Izzy: Did you have an interest in the theatre from a young age?
Nick: Yes. I was lucky to be taken by my parents in Manchester, and later to the RSC in Stratford. I then started to go with my friends, and with school.
I: At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to become a director and did you ever consider another path within the world of Performing Arts?
N: I think all directors, if they’re honest, will tell you they’re failed writers or actors. I realised I was no good at either at Uni so fell into directing.
I: How did you get your first job as a director?
N: I wrote letters, repeatedly, to everyone I could think of when I left Uni The first jobs that came my way were in opera - which in those days (late 70s) was still very conservative in the way it was staged. So it felt like there was a job worth doing.
I: Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to become a director?
N: Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.*
I: What would you have done if you were not a director?
N: I’d have been an unhappy producer, maybe. Or an English teacher.
I: Can you explain the difference between being a director and being the artistic director of a theatre, and what different skills are required for each role? Do you prefer one over the other?
N: Directors are focused entirely on the show that they’re directing at the time. Artistic directors have to look after every aspect of the theatre they’re leading. The two jobs are compatible: I used to think at the National that my time in the rehearsal room was time off from the rest of the job.
I: What do you find are the greatest challenges of being a director?
I: When you were artistic director at the National, what would you do if you saw that a play which you were not directing was not as good as you felt it could be prior to its opening?
N: That didn’t just apply to shows I wasn’t directing! Sometimes there was a lot I could do by encouraging the director and writer to rewrite/cut/keep working at particular scenes. Sometimes, the best I could do was to try to keep everyone’s spirits up.
I: How do you decide what shows to put on in any given season and how do you know what will appeal to your audience?
N: No such thing as a season, really. You do what’s ready, and you respond to other people’s enthusiasms. You may have an idea of an ideal 6 months in your theatre; it will always be tempered by the plays, directors and actors that are available. At the National, I know it would be a bad idea to have - say - a Chekhov and an Ibsen - competing against each other in the same booking period as they’d cannibalise each others’ audience. I used to think it was a good idea to contrast earnest, heavy plays with - say - a comedy. But it’s a big mistake to imagine that the artistic director is presenting a programme that’s been pre-designed on a piece of paper. It’s always about what’s available.
I: You have been knighted for your Services to Drama, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
N: Never allowing anyone to call me Sir.
I: If you go to the theatre now for a fun night out, can you enjoy what you are watching or do you find yourself critiquing bits and thinking how parts could be done better?
N: For exactly that reason, I often prefer to go to a dance - ballet or contemporary - which still seems like magic to me.
I: Why do you think that it is important for people to see live theatre?
N: I don’t think it’s important the way being nice to children is important, or paying your taxes, or not speeding. It’s important that everyone should be introduced to it, like they should be introduced to sport, or art. Some people won’t like it. I hate football. Which is just fine. But for some people it’s one of the things that makes sense of their lives, one of the things they can’t live without, which is why it’s a good idea for it to be affordable.
I: What power do you think live theatre has that simply reading a book or watching a film/television program does not?
N: I don’t think it’s superior to reading a book. Just different. I couldn’t live without the intense imaginative engagement of reading, or the communal act of imagination that’s required when you’re part of an audience. Both are vital to me.
I: Do you think that it is important for live theatre to be seen by the younger generation, and if so, why?
N: Yes - so they can make up their minds whether they like it or not.
I: I have been talking to some university students about the affordability of London Theatres. Those who had already been exposed to theatre and were interested in seeing plays felt that tickets for around £15 would definitely encourage them to go to the theatre more and they would be willing to see new plays for that price. However, those who had not been exposed to and did not have a great prior interest in the theatre said that they would only be willing to go for tickets of £10 or less. Is it at all realistic for theatres to put tickets at this price, especially those theatres not funded by the Arts Council?
N: No, not realistic. And to be honest: why should the massive amount of work and training that goes into making a night in the theatre be available at a knock-down price? Why are playwrights and actors expected to work for next to nothing? £15 is a lot, but it’s no more than 2 movies, or 3 glasses of wine, or 2 packets of cigarettes. And for those that want to see theatre more than they want to have an extra drink in a bar, it seems fair to me that they’re asked to recognise the skills and training of underpaid theatre workers.
I: What more do you think needs to be done to attract this new, young audience?
N: Better shows. Exciting shows. Shows that seem to be worth more than 2 packets of cigarettes.
I: What is the difference between directing opera, theatre and film? Which of the three do you prefer and why?
N: It would take too long to give a proper answer!
I: In your book 'Balancing Acts' you say that "it took too long" for the number of new plays by female playwrights at the National Theatre to equal the number of new plays by male playwrights. Why do you think that is?
N: Simply: there were next to none when I started. The commissioning and development process is never a matter of overnight results. I was happy that by the time I finished, there were more female playwrights than male.
I: Why did you open The Bridge, and what are you hoping it will offer to audiences that other theatres don't?
N: Commercial theatre outside the West End. Is it possible? Worth trying, is what we thought. An alternative to the beautiful but inflexible Victorian West End theatres.
I: What advice would you give to young people who want a career in theatre?
N: Try! Stick at it!
* This production in 1970 is regarded as one of the most influential productions of Shakespeare in the 20th century.