BWW Interview: Artistic Director Sean Foley Talks The New Season at Birmingham Rep
Today, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre has announced plans for its upcoming season of work, with new Artistic Director Sean Foley at the helm. The programme is bold and inventive, with many nods to Birmingham itself.
The shows featured include: the UK premiere of Broadway hit Something Rotten!; the musical adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel Breakfast on Pluto; the premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti's play Calmer; a new co-production adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; and the return of seasonal family favourites NATIVITY! The Musical and The Snowman. See the full details here
The theatre has also announced new Associates, including Tanika Gupta as the venue's first Literary Associate; multiple Artistic Associates, such as Mohammed Ali, Lolita Chakrabarti, Iqbal Khan and Meera Syal; Associate Companies - Told by an Idiot and The McOnie Company; and a new Chair, Sir Howard Panter.
Sean Foley talks to BroadwayWorld about the importance of representation in theatre, and his passion to revitalise the venue.
What were your main objectives when putting together the programme?
First of all, I wanted all the shows to be there for a reason and to make an impact - for all of the shows to be exciting in their own right. And I can truthfully say we've done that. They're all amazing shows in their own way, and there's a sort of 'Made in Birmingham' feel to them, which I think is important. It's an exciting new time for the theatre and the city. Above all, I just wanted to put together a programme that people would feel was exciting - a programme that's going to make people come to the theatre.
How would you describe the role of regional theatres today?
I would like The REP to be a tremendous example of a civic city theatre, but also a theatre that's on the national and international stage. I don't really see it as a regional rep, actually. I see it as the premier producing theatre of a big international city.
And that's what I want us to do: to deliver nationally recognised new work and bring national level talent here. As well as encouraging the local talent in the city and the region - which is very important as well. Birmingham is an amazing international city that is going through exciting times itself. I think it's going to have a moment in the national consciousness that it perhaps hasn't had for a while.
You're set to direct the UK premiere of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten!. What led you to choose that particular show?
Well, I was just very lucky. I was having a meeting with a commercial producer, and said "I'd love to do another musical". I told him it had to be a comedy musical, since comedy is my background and what I do. I'd never actually seen the show on Broadway, but of course I'd heard and read a lot about it. And I said something like: "It'd be great to do a show like Something Rotten! over here, wouldn't it?". And he said "Funnily enough, that's one of the shows I want to talk to you about".
It was genuinely one of those moments where you think, "Well that was lucky for me!". So we worked on the idea, and then I was due to take over at The REP, so it seemed like a great idea to premiere the show in Birmingham. There'll be some rewriting - it will be a genuinely new production for the UK. And it will have a distinct Birmingham element as well. Even if it's just a couple of accents! [laughs]
The REP will also stage the UK premiere of the musical Breakfast on Pluto, which will transfer to The Donmar Warehouse. That's an incredibly exciting prospect, isn't it?
I'm very happy you think so. And that's just the sort response we would love. I think it's going to be terrific. It's an amazing contemporary coming-of-age story. And of course, one of the things we'd like people to understand is that we are very connected to the business in London and other theatres. And we're very excited to house a UK premiere direct from Galway International Arts Festival.
Even though Breakfast on Pluto is another musical, it's very different. The different types of musicals that occur now are quite extraordinary. Strangely, Something Rotten! is actually much closer to the traditional sort of 'book plus songs' version of a musical. But Breakfast on Pluto is part of that new wave of musicals, such as Come From Away or Girl From the North Country, that are playing with the musical form. They don't necessarily have that Broadway glitz and glamour element, but they're telling interesting stories in a new way with music. I know it's going to be a wonderful show.
[Editor's Note: Subsequent to this interview, the co-producers of Breakfast on Pluto issued a joint statement addressing the casting of Fra Fee in the role of a transgender woman - you can read that here]
How important is it to have diversity among those working to design and deliver the programme at The REP?
I would say it's extremely important. The challenge is, and I'm not saying anything new, theatre has essentially been a sort of white middle-class cultural pursuit - not exclusively, but there is a challenge for the entire industry to tackle that. We've got a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity in Birmingham.
Birmingham is the most diverse city in the UK - London included. It's a city that is 49% non-white British, so it's incredibly important that the city itself is reflected on The REP's stages, and across all the departments in the theatre.
My mum was a Brummie, and my dad was an Irish immigrant. Birmingham is a city of immigration. And although I am, as I'm sure people will point out, still 'a white guy', I do very much understand the importance of people feeling ownership - for people to feel they have access to what is a publicly funded cultural organisation. We absolutely have a civic responsibility to make sure that we're working for and with everybody in the city.
Told By an Idiot and The McOnie Company have been announced as associate companies. Drew McOnie is from Walsall and started his career as a child actor at Birmingham REP. Is it important for you to work with people who have local links?
Well, this connects the two points we've just been talking about actually. The associate companies and artists are all incredible individuals. Terrific artists in their own right, who come with their own perspectives and from different parts of the theatrical universe. Even in the case of Muhammed Ali, who is not essentially a theatre practitioner, but a great visual artist.
I just wanted a group of people who were going to be ambassadors and advocates for the theatre, but also work with us directly from time to time. Lolita Chakrabarti being a great example obviously - she's going to be featuring in the first season.
If you look at that group of people, they are incredibly diverse in their background. Socio-economic as well as ethnic - and that is of great importance. I hope people will see that that is a reflection of Birmingham. That's what's important, for people to think, "Oh, wow. Birmingham has a real identity and incredible creative artists as well".
Photo credit: Kris Askey