Actor-manager Neal Foster tells Terry Grimley his survival secrets.
Neal Foster’s blog entry for September 18, 2008 begins: “If HBOS hadn’t been rescued yesterday, BSC [Birmingham Stage Company] would have stopped trading today.”
If anyone is sailing close to the wind as the economy heads into recession, you would think it would have to be a theatre company which relies on the box office for 97 per cent of its income.
Yet BSC has just celebrated 16 years of walking the financial tightrope.
Originally conceived by Foster, then a recently qualified young actor, as a means of bringing professional theatre back to Barry Jackson’s historic Old Rep theatre in Station Street, it has gone on to become a nationally important producer, touring its work round major theatres in the UK and as far afield as Dubai.
The company’s work consistently attracts good audiences and enthusiastic reviews (you can read them on its website) and, of course, everywhere it performs it takes the name of Birmingham with it.
Though known primarily for its consistently excellent work for children and families, beginning with an acclaimed series of adaptations of Roald Dahl classics and more recently of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories, it has also staged productions for adults ranging from Shakespeare through Arthur Miller and David Mamet to several new plays.
At the moment the company remains as busy as ever.
Its production of David Almond’s play Skellig, premiered at the Old Rep last month, opened at the Shaw Theatre, London last night, with Foster himself playing the title role; Elmer opened in Dubai last week and its classic, long-running production of The Jungle Book is running at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, this week.
Next up is a brand new production of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Wales Came, the latest in the series of Christmas shows at the Old Rep which have regularly attracted more than 40,000 people over the season to a theatre which seats just 376. It follows on from the success BSC enjoyed with Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom in 2005.
“I think it’s going to be the toughest year we’ve ever had,” says Neal Foster. “I was very worried about three months ago. We did a worst-case scenario and worked out that as a company we were broke but not in debt. By theatre standards that’s actually a pretty good position to be in – we don’t owe anybody anything, but we don’t have any cash.
“The biggest thing for us is cash flow. We were putting on four new shows this year and the question is, how do you put things on without going into debt? It’s essential now that everything works. We’ve always been one of those companies where we can never afford to make a mistake. One big mistake and it would all be over.”
However, now he is allowing himself a little cautious optimism.
“Everything has performed just that bit better than we thought, but boy is it tight! The odd thing about it is that it’s been our busiest year this year. We’ve had nine productions on, and every single show we’ve done has been for kids.
“Skellig was one of those shows we wouldn’t really have done if we were being super-cautious because everything was so tight, but it looks like we’re going to break even on that show. It went really well in Birmingham and the reaction was fantastic, and it’s selling really well in London. Now we’re looking to tour it and maybe do a bigger production in London.
“So there’s a dichotomy, in that it’s been our busiest year but it’s also our toughest year. Next year quite a lot of our effort will be going into two new Horrible Histories on the First World War and Second World War.
“I’m also working towards a very big adult show, an adaptation of a classic book that’s never been done on stage.”
Skellig, the story of a boy who finds a tramp with angel’s wings hiding in the garage of the family’s new home, found the company playing to a slightly older, 12-14 age group.
“That’s made me think that’s an area we should look at more carefully. There’s something rewarding about playing to that very difficult group that comes in and is really boisterous, and to interest them in a story about a tramp who turns out to be an angel.
“I was absolutely terrified that we wouldn’t get their attention.
That’s what keeps you doing it – the cheers at the end show you must be doing something right.
“I was also impressed that we played to much younger children. We have a new American fan, a four-and-a-half year-old boy who came with his mother. When one of the ushers for some reason said they couldn’t meet the actors, he came back a week later and sat through the whole show again, and met Skellig.
“His first question was ‘Are you a real angel?’ That was really good. I always feel really good theatre should engage the four year-old and the 84 year-old.”
Why the Wales Came has been in the pipeline for a couple of years, since Michael Morpurgo, at a chance meeting, asked when the company was going to do it as a follow-up to Kensuke’s Island.
“It’s taken a year to put it on and we’re really happy about it. It’s a fabulous story.
“There’s a film version – funnily enough with Paul Scofield, our former patron – but it was rather soft-centred.
“David Almond came to the read-through of Skellig and it was such a boost to us, so we called Michael and asked if he would like to come to the read-through.
“It was a fantastic reading. We have two new actors playing the leads who we’ve never had before, and one of them has always wanted to be in Why the Whales Came because she comes from the area where it’s set.
“That’s one of the battles, finding young actors who can play children without doing that awful child acting which we resist. I think we have two potential stars, but that comes from a lot of hard work – we auditioned 250 people to find these two.
“It’s still the best feeling to come back to the Old Rep, and it’s fantastic that it’s been refurbished. Sixteen years is starting to feel like quite a long time. It’s amazing that we’re still working on 97 per cent box office and we can still go on and do the shows we want to do.”
* Birmingham Stage Company presents The Jungle Book at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, until Saturday (Box office: 01902 573306) and at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham from March 2-7 (Box office: 0870 607 7533). Its new production of Why the Whales Came is at the Old Rep from Nov 12 until Jan 24 (Box office: 0121 303 2323). Further afield, it is presenting Skellig at the Shaw Theatre, London, until Nov 13 (Box office: 0870 033 2600) and Elmer at the Capitol Theatre, Horsham, from Dec 12-Jan 4 (Box office: 01403 750220). For more information about the company, visit www.birminghamstage.net