep needs to have a crack at is how do you fill the main space – this wonderful epic theatre. From my background, what I like and what I am drawn to, I think the popular theatrical art forms of comedies and musicals are part of the solution. Not that we won’t be doing Brecht and Shakespeare further down the line.
And what about your other spaces, the Studio and the Door?
In our Studio, a space not many people know about, we will be doing much more of a drama offering – new plays. It’s a space that will be for new plays and contemporary classics. We have imagined the theatre, with three auditoria, as doing some distinct things but altogether make up our artistic vision as it were. The Door, a powerhouse of new playmaking, will continue that, but we will be expanding the idea of new plays into ‘new works’ – not necessarily writer led. It will support early career artists and local artists too.
Does your season mark a return to more in-house work?
We are trying to mark a significant shift back to that. Partly to do with financial pressures, the programming has moved away from strictly being our produced work, into presenting other work and touring work, so I want to move back to a model whereby the Rep is producing its own work and is known for that.
Something Rotten! is co-produced with Jamie Wilson. How did that come about?
I have done most of my directing work in commercial theatre, so I am meeting people all the time. I happened to meet Jamie, who said he wanted to be part of bringing Something Rotten! here to the UK. I knew how funny it was, and that conversation started and now here we are.
So with Wilson on board, could it be coming to the West End?
We could not possibly say, other than we would be lucky if we did a wonderful production. All you can do is try and do a great show and see what happens.
What have you learned so far about running a venue?
You certainly have a degree of empathy with everyone else trying to do it. It’s an extremely big job and has a lot of calls on your time. It isn’t just about the shows you put on, it’s about what that theatre’s civic purpose is. Birmingham Rep is an exemplar in some fields. It remains an industry leader in terms of diversity and representation, although we can do better. It remains a UK industry leader in creative learning, although we can do better. They are huge part of what the theatre does. Although those things won’t work unless we get people coming through our doors to see our shows.
Will you continue to direct outside of your role in Birmingham?
From time to time, absolutely. I also hope to create work that will transfer anyway. Not just to London, but internationally or in collaboration with other large regional theatres. At the Rep, I have a number of new plays and comedies I am wanting to do. Part of the attraction of the job was doing directing in other types of spaces. I am familiar with playhouses, which I love. I love comedies, and will always do them, but this gives me the opportunity to do things slightly differently for myself, with a new play in the Studio or the Door. The other thing I am excited about is going back on stage. There is something Terry Johnson is writing, and I will be eagerly bending his ear to say: ‘Can I be in it?’.