Dramatically transformed courtesy of a £35million redevelopment, the Birmingham Hippodrome reopened for business in 2001, since which time it has been averaging audiences of almost half a million people per year, the highest regular annual attendance of any single theatre in the country. The venue not only hosts the very best in touring musicals, dance shows from around the world and comedy nights but is also home to the legendary Birmingham Royal Ballet and to DanceXchange. Along with its reputation for showcasing the biggest and best West End shows, The Hippodrome also boasts a second-to-none reputation when it comes to the wonderful world of pantomime, regularly presenting top stars in lavish, no-expense-spared productions.

Birmingham Hippodrome,

Hurst Street,

Birmingham

B5 4TB

birminghamhippodrome.com

Telephone: 0844 338 5000

Email: tickets@birminghamhippodrome.com

What's On speaks to Birmingham Hippodrome's Chief Executive, Fiona Allan

Held in high regard for her work at two of the UK’s top producing houses - Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre and Curve in Leicester - Australian-born Fiona Allan recently became Birmingham Hippodrome’s first female Chief Executive. Fiona recently took time out from her busy schedule to talk to What’s On about her career in the arts, the role of women in theatre and her passion for dance. Oh, and she even revealed her guilty pleasure...

There’s been a significant rise in the number of women taking top positions in theatre, although not as many as might be hoped for. Why do you think this is? 
We’re playing catch up with other countries in terms of the balance in top roles in the arts. You’ll find there are a lot more top roles in producing theatres - but as far as presenting theatres go, I think I’m still the only female chief executive of a major theatre, and it really is about time that changed. I don’t know why it’s the case, but I do believe that, to some extent, there’s an ‘old boys club’ mentality. It’s hard to penetrate that network and find a way through it.

How does the situation compare to Australia?
I’ve been here eleven years now, but my recollection of Australia was that there was more parity at the top in the culture sector. I remember attending my first meeting here in the UK, where the only other woman in the room was the person taking the minutes. I remember thinking it really odd - but what was even more troubling was that it was only when I pointed it out to them that they realised. To them, at that time, it was the norm. In my early years in the UK, I was continually surprised that having parity between the sexes wasn’t seen as an issue. Even two years ago, I was interviewed by an all-male interview committee to go on to a board in Leicester. They asked what I would bring to the board. I said diversity, as you clearly don’t have much female representation. The Australia I remember was a bit more progressive than that. There would never have been an interview panel of all men. 

What do you think should be done to bring about a much-needed change? 
I hope that as women get more of these jobs it’s seen as a realistic aspiration for young women, so that they can see it’s actually possible. And that, in its own right, shows younger women that they should stick at it and work themselves up the food chain. I really believe in mentoring and supporting people on the way up. I’ve done that for a number of people who’ve worked alongside me, but that was regardless of their sex. We’re in a city like Birmingham and we should also be talking about youth and cultural diversity. I’d like to see more of both of those in cultural bodies. I don’t think that the everyday face of Birmingham that I see on the streets is reflected in the Hippodrome staff and audience, so there’s plenty of room for improvement there. 

What do you think you can do to improve that situation?
At Curve in Leicester, I made it my business to go and talk to a lot of community leaders in my early days. I wanted to know why people in the community didn’t feel the venue was for them. I remember one person saying, “We walk through the doors and we don’t see anyone that looks like us”. They continued: “I look at the people behind your ticket office, the people at reception and the people behind your bars, and I don’t see anyone who looks like me. I don’t feel like I’m welcome.” 

I really took that on board and we started with the basics, with our staffing and how we could encourage more applications from multicultural communities, working at a real grass-roots level, working with those community leaders. We were recruiting via very local community channels, getting on to Punjabi radio, getting out on different forms of communication. We started seeing an increase in applications from a whole variety of communities, which later transpired into our recruitment. 

