As Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre prepares to reopen its doors in June after a long hiatus, 
What’s On talks to Artistic Director Adrian Jackson about the venue’s much-anticipated comeback...

Regional favourite the Grand is back with a bang this June. Kicking off with a series of one-nighters from the likes of Jane McDonald, Francis Rossi and an Elvis tribute, the venue plans to ramp up its programme towards the autumn and beyond...

“We’re starting small with some one-nighters,” says Artistic Director Adrian Jackson. “Then we have a number of things programmed through August - The Nutcracker with the English Youth Ballet, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, for example. But we really take off towards the end of September, with School Of Rock opening our autumn season. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will have its third-time-lucky rescheduled start-date with us in October. From there, we continue to build with Hairspray, Chicago and an amateur production of Oliver!. The musical Grown Ups is running for a week in November - and then we’re pretty much into panto season. The flavour of what we’ve got coming up until Christmas really is amazing.”

Adrian and his team are determined that Cinderella will indeed go to the ball this year, the pantomime having been postponed last Christmas: “Panto is the one anchor production for most theatres each year. It really brings the community together, and it’s probably the one show that the entire family comes together each Christmas for. It’s fantastic! It’s the heart of theatre. We’re so, so excited to present it again this year. Having an empty auditorium over the Christmas period last year was shocking for us. It was the most alien feeling - and probably my first Christmas off ever! It just didn’t feel right for many in our industry.  Every theatre in the land relies on panto, both for audiences and for a lot of revenue generation. A very important part of being able to fund a theatre isn’t just the ticket sales; it’s the bar and merchandise sales, too. That’s something you can’t get from the digital programmes we’ve been seeing over the lockdowns.”

That opportunity to pursue the digital side of the arts has, however, been an important lifeline for the venue over this period. Just in April, they launched a new vodcast, Bully And Johnny’s Grand Wolves Show, hosted by Wolverhampton Wanderers footballing legend Steve Bull and TV presenter Johnny Phillips.
“This is an initiative devised by our team at the Grand to enable us to stay connected to our audiences,” Adrian explains. “We want to show off the Grand, but do it in a very different way. Steve Bull has been very heavily involved, and we’ve been interviewing folk from football and various other backgrounds, such as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. It’s a very informal, relaxed armchair chat with these people. This is something we’ve never done before, and as creative people we’re constantly looking for different ways to connect with our audiences. We’ve been so generously awarded a couple of grants from the Cultural Recovery Fund, and that’s really helped us here. 

“We will have been closed 16 months when we get going again, and that time has been a great strain. It isn’t as if you just close up and have no outgoings either. We still had to sell tickets for 2021 and ’22, so we needed staff but had no income for the theatre. One of the most important things at the moment is to support freelancers, staff and artists, who all of a sudden found themselves with no work and little support. We’ve been able to keep a few people’s livelihoods going with these programmes, which is incredibly important.

Despite digital success, the Grand values live performances and events above all else.

“Digital is definitely something that we will keep reviewing and doing in some form,” says Adrian. “What I won’t do, though, is stream or make digital any performances we do on the stage. The whole point of a theatre is that live experience. What we don’t want - and I think this would be very detrimental to individuals and the industry - is for people to sit at home and think they can go to the theatre, or a concert, or a comedy club. We need to get people actually back into these live venues. However, offering other things online that we wouldn’t ordinarily do at the theatre is a great opportunity to expand. It’s putting a new dynamic and strand into the theatre that is very clearly quite popular, but nothing will ever replace live performance in my eyes. 

“The pandemic made us realise just how important live entertainment is to the community. We’ve had such incredible letters and messages from our audience during our closure. That hunger to come back through our doors and for cultural enrichment is stronger than ever now. Seeing people’s reactions to productions and entertaining our public again is going to be amazing. I feel like people come to the theatre at the start of the evening with the world on their shoulders, and they leave completely elated. They’ve been taken to a new place and have smiles all over their faces. That’s the rewarding thing about what we do. I can’t wait to welcome our customers back and see their joy. Digital will remain on the backburner as an extra.”

The Grand’s work within the local community will also relaunch again soon, as Adrian explains: “We’re a charity at heart, so community enrichment and education are our aims. We were determined that the charitable side of the organisation would continue, and we managed to keep that going in one form or another during the closure period. We had a massive response to our Memory Cafes, because the difference it makes is immense. It gives second-to-none escapism for those with dementia and their families. We’re restarting the live versions as soon as we can. Our whole programme of community-focused work is so important to the Grand. It’s not just about what goes on-stage, it’s all of the things that sit behind the scenes. Even with every major show we do, there’s usually an education programme sitting behind it. Whether that’s a Q&A with the cast at the end of one performance or maybe a workshop, there’s always something we do that gives any production an education or community-focused twist. It’s not always just about what plays on stage.

“We’re also doing a lot of work with our Ambassador Groups. Two years ago, Associate Director Vicky Price set up a group of ambassadors from our South Asian community, who’ve really helped us diversify our audiences and reach out to other parts of the community that we hadn’t managed to before. Now we’re about to form a new group of ambassadors. We want everyone from Wolverhampton and beyond to be able to experience the thrill of the Grand. This is their theatre. It’s up to us to ensure that it’s accessible to them.”

With the arts getting back in the groove, what plans does Adrian have for the future of the Grand?
“Before this all happened, we were very much focusing on producing our own shows, as well as having bigger tours and outside companies come in. Diversifying is also central to our plans. We’re looking to expand the Grand into the adjacent building, to give us a whole new creative approach. A second performance space would allow us to do different types of work, to encourage new writers and other creatives from the community to come forward. We’re looking to engage with a wider culture and community. The beauty of being creative is you don’t know what’s going to happen. Things change and evolve as you move forward. You respond to your audience and you respond to the world around you - and both of those are constantly changing.

“I think the one thing that’s been so evident through this horrid period is how much the Grand is loved by everybody. It’s an institution that belongs to the people and is so close to their hearts. That came through loud and clear with all the support we’ve received - from staff and patrons, right through to our local MP. It really is a jewel in the crown and a huge part of Wolverhampton’s history. After all, we’re 127 years old in 2021! The outpouring of love we’ve had from the community is just incredible. Long may it continue.”

For further information about Wolverhampton Grand Theatre's forthcoming line-up of shows, visit: grandtheatre.co.uk