Interview: Birmingham Hippodrome’s Fiona Allan

Interview: Birmingham Hippodrome's Fiona Allan

Fiona Allan’s career in the cultural sector has spanned both artistic leadership – before joining BirminghamHippodrome last autumn as Cheif Executive and Artistic Director she has worked as Head of Programming at the Sydney Opera House, and Artistic Director of Wales Millennium Centre and executive leadership including the role of Chief Executive Officer at Curve, one of the UK’s leading producing theatres.

Dluxe Birmingham & Solihull talks to her about the importance of theatre in Birmingham, her plans for Birmingham Hippodrome to add further to the cultural output of the city and whether she can still unwind with a night at the theatre.

You’ve been in post a little over a year now. How are you finding Birmingham?

It’s a great city with real energy and determination, and so much going on. I seemed to have arrived at a time of rapid change and renewal, and it’s exciting to play a part in visioning how the city will be in the future. Culture has a huge role to play in shaping that agenda.

What has surprised you about the city?

The extent to which Brummies talk themselves down, and hide their light under a bushel. This is an amazing place and we need to be shouting about it.

Are West Midlands audiences different to those in the East Midlands?

I was particularly proud at Curve that we had an audience reflective of the diverse demographics of the city. I think we all need to be working harder in Birmingham to ensure that arts and culture have broader appeal across communities and that we are engaging the widest audience possible.

Your career has taken you to many different locations. How does the cultural landscape of Birmingham compare?

We are very lucky in Birmingham to have the full mix of big high profile international companies like BRB and CBSO, and a vibrant fringe and startup scene. It’s a great place to be creating and producing.

Is Birmingham passionate about theatre?

Birmingham certainly loves the huge touring musicals and having legendary pantomimes! But I think here in Birmingham, as in most of the UK outside London, there is risk aversion around new work and new writing. Perhaps we all need to do more to encourage audiences to see theatre that is completely new.

How important is The Hippodrome as part of that?

We play a part in this, especially through the work that is presented by the Hippodrome, DanceXchange and others
in our smaller studio space, The Patrick Centre. We also commission artists to create new work for outdoor festivals
every year, and have a commitment to presenting new contemporary dance on our main stage. Just recently we presented
Vamos Cuba!- a show made in Havana, that the Hippodrome partnered with Sadler’s Wells Theatre to commission.
Audiences who came absolutely adored the show, and were on their feet every night. I hope we can encourage our fabulously loyal audiences to trust us enough to try something new.

How does the theatre engage with its community?

In many ways – we have a creative learning team who run an extensive schools and access programme. We also present a
programme of free and outdoor events : this year including Furious Follies in Sutton Park, the Summer in Southside
weekend and the B-Side Hip Hop festival. My plan is to have the building open during the day so that we become a space
where communities can gather and take part in a range of activities, or just catch up for a coffee!

The Hippodrome is well known for staging some big, big shows but these tend to be touring productions ratherthan produced work. Do you miss the excitement of new productions being developed in the building?

I love producing and working at Curve was always a big buzz. But don’t forget, the HIppodrome is home to both Birmingham
Royal Ballet and DanceXchange, who are developing new productions in the building all the time. And the Hippodrome’s
new partnership with Sadler’s Wells Theatre and The Lowry in Salford, The Movement, will see us producing more
large scale dance work as well. 56% of the 400 or so productions at the Hippodrome each year are musical theatre based whereas just 3% is drama.

With cuts to funding in the arts prevalent do you feel the pressure to put ticket sales ahead of breaking new ground in theatre? Is there anything wrong with being populist?

Well the Hippodrome is a very large stage and a very large auditorium so it needs to be an equally large scale production to make sense to programme at the Hippodrome- a Curious Incident or War Horse. These don’t come along very often.

What challenges do you think theatre faces in bringing in new audiences and how are you reacting to them?

Making work relevant, telling stories that reflect a broader population, the overreliance on star casting, the reduction in arts education in schools, economic uncertainty and consumer caution: there are multiple issues. We respond by stepping up our outreach and community based activity, looking at accessible pricing for shows, and working more closely with schools and higher/further education providers. The sector also needs to work harder to diversify casting: having different faces on our stages will also help bring in new audiences.

What’s your plan for the Hippodrome?  

My plan is to make the Hippodrome a place for all people in Birmingham and the wider region, a truly welcoming and
accessible space that rivals the great arts centres in London and across the world.

What can we look forward to at Hippodrome?

In the next 12 months: daytime coffee shop and increased free and low cost activity on site, a more extensive
programme in the Patrick Centre, and some terrific free outdoor events. In the longer term, more mainstage work that
the Hippodrome has curated or co produced to appeal to a younger and more diverse demographic.

Theatre is a predominantly leisure time orientated business yet running it needs to happen 9 to 5 as well- is being artistic director and CEO of hippodrome a total lifestyle commitment?

Yes but it is a satisfying one. I really do believe that art has the power to transform lives, help people to view the world differently, and create cohesion between communities. We live in a very divided United Kingdom and now more
than ever the arts can help bridge social divides.

What do you find the most frustrating?

Never ever having enough hours in the day. And not being able to see nearly as much theatre as I would like.

How do you unwind? Can you still do that watching theatre?

I can’t watch theatre without thinking about it with a critical eye, so although I do a lot of it on weekends, it’s not great for unwinding. Exercise is the thing that keeps me sane, especially horse riding. I’ve had some injuries this year that have slowed me down, and that’s been very frustrating. My new year’s resolution is to be building a lot more exercise back into
my life.

This winter audiences can enjoy Dick Whittington from the 19 December to 29 January and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker from the 25 November to 13 December. For tickets visit birminghamhippodrome.com