Shelley Carter catches up with Birmingham Stage Company founder Neal Foster who talks hanging around stage doors, celebrating 25 years in the business and Cadbury’s Crème Eggs
Over the last 25 years Birmingham Stage Company has built a reputation for being the best children’s theatre company in the country bar none. Responsible for bringing Horrible Histories to life well before it hit our TV screens, it has been ahead of the curve in kids’ theatre since its inception in 1992. The man behind the company is founder and actor/manager Neal Foster whose plucky move to launch a theatre without funding aged just 19 years paid off.
After studying drama for seven weeks at Warwick University, Neal realised the course wasn’t enough for him – it was dull – and promptly left. He was offered a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and in between finishing one course and starting the other, Neal set up his own theatre company mainly as a way of getting an Equity card. He put on some successful shows despite ‘not having a clue what he was doing’ or any funding and enjoyed the producing side much more than he imagined, so carried on with the company while he trained.
Post-graduation Neal wanted to start with Chekhov’s The Seagull and found a unique way of raising the money to put on the show. He waited outside stage doors and approached stars such as Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Peter O’Toole and Derek Jacobi among others and persuaded them to let him interview them on stage at the Young Vic and Playhouse Theatre as a way of raising funds. Remarkably, 13 of the brightest stars agreed which generated welcome media coverage for the company of which Derek Jacobi became a patron and raised vital funds.
Neal realised he needed a theatre in order to really get things started and began doing the rounds looking for a base. The Old Rep in Birmingham – a theatre that hadn’t had any professional shows in it for 20 years – fit the bill perfectly and happened to be in his home town. The company’s first production there was Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines followed by their first commercial success, a Christmas production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox which sold 17,500 tickets and made Neal think he was really onto something.
“It showed me that the company was viable,” he explains. Following a successful run of George’s Marvellous Medicine a promoter asked Neal if he’d consider touring which was a game changer for the company. He recalls: “It was 10 weeks with a £50,000 profit which was enormous for us then.” Touring the Christmas shows became the company’s main source of income. Today the company is based at the New Alexandra Theatre as the council handed the Old Rep over to Birmingham Ormiston Academy in 2014.
Excelling at theatre for kids, the company decided to concentrate on that genre. Of its success Neal says: “I don’t have children, but I adore them. We never patronise or belittle and I put as much time and energy into the productions as I would an adult show. That mindset is what’s changed. The quality is so high.” He adds: “I often overspend on the design and I feel it pays off.”
Other companies have followed suit and there are a lot more people doing kids’ theatre now, all chasing the same books. Neal is in the fortunate position to have built such a reputation that means people often come to him, although he’s keen to point out that you can never rest on your laurels in theatre. He’s put on more Roald Dahl adaptations than any other company, brought multiple David Walliams novels to life, Tom Gates – the series of books by Liz Pichon – opens in March and, of course, he brought Horrible Histories originally written by Terry Deary to the stage which has now been running for a staggering 13 years continuously. He says: “By the interval of the first Horrible Histories show I knew we had a hit.”
DAD KNOWS BEST
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though and there have been challenges along the way. “Four or five times I thought it was all over, but my dad kept saying, ‘just keep your head down’.” Celebrating 25 years at Hampton Court Palace last year was ‘amazing’. Neal says: “I’ve never been particularly ambitious and I like being a creative not a manager. We’ve four shows running in London, 15 productions this year in as far flung places as New Zealand and Australia and four people in the office.”
Neal quotes the creator of the original Cadburys Crème Egg, Robin Whitefield, when summing up his approach to creating great theatre. On hearing of the change to the chocolate used in the making of Crème Eggs, Robin said: “I’ve always thought if you’re making something for the enjoyment of other people, you should make it so you can’t make it any better.”