Fiona Allan: ‘I’d like to turn the Hippodrome into a Barbican for Birmingham’
We’re at a critical crossroads for British theatre. On the one hand, the West End is thriving as never before, and yet the regional theatre that feeds the theatrical ecology sometimes feels like it is suffering death by a thousand cuts. But it is not all doom and gloom, by any means: a thriving market in touring musicals, for instance, is keeping many regional receiving houses buoyant.
But hits don’t grow on trees; they need to be nurtured and developed, often by subsidised theatres, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda, or the National Theatre’s War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Fiona Allan has surveyed this market from both sides of the fence, having run both producing and receiving houses. Last October, she took up the post of artistic director and chief executive of the 1,850-seat Birmingham Hippodrome, one of British theatre’s flagship independent receiving houses, after four years in charge of Leicester’s Curve. She joined having helped the Curve to re-establish its position as a major originator of shows that subsequently toured and/or had their eyes set on London.
She has also recently taken up a pair of appointments that see her leading two industry-wide initiatives. As the new president of UK Theatre, she is working with chief executive Julian Bird and head Cassie Chadderton to provide “the tools, advice and advocacy our membership needs to adapt and thrive”, as she told The Stage when she was appointed to replace Rachel Tackley in June this year. And in September 2015, she was appointed chair of the Space, a Birmingham-based organisation that supports greater digital access to the arts.
It all draws on her 20-plus years’ experience in the cultural sector, both at home in her native Australia (where she worked as a programmer at Sydney Opera House and chief executive of the Sydney Film Film Festival) and, since 2004, working in the UK, first at Wales Millennium Centre (where she was part of the team that opened it, before becoming its first artistic director), then as chief executive at Curve and now at Birmingham Hippodrome.
The last two venues operate on very different models. “I’m not sure I appreciated how different,” she says when we talk, via FaceTime, as she sits in her office in Birmingham after just returning from a visit to Australia, while I am in New York. It demonstrates just how much smaller and more connected the world has become.
“Curve is a mixed economy model, where 50% of what it does is its own productions or co-productions, and 50% is received shows. Here at Birmingham, the public-facing side of what we do is a big receiving theatre. But I’m interested in how we can explore around the edges of that to curate the programme.”
She amplifies what she means: “Look at the Barbican. No one says it’s just a big receiving house, though a lot of what it has on is received work. But it curates work, work that it has seeded or commissioned or been involved in producing somehow. There is room for the Hippodrome to grow into being more of a hybrid over time – Birmingham is a big enough city to warrant having a Barbican, a big multi-art form venue that can present the very best in panto and musical theatre, but can also be clever in what it is curating for a much broader audience that is more artistically led.”
That’s exactly what happened in Wales, she explains: “We opened the Wales Millennium Centre at a very particular time. The country hadn’t had a main stage of that size, for example, to do dance, and I remember bringing in companies working in whole genres that had not been seen before in Wales. We took measured financial risks on productions that we would need to develop audiences for. We had a big job in terms of audience communication and education to get them to want to come to see contemporary dance.”
The venue also became what she dubs “a cultural campus”, as home to the National Orchestra of Wales and National Dance Company Wales. As artistic director, her job was to “set the artistic strategy for the place, to work out what we were trying to achieve artistically and where to invest our money”.
“In the studio space, we did a lot of seeding of new work, and putting money into commissioning and developing younger, emerging artists. We also had a large public programme of free activities, and trying to bridge all those activities and giving them purpose and meaning was my job,” she says.
At Birmingham, some of those sorts of relationships are already there: the theatre has long provided a home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and DanceXchange, and also has a fixed annual residency of a Qdos-produced, flagship pantomime. But Allan is determined not just to be a booking agent: “I don’t just wait for the phone to ring and Robert Noble from Cameron Mackintosh to say ‘This year you’re having this’; though God bless Robert Noble, and long may you continue to bring shows to us.” Next year, Mackintosh will duly bring Miss Saigon here for nine weeks; the current tour of Billy Elliot will also play an eight-week season.
Instead, Allan sees her role as more of that of a creative producer, someone who sets artistic strategy and leadership “so that the organisation is making decisions about what is being put on in front of audiences and in what order”.
