The schoolboy who grew up to harness power of theatre
A Plymouth pub, Union Street, the city's Polish ghetto, the NHS and Bodmin Moor – (almost) all the world's a stage for Nick Stimson.
That's as he likes it. The award-winning director believes that theatre belongs in the community and the community belongs in theatre.
Nick has picked up subjects that others have ignored or have never thought about bringing to the stage, and made them critical and box office successes.
Many of those works have been acted out by amateur performers with little or no experience of the stage – and the latest example is Sailors & Sweethearts.
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Now playing at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, Nick wrote and directs this celebration of the spirit and energy of the city that painter Beryl Cook captured.
He started the project with the People's Company in mind and has guided the amateur open group of stage enthusiasts, which he helped found, from research through rehearsals to performances.
"It had to be a People's Company show," he says. "Using professionals who weren't from Plymouth would just not have been right."
That idea of certain voices for particular projects is a theme that has been important throughout a career that has been dominated by a belief in the power of stories and particularly voices to inspire and enthuse. Nick wrote his first theatre piece when he couldn't find something suitable for the schoolchildren with whom he was working.
He knows so well what appeals to young people because his own life was transformed by theatre. Without a moment's hesitation he can tell you the first time he was "turned on" to theatre. "I was 16 and I saw Paul Schofield in Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company," says Nick, now 61. "I was blown away by it. I remember the smell of the dust in the theatre and that lovely feeling of being in a place full of anticipation."
And it was drama that provided him with a career opportunity after he failed his A-levels. "I was the only child of cultured parents," he says, describing his upbringing in Crediton.
His parents, John and Doris, moved from London because they wanted a better environment. His father, a commercial traveller selling shoes, was "quite a character". Born in Bermondsey in south London in 1907, he had "a relatively poverty-stricken childhood" and was brought up with relatives. "But if you met him you would have thought he was a retired colonel," says Nick. "They both had a real love of literature, particularly my dad."
Young Nick failed his 11-plus and went to Shelley School (now Queen Elizabeth's) in Crediton. He went on to complete his A-level studies, "but left with nothing at all – I just didn't work very hard".
"I somehow got into St Luke's College (in Exeter) to study drama."
The "somehow" refers to a love of the written and the spoken word, dating from that first exposure to theatre and an encounter with creative writing on a course with the Arvon Foundation when he was 16.
The charity, founded in 1968 by poets John Fairfax and John Moat, runs residential writing courses at several centres, including Totleigh Barton Manor, in West Devon, and Sheepwash, in North Devon. Tutors include the cream of UK novelists, playwrights and poets. In Nick's day, Ted Hughes, later poet laureate, helped the would-be writers.
After completing his studies at St Luke's, he taught for three years in Kent, then spent a similar period of time running Totleigh Barton, in Beaworthy, which kept exposing him both to established and new writers.
He later taught in Exeter again, but all the while was writing poetry. "That was my ambition: to be a poet. Then one day when I was teaching I was looking around for a play but couldn't find what I wanted for the pupils. So I thought I would write one."
The result was That Certain Night ("a bit of an Exeter story"). He then worked with composer Chris Williams on Brother Jacques and in 1989 the French Revolution-era story of siblings separated when their mother dies was picked up by the Theatre Royal. The musical won two national awards.
"I have been a freelance theatre writer and director ever since. I've been lucky with the work. I have never been unemployed."
As an associate director of the Theatre Royal he gets a "small retainer", but the bulk of his work is as a freelancer.
The household always had one salaried income: his wife Heather recently retired as assistant principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton. They live in the town and have three children "who are much more sensible than me; none of them works in theatre".
But in fact his own decision was eminently sensible. Nick's work has enjoyed critical and box office success, including two Vivian Ellis Prizes and a pair of Barclays Awards. His most recent gong was an "Offie", an Off West End Award in the Best New Musical category for A Winter's Tale, at the Landor Theatre, Clapham, earlier this year. He wrote the libretto – the text – for the show, based on the Shakespeare play, working with distinguished composer Howard Goodall.
