Neal Foster interview - 'Children are incredibly sophisticated and theatre often underestimates them'
For 25 years now, Neal Foster has been creating inventive, engaging theatre for children with Birmingham Stage Company. Since 2013, he has been chronicling the history of Britain regularly writing, directing and starring in the Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain series.
Foster is also gearing up to adapt a second book by David Walliams. Following the success of Gangsta Granny – which returns to London at the Harold Pinter later this month – his take on the Awful Auntie book will reopen the newly refurbished Bloomsbury Theatre.
We caught up with Foster to find out what makes good (or bad) theatre for kids.
Horrible Histories tickets are available now.
I wanted to start by asking a couple of general questions about BSC and your interest in producing children’s theatre and what sparked that for you?
I turned up at the Old Rep where we were for 23 years. I was only given 3 slots that weren’t being used and one was a Christmas slot. It was our first Christmas with no money, unfunded up against big pantos happening at the other Birmingham venues which obviously are always big Christmas shows, so I thought I’d fill a gap in the market and do a children’s show, which happened to be Fantastic Mr Fox. We actually brought 17,500 people to the theatre so clearly, there was a market for it.
There’s something about a children’s audience which is so wonderful. They don’t understand the conventions of theatre so they start playing and throwing sweets, keeping children interested for 2 hours is the big challenge. That’s always been an exciting and compelling thing to be involved with.
What would you say makes a good piece of children’s theatre? Or perhaps a better way of asking that question would be to ask: what are the mistakes that other companies might make that you don’t?
Sometimes I’ve seen children’s shows which play to the adults rather than children because the people involved don’t feel rewarded enough by the approval of children, so they pitch it to the adults which is missing its target. Shows for children can be juvenile rather than interesting, but I feel children are incredibly sophisticated and can deal with a lot more interesting subjects than people give them credit for.
Has how sophisticated children have become changed how you make theatre for them over the past few decades?
I think it’s that people have just always underestimated children. There’s this bizarre idea that children can’t concentrate anymore. However, I know a play could be 3 hours long and a child would still be glued to it. The only reason they lose concentration is if what they’re being presented with, is rubbish. This then goes in a massive circle as people think ‘oh they’re getting bored, let’s make it even simpler’ so they understand it. But children are so inquisitive and interested and it’s just not like that. They’re totally transfixed on what goes on, usually because they want to know about the world.
It seems that with Horrible Histories, these amazing stories from the past are just waiting to be told. What’s it like for you to look back at these stories and put them together in an interesting way?
The biggest challenge is finding a story you think is gory and ridiculous, and you think it’s too grotesque to create a show out of it. There’s a scene in Barmy Britain that was rather terrifying. However, we’re actually doing it now as I’ve found a way to make it funny, whilst still keeping the truth of the story.
It’s interesting as there’s this preconception about Horrible Histories where adults may think it’s taking the classic British stories like Henry VIII or Boudicca but really if an adult comes to see it, they’ll come and see these stories and learn something new too.
Exactly. Adults always come out saying “I never knew that” and that’s the power of theatre. You can put across an awful amount of information in just 3 minutes which would take any teacher 2 hours to convey in front of a blackboard.
You also perform in the show. What’s it like delivering your punchlines rather than hearing someone else deliver your jokes?
Of course, sometimes it’s incredibly funny to you and nobody laughs at all, but it’s the best way of noticing what works and what doesn’t. There’s a tremendous kick from having that idea, and then a year later being on stage in front of a thousand people delivering that gag and making people laugh. It’s a priceless experience and one of the most satisfying experiences a creator could have.
You also have Awful Auntie getting its world premiere on stage. It will be the second David Walliams book that you’ve adapted for the stage. What is it about David Walliams that makes him such a good writer for kids?
For me, it’s the structure of his stories. They’re beautifully structured and always turning in different directions to the ones you expect which is key to great writing. They’re all consistent like that - all completely unpredictable; both the characters and their stories. This kind of structure is so distinctive, and he’s so daring which is what differentiates him from a lot of different authors.
What can people expect from Awful Auntie?
Awful Auntie is quite out there. Walliams was inspired to write it by his love for The Shining and wanted to create a great horror story for children. It shows how far you can go in terrifying children whilst also making them laugh. There’s a balance between making it gripping but also funny.
The front cover is quite reminiscent of Matilda: it’s like Ms Trunchbull and her choky; they’re really dark things aren’t’ they?
David’s very inspired by Dahl, and I think Dahl’s work definitely lives on in David. There’s also a touch of playfulness due to David’s comedic background so it’s a nice mix you get. It’s ridiculous but compelling.
Photo credit: Mark Douet