But there are challenges born of the current buoyancy of the touring musicals market, with big shows such as The Lion King and Wicked having recently played at the Hippodrome. “It’s sometimes a mixed blessing to have a series of monumental, long-running shows booked, because it limits the amount of choice you’re putting in front of an audience, and the number of times they are going to come back to the theatre. We might do 20 productions over a year, but only half that if three or four shows are sitting down for big blocks. And that doesn’t leave us a lot for space to be making more of an artistic statement or experimenting with productions that challenge and develop new audiences.”
She tells me of a conversation she was having with a producer just the day before: “He told me about the projects he has going on for 2018. I had to say I had no dates for 2018. I might have a week or two here and there, but not even a two-week block. There are great advantages to the certainty of knowing what we’ve got coming for some years in advance, but the flip side is the lack of flexibility to take advantage of something unexpected. I hope that we can become confident enough to leave weeks in future years – I’d like to get to a place where we are not programming solidly every week of every year, so that we have flexibility to accommodate some great thing that we don’t even know exists yet.”
The touring market is sometimes subject to feast-or-famine dynamics. “There’s not always quite enough product,” she admits. “Or not of the quality or scale you’d want, and we sometimes have to make compromises.” That’s where the ability to make your own work comes in handy, as she experienced first-hand at Curve.
“I really miss Curve and having that daily interaction with creative teams and artists as a producer. It was a lot to tear myself away from, and my biggest regret was not having long enough to work with [artistic director] Nikolai Foster. I was so excited with his appointment [as artistic director], I thought that he was absolutely the right person to take Curve forward and he is proving that he is. But the next best thing to me was that my successor Chris Stafford was someone I had appointed as an executive producer, and they make an excellent team, so I feel it is in fantastic hands and I have no regrets leaving it to them.”
When she was approached to apply for Birmingham, she decided to throw her hat into the ring: “I wasn’t quite ready to leave Curve, but great big jobs like this don’t come up that often, either.” Birmingham occupies an interesting place in the theatre landscape, as it is a large regional independent theatre, not owned by one of the big chains, but operated by a trust that has charitable status.
Q&A: Fiona Allan
What was your first non-theatre job? Shop assistant in the glassware section of a large Sydney department store over the summer holidays – a role I was spectacularly unsuited for.
What was your first professional theatre job? Producing new music theatre commissions at university, on a profit-share basis. Our first show was funded by a bank loan, which we paid back in full on the day the first payment was due.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t try to do everything all at once, and accept failure as a necessary part of the process.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My parents. They are both extremely driven and have an extraordinary work ethic. My father in particular has taught me to always be curious and open to new learning: to never stop wanting to improve.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Prepare, be professional, don’t over-try, and be true to yourself. And read West End Producer’s book – he has a lot of top tips.
If you hadn’t been an arts administrator and artistic director, what would you have been? I would have been a really mediocre clarinettist, or, worse still, a solicitor. By the way, I loathe the term ‘arts administrator’. It’s so wet. I never quite know what it means.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No. Though I’m known to say ‘chookas’ a lot
“We receive no revenue funding from either the local authority or the Arts Council. We generate all our own money. We have a turnover of £30 million, and healthy reserves; we make a surplus every year, which we reinvest in education and learning projects, outdoor arts and other things to develop audiences. We have a commercial head and a charitable heart. We run as though we’re a commercial theatre, but we are a charity – we are lucky to make good money from musicals and pantomime, but we reinvest that in things for specific audiences, education and into ticketing schemes for people with lower incomes.” The local authority, she notes, “supports its cultural organisations, but it can’t give guarantees with funding levels going forward”.
Wearing her hat as president of UK Theatre, that’s of course a challenge for many of the members the organisation represents.
There are others, too: “There are several big changes and challenges afoot right now that we need to be supporting our industry in dealing with. There’s the known unknowns of Brexit and the fallout of what it is going to mean, and how we can represent an industry view to make sure that whatever concessions we need are being listened to. There’s also the matter of digital practice that is moving faster than any of us are keeping up with. It is going to be incredibly challenging for the sector. The Arts Council has just set a requirement for national portfolio organisations to have a digital strategy; that’s 700 organisations that now need to have them, while only a couple of dozen currently do. Many cultural organisations do not even have the language to have the conversation in a digital sphere.
