*INTERVIEW* Nikolai Foster

January 25, 2011

[Interviewed for The Public Reviews]

Nikolai Foster was the director behind the recent hit Flashdance: the musical, and has worked on a rich and diverse range of Shakespeare, modern and musical theatre projects in the past. We catch up with him as he embarks on his next show, a classic Dickens story – but not as you know it.

Nikolai Foster

So Flashdance just closed, after a short run but huge popularity – when did you come on board with the show?

Well, it had already had a tour, but they wanted to bring it to the West End, and they wanted a completely new production. There was a lot of work to be done on the book and on the storyline, the general make-up of the piece. David Ian, the producer, who I’d met a couple of times in the past, very kindly thought of me. They wanted a young team, and I was brought on board about a year and a half before we moved to the West End. So it was really a year of my life, shaping the book and working with Arlene and really getting it up to shape, really.

How was it working with Arlene Phillips, who choreographed the show?

Arlene was fantastic. I think what I found most impressive was the fact that she is a woman in her sixties, and you’d think when you get to that age you wouldn’t be listening to what a 30-year-old has to say – you’d be very much,‘this is the way I work, and I won’t change for anybody’. But the great thing about Arlene is that she’s a wonderful collaborator and she’s interested in working with new people. She really celebrates diversity, in terms of the background you’re coming from, whether you’ve done musicals before or whatever. We got on very well and we’re great friends now.

What about the future of the show – will there be a soundtrack recording or another tour?

We didn’t do a cast recording, which is a great shame. Of course many people thought, ‘it’s just a jukebox musical’, and it wasn’t – our plot was basedon the film, but we really expanded it and made it into something original. Yes, we had five songs from the movie, but there were fifteen brand new songs composed for the piece, and it was ostensibly a new musical. So it’s a shame that there isn’t going to be a cast recording. However, I know the West End was very much a tryout for America, and there are plans for an American tour and possibly Broadway. So I don’t think it’s the end of the Flashdance journey; there is a life but I’m not quite sure what it is yet..

So now you’ve moved on to Great Expectations, which is set in 19th century India, isn’t it?

Absolutely, it’s 1861 when we begin our journey. The book has been brilliantly adapted by Tanika Gupta and set in India, so that the ascent that Pip makes in Dickens’ novel, the lower-class farmer boy in the big city of London, that class metaphor is a boy starting in a small Indian village and going to Calcutta. Of course, during that period India was a colony of Great Britain, so Miss Havisham is a white British imperialist. So it’s a very interesting adaptation. It’s not that the play is about race – I mean obviously race is important, because we are dealing with different cultures here – but it’s really ideas of class. And of course the Indian class system, and the caste system; when Great Britain colonized India the class system was probably worse than it was in Britain at the time, so it’s a wonderful adaptation in that sense. We open in Watford in about four or five weeks – and then we tour for a few weeks, and then there is talk of possibly having a short run in London.

You started directing quite young, having trained as an actor initially – what got you into it?

I went to a place called Drama Centre, which at the time was a very small school and they really only had an acting course. It was about halfway through my training, I remember, in my second year, that I started becoming obsessed with sets and costume and lights and writing and props – everything other than acting. Myself and the tutors started to get a bit worried that I wasn’t really doing any acting. I was very shy at school, and I never really had any notions of what all the different jobs you could do in the theatre were, but it became clear that directing was where my passion really lay. So in my third year, they very kindly introduced a directing course which I then trained on, although I had to keep up my acting too. After that, I went straight from drama school up to Sheffield to work with Michael Grandage [at the Crucible.] It was a Channel 4 new directors scheme, set up to help emerging directors get their first foot in the door. I was 21 when I went to Sheffield, having got a degree and just gone straight there.

What is it that made you particularly want to direct – you mentioned a love of the mechanics, but were there any particular writers or pieces of theatre?

In my formative youth, it was kind of the Royal Court, and the 1960s writers like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney and Harold Pinter – these were the playwrights who really got me excited about theatre, and passionate about it. Also when I was growing up in Yorkshire, when most parents would send their kids to a childminder on a Saturday afternoon, I’d go off to the theatre to see whatever show was touring there. More often than not it would be a big musical, so my theatrical education was a mix of new writing and big, spectacular musicals. I loved the grit, and truth and realism of these playwrights who I fell in love with, but I equally loved big shows and technology. I love my job and I love being able to work on a diverse range of projects, but it’s very difficult, and it continues to get more difficult, because people want to put you in a box and say, ‘That guy does Shakespeare’, or ‘That guy does musicals.’ I kind of got labelled early on as a young director who does musicals, and it can close a lot of doors for you.

Which directors and writers do you admire right now?

Michael Grandage, obviously, having worked with him very early in my career – and in his. To be in that building with him and all the other artists that were at the Crucible during that period, that was very informative and just mind-blowing, really. Also Tanika Gupta, who adapted Great Expectations; I just have such admiration and love for her, seeing how she’s taken this massive novel and absolutely made it her own play, while still being respectful of Dickens. Most playwrights are writing plays for three people in a room, a single box set – this is a play with 60 characters, which spans 25 years. So she’s certainly a hero at the moment. There are lots like Katie Mitchell, Matthew Warchus and Stephen Daldry, you know, really exciting directors. I’m quite headstrong and I always admire people who have a vision and stick to that vision, and it really pays off. I believe the audience should either hate what you do or love what you do; it shouldn’t be ‘That was all right.’ Their response should be passionate.

In terms of directing, do you think young talent is being discovered and encouraged in British theatre?

I think it is to a certain extent, but like the actors that are coming through the drama schools and colleges, and X Factor-type things, the industry is being saturated. I do worry for young directors now; how do they make their mark? In a group of a hundred young directors, how do you make your voice heard, how are you the one who is given that brilliant opportunity? Talent will always come to the surface, and there are brilliant opportunities at many different theatres; it’s just how are the right people being processed through a system which is grossly overcrowded.

What do you think about that, the TV stars and talent show contestants in theatre now?

The most obvious response would be that it’s shocking, you know, and we must give jobs to people who have dedicated their careers and their lives to this. But then I suppose it all comes in cycles, and yes we’re all obsessed with celebrity and names, and audiences feel safe going to see a play with somebody off the telly, but I think it’s a phase. Hopefully we will move on and get back to a simple form of theatre and storytelling. It’s good and it’s bad; it sells tickets, but it’s a double-edged sword I guess.

So what’s next for you after Great Expectations?

I’m going to Singapore to do Macbeth, which is very exciting. We’re doing it in a 2000-seat theatre, outdoors, with a group of Singaporean actors. Obviously that’s very exciting, to be working in a very different culture, but also to be hopefully to bring in some of the skills we have here over to an emerging theatre industry. After that we’re doing Annie at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, which will be the Christmas show there this year, and hopefully go off on tour after that. We did A Christmas Carol there last year, and we wanted to find something that we could re-look at and rediscover, rather than just doing an old-fashioned production. We’ll be absolutely starting from scratch.

You can follow Nikolai on Twitter @NikolaiFoster

Find out more about Great Expectations by clicking here

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2 Responses to “*INTERVIEW* Nikolai Foster”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kate Jeeves, rachel lynes and Nikolai Foster, Get your geek on. Get your geek on said: My interview with the lovely @NikolaiFoster https://westendgeek.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/interview-nikolai-foster/ […]


  2. […] was very eager to see Great Expectations after speaking to its director, Nikolai Foster, as he started on the project last year. As a great fan of the classic Dickens novel, I knew the […]


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