It was very much the same with our audiences. We set up an audience development strategy that looked at young people, black and minority ethnic groups. These were our two targets. Like Leicester, Birmingham is also known for its youth and diversity. Both are university cities with lots of youth and young families - people who we wanted to get into our theatre. It didn’t come down to changing the balance of our programming, although we did shift that around a bit. It was much more about how we were communicating to people and how we made people feel welcome. 

What do you think a woman, rather than a man, can bring to the chief executive role?
I just hope I can be a role model for other women and inspire them to push for senior management positions. I’m always open to mentor or to talk to women who have aspirations to do that. In terms of being a chief executive, I will do the job in my own way, rather than in a way that’s particularly male or particularly female. 

So how effective is your way, Fiona? What do you consider to be your strengths?
I think I’m a good listener, and I’m good at building relationships with people. I’m going to make a very sexist generalisation now which might shoot all my other theories in the foot. Sometimes the difference with women, not all women, is that the ego gets less in the way of the result. If you’re very focused on what you’re out to achieve, it’s not as difficult - not for me - to make concessions in order to get there. I think that approach can mean a greater degree of success in building relationships and partnerships that have mutual benefit. I don’t have to win every single point because I’m not trying to prove anything.

I’m also keen to use my experience of being in other cities and going through urban regenerations and economic development. The Hippodrome as a cultural leader can really shape the city’s identity and Birmingham as an amazing culture destination. So not just a great place to come shopping, but a city with real cultural substance in which you want to spend time. One of the things that I’ve quickly discovered since moving here is just how much is going on. Birmingham is well known in the Midlands as a cultural hub, but we need that to be recognised across Europe.  

We talk about Birmingham as the second city, and there’s something very apologetic around that. Birmingham should be positioning itself as a thriving and cosmopolitan European city in its own right, not describing itself in relation to any other city in England. 

You’ve mentioned inspiring people. Who would you say has inspired you?
My parents inspired my work ethic. They’re both intelligent, hard-working professionals who taught me to work hard and keep at it, to be determined and never to stop learning. They’re very committed to continuous learning, which I think is an absolute necessity if you’re to be open to new ideas. You can become stale and fall into a trap of thinking you know everything. Actually, I think I know very little, and I have to keep topping up my knowledge. 

You recently studied at Harvard University...
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve completed short-term professional development courses at both Harvard and Oxford, both of which were residential programmes - very different but incredibly rewarding. 

The course was chosen for me. I was very fortunate to have a scholarship from the Welsh Government to go off and do that. I really like the way Harvard do everything on a case study-based methodology, and it’s incredibly intensive. We started every morning at 7am, which was our first scheduled appointment. We worked through to 7 or 8pm every night. Then we’d probably have fifty or sixty pages of reading to prepare for the next day. 

Why choose a career in the arts?
I was a musician in my initial trainings. I left high school and did a degree in music. I was a clarinetist, played with some contemporary ensembles and orchestras and taught music. Then I had this revolationary moment that it was no longer what I wanted to do. What I’d wanted to do for a very long time was work in arts management, but there was no such thing in Australia at the time. It was when I was about twenty-five that the very first course started in Australia. I got into the first intake and that changed my life.

Was it your profession that brought you to the UK?
I was working at the time as the chief executive of the Sydney Film Festival, which is the biggest events of its kind in Australia and a major tourism moment for Sydney. I’d been in the role for a couple of years but was really missing working in the performing arts. I’d previously been with the Sydney Opera House, and I missed the tension of live performance and the experience of dealing with performers. I love dance, I missed it and thought, ‘It’s time for an adventure’. So I put my CV out there in the UK and I was appointed Artistic Director of the Wales Millennium Centre, where I spent seven years.

Your passion for dance is well documented. How do you foresee that tying in with your role at the Hippodrome?
It was one of the things that really drew me to the role. Not only the theatre’s connections to resident companies BRB and DanceXchange, but also the Hippodrome’s own commitment to programming dance and co-producing the International Dance Festival. It just seemed like a really good fit for me. 

