Ian Wilson GOH | Interview
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Chief Executive
By Conor O’Neill
Just back from London after attending the UK Theatre Awards in association with Smooth Radio, CultureHUB caught up with Grand Opera House (GOH) Chief Executive Ian Wilson, and talked about the awards, the present health of the theatre and most importantly, its future. After the congratulations on winning the Northern Ireland regional division for the UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre award and commiserations on not picking up the big one, Ian got down to business.
“First and foremost, when you consider there were over 150 venues that were able to compete, and that’s a pretty big number to start with, to get to the final 12 makes me an extremely proud Chief Executive, and to win the regionals which we haven’t done for some-time is an achievement in itself. At the awards ceremony, there is quite a lot of competition from venues from all over the UK. We were just up for just one award and were a little disappointed but I’m extremely proud of the achievement and the team of the Grand Opera House for winning the Northern Ireland heat.”
With 25 plus years in theatrical circles, including 13 years running his own PR and consultancy company in the West End, I ask what has changed since he first joined the GOH way back in 1995? “I think the theatre itself hasn’t necessarily changed, what has changed is the audience and the way the theatre speaks to audiences. I’m old enough to remember the main critics of the theatre were the Newsletter, The Irish News and the Belfast Telegraph. When I was press officer I would run out the day after a show opened and get the reviews; maybe they’d be good or maybe not-so-good. What has changed is that we no longer have three critics, we’ve got 1057 critics sitting there and everyone has phones which means they can tweet or post on Facebook and form an opinion about a show. Now that is mostly good for the GOH as it spreads the word more quickly, on the flipside is that we’ve had to change the way we market shows. We use a lot of social media these days and the advantages of that are that it targets a much younger audience.”
Digging a little deeper I wonder why the regional title has eluded the GOH for a number of years, and what has been improved? Is it the staff training, staff retention? Regulars of the GOH will know and see the same staff members week in and week out. Why now the award and getting on the shortlist? With enthusiasm, Wilson steams on: “I think firstly it’s that warm welcome. The first thing people will see is the scaffolding up at the minute. We’re cleaning, painting and restoring, so it’s important that the welcome begins with the physical building. Secondly, it is my colleagues. I’m very fortunate that the front of house staff have been with us for a reasonably long time so customers get to know them and I am a very visible presence because I believe in engaging with the customers. Sometimes they might want to complain about something regarding the show, other times they might want to praise me and the staff. It’s all about people. I think the award is because of our customer service training that we undertake. For the second year running we’ve received the Theatre World Host Recognition Certificate and that in itself is another benchmark of the high level and the importance that we put on training and given that the Northern Ireland award was voted for by the public it gives great encouragement to my colleagues that we’re doing the right thing.”
The buck stops with you. Do you feel the pressure of 122 years of tradition and the pressure that comes along with running arguably the nicest looking theatre and best auditorium in Northern Ireland? Do you have sleepless nights?
“Yes. The Grand Opera House has been around for 122 years and in terms of its history, I will be part of it for a very short time. I do sometimes go into the auditorium and sit by myself and absorb the entire history of the building. She is without a doubt unique. She is referred to as the ‘Grand Old lady of Great Victoria Street’. Frank Matcham, who designed the Opera House way back in 1895, bestowed on Belfast as one of his finest creations. In terms of pressure, there’s always going to be pressure being the Chief Executive. There are always things I have to worry about. First and foremost I need to be able to find the product to bring to Northern Ireland. Secondly, along with the Grand Opera House Trust, we’re responsible for the stewardship of the building. That means looking after the building: investing in the building, the painting, cleaning, restoration and that falls on us to look after her. I hope she’ll be here for another 122 years, all I have to do is make sure that my bit is secure, to bring good productions to Northern Ireland and increase the number of people coming through the doors.”
In my naivety, I assumed a Chief Executive was there to crunch numbers, make sure the company is profitable and organise all the departments needed to run a business. I ask about Ian’s input, if any, on what gets booked? “You’re actually talking to the programmer of the venue! It’s my job foremost to source the program. That in itself can be quite stressful. Bear in mind I’m relying on people to have a product, if they don’t have it I can’t bring it to Northern Ireland. Secondly it’s to convince producers to come to Northern Ireland, now that is not difficult per se but bear in mind before a show comes to Belfast we have to pay for flights, for freight, so we have significant costs before they reach the stage.”
I ask about variety, recent shows have included the Addams Family Musical, Jekyll and Hyde by the Belfast Operatic Company, the Ulster Operatic Company’s reworking of Monty Python’s Spamalot, A Night With Parkinson, to name just a few. Do you cast the net wide?
“Yes. People in Northern Ireland over the next few years will see a bit of a step-change in our program. Firstly I aim to bring more two-week musical productions to Belfast because we do very well with musicals. People may say ‘well, you do have an awful lot of musicals’ but the reason for that is that they’re popular plus there’s a wealth of musicals to choose from. Secondly, people will see more international flavours in the Grand Opera House, I’m currently talking with those companies coming to Northern Ireland.”
I can almost hear what you’re thinking, and perhaps dreading? Is the GOH going to turn into a behemoth bearing continuous foreign productions and perhaps in the process lose its soul and touch with Northern Ireland’s regulars? Wilson’s next comment will hopefully put your mind at ease: “The local companies’ position will not change. We have 52 weeks of the year to program so local companies, the GBL’s and everybody else’s positions will not change.” He continues: “Thirdly, what is important to me is that we have repositioned and reimagined our community engagement program. It is hugely important to me as Chief Executive that we work with as many people as possible out in the community of Northern Ireland and engage with as many people as possible. For example, at base level, we have invited a lot of community groups across Belfast to come and have a free tour so that their members can identify with the Opera House. We’re also beginning to work with quite a significant community projects telling the story of the theatre and working with the communities around the theatre. Our education and outreach program is becoming more prolific and working with a greater number of young people, that side that people don’t see is as equally as important to me as placing two weeks of Jersey Boys in the theatre.”
So there you are. Expect the Grand Old Lady of Great Victoria Street to keep her feet on the ground delivering what we have become accustomed to, but with a new lease of life as the global village gets smaller and smaller and the variety put in front of us gets bigger and bigger.