“Where is all this knowledge and expertise going to come from to help organisations tackle the fact that having a digital strategy is not just having a Twitter account or occasionally filming something that you put on your website? It’s about how it is affecting your content creation and how you are conceiving new work with digital in mind. Digital is also about how audience consumption is changing, and how are we going to modify our practice to deal with how consumption is different now; it’s also about how audiences are cultural producers and publishers themselves. Everything is happening so fast, and UK Theatre has to have a really big role in being on the front foot with this and trying to take everyone with us.”
Wearing another new hat, she is also chair of the Space, the project founded by the BBC and Arts Council England to develop digital approaches to the arts, which she took over “as it was trying to transition to being an independent organisation with its own chair and board”. Allan’s first role was to appoint Fiona Morris as its chief executive and creative director.
Board governance is also a subject that is exercising Allan. Just as she helped appoint the new chief executive of the Space, she was herself appointed by a board, and one of the challenges about recruitment among those running theatres is who appoints the boards that choose them.
“Diversifying leadership is a big challenge and we’re having healthy conversations about diversity and leadership now. You see a sea of white faces at the top, but we need to look at serving a broader community and making sure that people from different backgrounds are nurtured through the ranks. We don’t talk enough about diversity in socio-economic backgrounds; a lot of jobs are filled with young blonde women called Emily. Emily is a lovely name and wouldn’t it be nice to be blonde, but we need to be offering more opportunities to people with different backgrounds that aren’t white and middle-class. There’s no doubt in my mind that the more we can see different types of people on our television and stages, the more it will encourage different types of audiences and different kinds of workers. It’s all interlinked.
Fiona Allan’s top tips for an aspiring arts administrator or artistic director
• See and experience everything that you can, from behind and in front of the stage.
• Try to find the knife-edge balance of pragmatism and passion.
• Be led by artistic vision and at the same time keenly focused on your audiences: give the art and audiences equal value.
“We also need to ask how we are recruiting our boards, what sort of support we are offering them and to try to make sure they are as diverse as the workforce we want to have. How do you get a board that is interested in taking risks; and once it has taken a risk, will it go through with it, support it and not be scared of it? It is easy for boards to get into a wonderful homogeneity of opinion – that’s an easy place for us all and it’s lovely to have people who always agree with us, but diversity of opinion is where strength will lie.”
Allan is ideally placed to comment on all of this from an international perspective. She is one of a small army of Australian arts administrators and creative producers who have headed up major British arts institutions, from Michael Lynch, formerly at the Southbank Centre, to Loretta Tomasi, formerly at English National Opera. Why are so many Australians over here? And why do they seem so well-qualified?
“There’s fantastic training and great companies over there, but not the critical mass of jobs to sustain us. Here, there’s much more choice of jobs.” But Australians sometimes have more wide-ranging experience, too: “Developing as an arts leader or producer in Australia, we’re not as specialised as I find many people in the UK are. I worked in classical music, programming and producing theatre, and running a film festival before I came here. We jump around between jobs and genres more, so we often come wth a background that is more multidisciplinary, rather than starting in theatre and only working in theatre, and working on different scales and managerial and artistic roles.”
CV: Fiona Allan
Born: 1967, Sydney
Training: Music degree from University of Sydney; MBA from University of Technology Sydney; leadership programmes at Oxford and Harvard
Career highlights: Opening the Studio at Sydney Opera House, Australian premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, Sydney Opera House, 50th anniversary celebrations for Sydney Film Festival (2003), Co-commissioner, Philip Glass’ 70th birthday piece Book of Longing, Wales Millennium Centre (2007), Mariinsky Opera Ring Cycle UK premiere, conducted by Valery Gergiev, at Wales Millennium Centre (2006), Producer, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – The Musical, Curve Theatre, Leicester (2015), Co-commissioner, Vamos Cuba! at Birmingham Hippodrome (2016)
Profile: Birmingham Hippodrome
Number of seats: Main theatre – 1,850 Patrick Centre – 200
Number of performances per year: About 400
Audience figures: 526,389 tickets bought (not including free and outdoor events)
Number of employees: About 150 full-time
Funding: No standard grants or core funding. Some Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council applications on a project-by-project basis
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