How do you see the theatre’s relationship with dance moving forward? 
I’m interested to explore the Hippodrome’s role in the creation of new dance and working with other companies in and around Birmingham, supporting younger artists and people coming through. I’d also like to look at how we programme and build audience for international dance. It’s still a challenge, but, believe me, the Hippodrome do it much better than most venues across the country. The theatre has consistently higher audiences, but there are still seats that can be filled - and I’m evangelistic about dance. I think that if people are exposed to it, they’ll find it’s not so foreign and scary - it’s just a great and entertaining thing to go and watch, with beautiful people dancing along to beautiful music. People get a bit tongue-tied trying to attach meaning to everything they’re seeing when it should really be about enjoying the moment. I can walk through a contemporary art gallery and enjoy it without having to understand what it all is. It’s about just enjoying the experience.

I’m interested in looking at how the Hippodrome can work with other major venues that present dance - places like Sadlers Wells, The Lowry, Wales Millennium Centre or Edinburgh Festival Theatre who, like us, are doing well in bringing in audiences for dance. I’d look at how we could collaborate and create new dance that’s very audience accessible and that appeals to a much broader audience. 

The Curve is very well established as a producing venue, for which you should take a good amount of credit. How do you intend to transfer your skills to the Hippodrome?
I’m interested to explore how the theatre could have more of a role for new work or creating revivals of old musicals. There are good models out there with the Music and Lyrics Consortium, but there are also some producing partners who we work with quite regularly here at the Hippodrome who I know will be open to conversations about us having co-producing relationships. I think we’re a big enough player in this market to actually make some of the artistic decisions and not just sit back and wait for work to come to us.

Is that how you see your role?
I certainly see my role as exploring those options, testing our own attitude to risk and finding circumstances where that makes sense.

The Curve was very brave - they took those risks and it paid off…
Yes, but the Curve was always subsidised to do it. The Curve’s raison d'etre is as a producing theatre and that’s why the Arts Council gives it money - in order to create new productions. The Hippodrome is in a unique position by not receiving subsidy from public bodies. The theatre doesn’t receive money from Birmingham City Council or the Arts Council of England (although we work closely with them on projects). That puts the pressure on us to make our own books balance. There’s a wonderful freedom that comes with that, but it does mean less ability to take risks sometimes.

Do you worry about the impact of those demands on your own creativity?
No, I actually think it means you have to be more creative. I’m really committed to audience development. I think there are still avenues along which we can explore the balance of the programming that the Hippodrome does - especially looking at how to connect to audiences we’re currently not reaching. That will open up an opportunity for more creativity. 

Having now arrived at the Hippodrome, is there anything that’s surprised you?
Not surprised - as I’ve seen it myself as an audience member before - but what’s really impressed me is the passion of the staff here. They really want the audiences to have a good time, and they’re so sincere about it. The customer service is really one of the best I’ve ever seen at any theatre. It’s not a surprise but something I’ve been impressed with. 

Do you like most genres of theatre?
Yeah, pretty much anything. I’ll give almost anything a go.

What’s your favourite?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to musicals - I like older musicals. I think West Side Story is my favourite musical of all time. I’ve always loved contemporary dance, I’ve always loved ballet and opera. There’s almost nothing I don’t like. My favourite play is King Lear.

So is there any kind of show you’d never go to?
Heavy metal music and tribute bands. They really aren’t my cup of tea. I also struggle with stand-up comedy. I know that probably makes me sound like I’m lacking a sense of humour, but, for me, it’s the expectation that kills it. You walk into somewhere expecting someone to be really, really funny and that you’ll have the best night ever. It’s very difficult for someone to live up to that. Comedy is never my first choice, let’s put it that way.

Finally, what’s your guilty pleasure?      
Watching The Apprentice - and I do like to watch Coronation Street. I’m a member of what we define as Corrie Club, which consists of a group of my friends who’re all over the place. We tweet as we watch. We tweet each other comments, live editorial of Coronation Street. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it?...


on Tue, 24 Nov 2015