Work that Plymouth audiences have seen include professional show NHS The Musical and the community piece Union Street. Probably his best-known piece in Plymouth is also one of his most successful works that have travelled, Korczak.
The true story of a Polish-Jewish writer and doctor who insisted on staying with the children of the orphanage he ran in Warsaw during the Second World War when the German invaders shipped them to an extermination camp was not obvious material for a musical. At least not to others.
He was touring a production in Poland in 1990 when he came across the story about the extraordinary bravery of Janusz Korczak and the children he cared for, who reportedly sang as they were led to their deaths by the Nazis.
"I wanted to do the story but I thought, 'How can I? I'm not Polish and I'm not Jewish'.
"But a Jewish friend told me, 'If you don't, nobody is going to'."
The Young Company production would later tour Poland and Nick received the Medal of Honour of the Polish Congress.
He never had doubts about writing the work as a musical. "I like song and action and movement coming together, and musical theatre shows do tackle some serious things," he says. "Some of the greatest musicals have very deep themes. Oklahoma! is a story about national identity and how we establish it."
So how does he go about creating a successful production?
"You have to be completely immersed in it. I am totally absorbed when I am working on a project, constantly thinking about it. That is particularly important when you are dealing with big ideas and have to pull a lot of strands together."
In that category, Union Street, one of his large-scale community pieces, comes to mind. The celebration of Plymouth's clubland strip was a big success in 2000.
Currently he is working on The Day We Played Brazil, a show for Exeter. "Exeter City was the first team to play the Brazil national side, and the 100th anniversary is next year. It's a great story: Exeter practically founded football in Brazil."
And going on now there is Sailors & Sweethearts. The show continues in the Drum, the Theatre Royal's second space, until next Saturday.
Nick had been keen for several years to do a piece linked to Beryl Cook, who died in 2008.
The story has one of Beryl's exuberant paintings at its core.
A woman who can't wait to leave Plymouth, another whose marriage has broken down and a washed-up drunk find themselves locked in the City Museum and Art Gallery where an exhibition of Beryl's work is about to open.
The three discover they have in common one of her works. They recognise characters from their past and realise the painting has captured a pivotal moment in their lives.
"I've always been aware of how important the work of Beryl Cook was to Plymouth and how important Plymouth was to Beryl Cook's work," says Nick.
He is fascinated by the way Beryl's work "captures people at the point of relaxation, but you suspect that around the corner there is great drama; lives are about to change. She takes ordinary people and values them."
The same is true of Nick. He involved the People's Company in the research, and encouraged the whole community to get involved, holding anecdote-gathering sessions in the painter's favourite pub, the Dolphin, in the Barbican.
He is delighted at the way the Theatre Royal values its audiences and anybody involved in a show, whatever the level. "The commitment we get in terms of support and resources is exactly the same for a People's Company show as it is for a professional work," he says. "They are excellent."
But casting differs. "When you are working on a professional production, half of it is about the casting. You know that if you get that right the result should be good. You know that everyone will work very, very hard five or six days a week to see it come together. The actors bring huge levels of skill.
"With an amateur company you find yourself working with some incredibly skilled people, too, who, if life had taken a different turn, would have made their living out of acting. Some others have never been on a stage before but it is as if they were born to it.
"What is fantastic is their commitment, their energy, their passion, to make it work, all without a wage packet."
Shows demand an enormous commitment of Nick, too. He admits that he has little time for anything else, even when he is not in the closing stages of a project.
Nevertheless, he is an enthusiastic supporter of Plymouth's bid to be UK City of Culture in 2017, although not directly involved himself. "It would be great if it brought resources to the city," he says.
Culture and theatre in particular have a vital role in community cohesion and building a sense of identity. "There is a line in Sailors & Sweethearts about the "sheer unstoppable, never-ending energy of Plymouth". You feel that on weekend nights in the Barbican.
"Cardiff, Newcastle, Liverpool, all of those places have this sense of identity that they are proud of. Plymouth does not seem to be like that, but deep down there is an enormous pride in what it is.
"It is not forced, 'aren't we wonderful because we are from Plymouth', but it is there."