Sean Foley on the Birmingham Rep: 'New work is risky, but that is what I have always been in the game for'

We speak to the Rep’s artistic director about his inaugural season

Sean Foley
Sean Foley
© Hugo Glendinning

It was almost one year ago that Sean Foley was announced as the new artistic director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. If the upcoming season is anything to go by, he looks to have wisely spent the time commissioning some of the region's most exciting writers to develop new work for the West Midlands venue.

We caught up with Sean to discuss what the new season holds and Birmingham's status as one of the UK's most exciting and diverse cities.

What are the challenges of being an artistic director in 2020?

"Since appointment it has become clear that it is not just about choosing some plays and putting them on, as hard as that is. There are significant financial pressures particularly at the Rep because Birmingham city council has made significant cuts from not only theatres but across the city. Mitigating that financial situation is in a weird way one of the big parts of the job. There is a civic responsibility of running a large theatre in an international city – we take public money and there is an associated duty in running it correctly. So yes, it is actually an impossible job!"

What made you want to become a director?

"There wasn't a specific moment or decision. As often happens in life things just fell into place – I was lucky enough to be offered a first directing job in 2007 and I really enjoyed it. I did one or two other things for the next few years but it wasn't really until 2012 when I really started directing. So I haven't been doing it that long, about eight years I would say.

"Partly because of the nature of the work I had done in The Right Size, which was overall creating the work so co-writing, performing and adjusting, I realised when I started directing I had covered most of the bases you need."

What has the shift to artistic director been like?

"It is a massive challenge, a bit like like doing your O-levels and then being asked to do a PhD. The programming alone is tough – the Rep has three auditoriums and each needs different types of shows. Then you have to consider how to represent our city and finally there's the challenge of actually putting on the shows themselves. I won't be stuck for things to do."

Why is it important that the theatre has a diverse representation?

"Birmingham is the most diverse city in the UK and our theatre needs to reflect that. Quite often people don't know all these amazing artists are born and bred in Birmingham. I felt it was important to signal the immense talent the city produces."

There is a strong commitment to new writing in the season…

"I have complete faith in everybody and writers who are less known are going to excite as well, there's no question about that. New work is risky, but that is what I have always been in the game for. Although I have almost exclusively worked in comic theatre, most of the things I have done are new shows or adaptations. I am quite used to taking that risk and it's one that I really like doing. I felt the Rep should be doing the same and in the process become a major force and hub for new work."

Lolita Chakrabarti won a WhatsOnStage Award recently for her adaptation of Life of Pi, what can you tell us about her new show Calmer?

"I know and I tweeted her afterwards saying I can't wait for her next show! It's the world premiere at the Rep, a wonderful new drama about three generations of women and directed by Adrian Lester."

You must be really excited that Tanika Gupta has been announced as the Rep's literary associate?

"Tanika is going to be writing a couple of new plays for us and also be part of the wider creative community informing the artistic direction of the theatre. I am thrilled that Tanika wanted to come and work with us. She's a wonderful writer and I am really looking forward to the shows that she is going to produce."

What drew you to Something Rotten! to open your stint at the Rep with?

"It is wonderfully funny. People have been looking forward to it coming to the UK for a number of years so it's great that the Rep has the British premiere – I cannot wait to direct the production."

Having spent your early years growing up in Birmingham's suburbs, how does it feel now to be running the Rep?

"It is really extraordinary, partly because I never thought I would be doing it. Birmingham is slightly overlooked in the national conversation and I don't really know why. It is an extraordinary international city with a growing confidence. The Commonwealth Games are coming here, and the city has a number of new cultural leaders. I wouldn't be so bold to call it a renaissance but I think Birmingham is going to have its moment and I am very lucky to be here when that hopefully happens."