Taking over from Paul Kerryson as the new artistic director at the Curve in January, Nikolai Foster is causing waves not only in Leicester but up and down the country thanks to two simultaneous and very different productions: Beautiful Thing and Calamity Jane. Guest contributor Glenn Meads caught up with him…
Nikolai Foster’s CV
Nikolai Foster was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and grew up in North Yorkshire. He trained at Drama Centre London and at the Crucible, Sheffield.
His work has been seen in many of the UK’s leading regional theatres, touring houses, in London and internationally. Foster has previously been director on attachment at the Sheffield Crucible, the Royal Court Theatre and National Theatre Studio and served as an Associate Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
In January 2015, he became the new artistic director of Leicester Curve, taking over from Paul Kerryson who was in the post for 22 years (at Leicester Haymarket before Curve opened in 2008).
In addition to his Leicester programming, Nikolai has two major touring productions currently on the road. After an initial tour and West End run in 2013, his 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey’s seminal gay coming-of-age play Beautiful Thing is revived with a new cast led by Charlie Brooks and Gerard McCarthy. Meanwhile, Jodie Prenger takes the title role in Nikolai’s revamped version of MGM screen-to-stage musical Calamity Jane.
You are revisiting Beautiful Thing again on tour. You clearly are very fond of the play. Why is that?
Beautiful Thing is an extraordinary piece of writing, which I think remains as relevant today as when it was written over 20 years ago. The politics of the play and its ability to move, entertain and inspire audiences in equal measure means it is an inspirational thing to work on and be a part of. When the production played in London, the response was primarily celebratory, from an audience that had mainly seen the play the first time round. Many of these people are now in civil partnerships (gay marriage hadn’t been legalised at the time we last performed the play), and it was very moving to see such a euphoric response to the play.
When we left the Arts Theatre and visited a few regional centres, Jonathan’s play generally received a more measured response from the audience, and it was clear it provoked debate and challenged in a way it hadn’t done in the capital. With 75,000 young people being bullied on an annual basis because of their sexuality and the issues arising amongst young gay, lesbian and transgender people from faith communities, the play now takes on more resonance than ever. The reasons to present it in a regional context become greater than ever.
It manages to be gritty, yet deeply optimistic. Do you think the UK is where we need to be in terms of acceptance or is there some way to go?
Section 28 has been repealed, the age of consent has now changed and we have gay marriage. Laws might have changed; however, hearts and minds haven’t. Prejudice still exists in many forms and until all hate crimes and bullying – in whatever form – are history, there is still a very long journey to go on.
What relevant messages does Beautiful Thing still hold for a young person in 2015?
Aside from the issues pertaining to what it means to be young and gay, the play empowers anybody who has ever felt ostracised or marginalised by society. It gives young people from working-class backgrounds an articulate, clear and loud voice. When you meet the real Leahs, Stes and Jamies, they are truly amazing kids, who talk a lot of sense. They’re our future, and our production is dedicated to them.
Charlie Brooks is on board this time. What does she bring to the role of Sandra?
Charlie Brooks is an exceptional actor. Her courage and commitment results in making truly original choices, which are thrilling to behold. Like me, I know an audience will find her portrayal of Sandra entertaining, moving and they’ll be dazzled by her.
Why do you think the play is still popular?
Any play that is socially relevant and speaks to the next generation will remain popular. Beautiful Thing is entertaining and moving in equal measure. Also, I think the play, which is brimming with optimism and has a youthful vitality, is very attractive in a society which can often elevate cynicism and tricks above truth and real heart.
Talking of gay representation, did you catch Cucumber on TV? If so, what did you think of it?
Russell T Davies’ Cucumber on Channel Four is a good example of filmmakers beginning to present gay people in normal, everyday circumstances. Being gay isn’t so much about the story, it is what happens in the lives of these people, which is now increasingly the central focus of storytellers. I thought the writing was terrific and found the denouement deeply disturbing and further proof that there is a lot of work to be done, both within the gay community and wider society.
You’re also directing Calamity Jane. Have you updated it in any way?
We were given licence by the rights holders of Calamity Jane to completely overhaul the structure of the book and ostensibly re-write the piece. When you consider the musical was written at a time when casual racism and derogatory comments about the Native American population were acceptable, it was clear all of this had to be taken out of the script immediately and there was much to be done to make this story have relevance to us today.
Essentially, Calamity Jane is about discovering appearance isn’t everything and beauty is only skin deep. It is a story of young people not only helping to define the identity of a new country, but also discovering their own identity through falling in love. The stage musical is based on the 1953 film and was constructed during a very different entertainment era, when audiences were happy to sit through a 3.5 hour performance with extensive dance ballets and extended sequences that had no relevance to the plot. We have been able to take out all of this stuff and create a streamlined version of the play, remaining true to the time it is set, but with a much more contemporary feel and vibrancy about it.
Strong women feature in both of these productions. Is that something you seek or welcome when directing?
I am always interested in the representation of characters and people who might be on the margins of society or under-represented in popular culture. Society remains dominated by men and I believe anything we can do in the arts to address this balance is no bad thing.
Regional theatre seems to be disappearing from the national press. How have social networks helped audiences to keep coming back for more?
Social networks have undoubtedly contributed to the public’s renewed vigour and passion for regional theatre and art outside London. Twitter is a great platform, and I enjoy hearing audience feedback and responses to work via social media. It is thrilling to live in the middle of this communication revolution. Although theatre can often lag behind popular culture, it feels as though we can be bang up-to-date when embracing new technology and communicating with our audiences in this way. Audience feedback communicated via Twitter can generate excitement around a production and create truthful buzz, which other forms of marketing are unable to do.
How difficult is it directing two much-loved pieces like these? Do you forget all you know and feel about them and start from scratch?
I always try to do tonnes of research before arriving at rehearsals. Once I step into the rehearsal room, though, my job is to discard all of this and start in a neutral place, responding to the play and the actors in the moment. Although one has to be respectful of what has gone before, if I considered this too much it would become restrictive and eventually drive me nuts. It is great to be inspired by the film version of Beautiful Thing, but we have to start from scratch with our production of the play. Similarly, Doris Day’s portrayal of Calamity Jane is iconic and will live forever. However, Jodie Prenger has approached the role with such flare and imagination that she, too, has been able to create something career-defining and extraordinary.
Why should audiences come and see Beautiful Thing if they caught it last time round?
It is always thrilling to hear one of the great plays from the contemporary canon performed. When it is performed by the group of actors we’ve assembled, then I think the reasons for coming to see it again are clear: great play, great actors – a great night at the theatre!
How do you think regional theatre can adapt in order to survive?
We need to keep listening to and diversifying our audiences. While encouraging young people and those from BME backgrounds into our theatres, we also need to satisfy the taste of established, more traditional theatregoers. This is challenging, however, absolutely achievable in the regional context, where a truly eclectic selection of work can be produced to satisfy a range of tastes and ensure a lot of crossover between audiences. It’s about leading audiences, building trust and taking them on a journey. I believe the theatre should be open to everybody, truly accessible and offer life-changing experiences through great art which entertains, inspires and challenges.