Nikolai Foster on his 'explosive' first season and longer term plans at Leicester Curve

The new artistic director talks about his inaugural season and his vision for the venue

Nikolai Foster
Nikolai Foster
© John Hunter
New Leicester Curve artistic director Nikolai Foster is aware that he has big boots to fill. His predecessor, Paul Kerryson, held the helm of the venue in its various iterations for over two decades until his departure in January this year, gaining along the way awards and an MBE for services to theatre. But it's a challenge that Foster relishes, and he has a clear drive and determination.

"It was a huge honour to come and work here. Of course it's daunting but in some ways any personal feelings have to be pushed aside because the job and the challenge are far greater than me and my personal experience… Yes, it's daunting, but it's what I've wanted to do for a long time and I've had to work very hard to get here. We're going to make it work."

Growing up in Yorkshire, Foster had a "very normal, average, humble" childhood, gaining a love of theatre from weekend trips to the Bradford Alhambra. This led him to the Drama Centre ("back in the day when it was a very small scale operation with the founding directors"), where he spent less time acting than writing sketches for fellow students – people in his year included Tom Hardy and Stephen Wight – and eventually switching to directing in his final year.

He feels lucky to have started his career (he trained under Michael Grandage at Sheffield Theatres as part of a young directors scheme) when the industry was "more accessible" for people without an Oxbridge degree, talking of a glass ceiling and lack of diversity that exists now – he's had to "fight quite vociferously" to get freelance jobs in the past.

This is perhaps why he is so passionate about diversifying audiences, as well as using theatre as a way of working with the community in and around Leicester.

"I started to realise how theatre can change lives within a community and really make a positive difference to people when we did Annie at West Yorkshire Playhouse. There's a long heritage here at Curve of community productions and they're things that have really grown in stature. True diversity is about bringing all demographics together and celebrating great theatre and great stories. That's our narrative here and I think the next challenge for us is bringing lots of different groups of people together."

'We believe passionately that we're creating great theatre in Leicester'

And so to Foster's inaugural season as artistic director, which he announced on Friday. Slotting into the rest of the year between previously announced shows including Oliver!, Hairspray and Mary Poppins, his focus is on diverse dramas that will attract a contemporary audience.

"This new body of work – Streetcar, The Witches and Breakfast at Tiffany's – really lays the foundations for the next three to five years of my vision. It's a pretty explosive and confident call to arms in terms of saying this is our starting point and this is where we're going to grow, develop and diversify our audience from."

The cast for the season throws up some surprising names; Charlie Brooks, best known for playing Janine in EastEnders, will play Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire ("one of the greatest plays ever written") opposite Stewart Clarke, whose previous experience has been predominantly in musical theatre, as Stanley; pop star Pixie Lott takes the lead role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Foster is adamant he will not pigeonhole actors – he's had enough experience of being put into a "musical box" himself – and describes Brooks, who he recently directed in Beautiful Thing, as a "complete revelation".

"I didn't think she could impress me, challenge me or inspire me more than she did when we worked on the part of Blanche together and I know the vulnerability and nervous energy she naturally has bubbling under her surface will service the play really well."

Pixie Lott will star in Breakfast as Tiffany's
Pixie Lott will star in Breakfast as Tiffany's

Clarke is described as "an incredibly talented, angry, hot, sexy, virile young actor" who "terrified" Foster when they first met to discuss Stanley, and Pixie Lott – who trained at drama school before finding musical fame – "not only brings incredible talent and originality and flair to the role but will also help us bring in a younger and more diverse crowd".

The new season also includes an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches ("getting the rights was a bit of a challenge"), running concurrently over Christmas with Oliver! in the smaller studio space. Foster will let his imagination "run riot", creating something "anarchic and highly visual" which offers a contrast to Lionel Bart's musical; another way that Foster is ensuring that everybody is catered for in his first season.

As well as engaging with audiences in Leicester, Foster is enthusiastic about taking the Curve's work elsewhere. Breakfast at Tiffany's will tour the UK, ending up in the West End after the Leicester run, and The Witches will also tour the UK and visit Hong Kong.

"As much as it's about serving our local community we also want to share this work with as wide an audience as possible, and we're absolutely up for working with commercial managements and partners to make sure it is seen far and wide.

"I believe that great plays have universal ideas and those universal themes are going to inspire, challenge and be relevant to audiences all over the world. We believe passionately that we're creating great theatre in Leicester. Our audiences absolutely get to see it first, and it's created for them, but why on earth wouldn't we want to share it with more people and engage with wider audiences?

"Also, Leicester is a great city, it's a city that doesn't make enough fuss and noise about the talent and the diversity of the artistic community that's here and I think the more we can take Curve out there we will benefit Leicester and our great region."

How will Foster measure his success in Leicester? Audience figures is an obvious benchmark; the main house is getting an extra 99 seats later this year to cope with demand, which suggests the numbers are heading in the right direction. But Foster also wants to affect the people seeing his work.

"I want to see if my work changes, enriches and inspires the lives of the people who are engaging with it. I'm living in the heart of Leicester, immersed in the heart of our community – people tell me if they've been inspired. It's about attendance, engagement and really changing people's lives for the better. That's how I'll measure my success and I won't rest until that's the case. As you can tell I'm a little bit passionate about it."

Passionate just about sums up Foster and his attitude towards producing world class theatre in his new role. Kerryson may have left big boots, but you'd be a brave person to bet against Foster more than filling them.

To read more about Nikolai Foster's inaugural season, see our news announcement