The future is looking bright for our cultural landscape

The Assembly Hall has just enjoyed a hugely successful few months under the new directorship of JJ Almond. Here, he tells Eileen Leahy all about his plans for the next phase of the theatre’s 21st century make-over and why a restructure had to happen to ensure it stays on firmly on the artistic map
20170202-DSC04177Shot by Rose Bainbridge_LOW
BIG IDEAS JJ Almond

When I meet John-Jackson Almond, the Assembly Hall’s Theatre Director, in the venue’s now very cool and contemporary looking bar area he is in defiant mood.

Despite having received some bad press from some areas of the media when he recently announced he was making seven posts at the 1930s theatre redundant, JJ – as he likes to be known – doesn’t seem to have let the negative coverage get to him.

Throughout the duration of our chat he’s extremely candid about why he had to take a long hard look at the commercial side of things and is also very upbeat about the proposed plans for a new £70 million civic centre which, if it goes ahead, will include a 1200 seat theatre that would signal the end of the Assembly Hall.

Neither of these potentially stressful situations seem to phase JJ. In fact, he’s the same as when I first met him last summer when he was appointed to his role: Acutely focused on the success of the Assembly Hall, utterly passionate about giving audiences the best live performances and resolutely committed to ensuring that the building, which is owned by the Borough Council, is accessible to all areas of the community.

As we sit down to talk it’s not long before he mentions the much maligned redundancy scenario.

“It is a restructure and not about saving money,” he explains. “It’s about changing the direction of the theatre and bringing greater benefit to more people. I want to do things in a different way and I can’t do that with what I’ve got now.

“The thing I felt over the first three to six months of being here was that we weren’t as strategic as we could be in relation to audience development. One of the main things with the restructure was to bring in strategic thinkers with high quality experience in the current theatre and music industry. We wanted people from these backgrounds with a tried and tested track record of success in this area.”

JJ is swift to acknowledge that the Assembly Hall staff have worked ‘really hard’ over the last few years but insists that in order for it to continue to survive, and receive its subsidy of some £250,000 a year from the council, the theatre has to adopt a more commercial approach.

“We can’t ignore the fact that the audience has plateaued and so has the programming and that the weekly product coming in has reduced,” he continues.

“Although we’ve been operational in planning up until this point, we haven’t really been forward thinking about the future. So that was one of the other things underpinning the restructure: To think about things strategically and not tread water operationally.

“I want to be really clear that we are part of a local authority and are subsidised by tax payers’ money. Therefore we have a duty to spend every single penny of that properly and make decisions about why we are spending. In other words, we have to be socially and morally responsible.”

After surveying the cultural and commercial landscape of the Assembly Hall shortly after his arrival last May, JJ decided that certain roles were no longer relevant but there were some that needed to be created in order to maximise the theatre’s potential.

 

“The restructure is part of the journey and not the end of it. What I’m hoping is that the people we’ve brought in will take a more commercial approach to the business – because that’s what it is at the end of the day – and properly analyse how we use our data, how we tell people about our shows and how get them interested in the theatre.”

To achieve his vision of creating a theatre for the future – whether or not the plans for the shiny new civic centre go ahead – JJ has created five new jobs. They include a Sales and Marketing Director, a Development Director, a Creative Learning Manager, a Systems co-ordinator and a Finance and Programming Assistant.

“There’s strategic, operational and community elements in those new posts,” JJ explains. “I don’t have any more money to spend so had to look at where I could make operational savings so I could deliver a bigger picture.”

He confirms that the biggest loss of jobs was the in the box office where three went.

“We used the Gateway in town for tickets but still had people manning the Box Office here day in day out, waiting for overflow calls or for people to drop in on the off-chance to buy tickets. So all that has happened is I’ve moved all of that to the Gateway. The theatre’s box office will still open 90 minutes before each show and from midday to 5pm on a Saturday so it’s not completely closing, it’s just now open when it needs to be.”

The other positions JJ did away with include that of the Marketing and Development Manager, Theatre Team Assistant, E-marketing and Research Officer and the Business Manager.

So have seven people lost their jobs then?

“No, I’ve made seven posts redundant and created five new ones. The reality is that 1.5 posts were lost. Four people have left completely while the three others have been absorbed elsewhere.”

One for example, he says, has gone into the theatre’s pool of casual workers who will now do everything from usher to man the bar and sell tickets on show days.

“My thinking behind this is that I want everyone in the casual pool to do everything in order to enhance the customers’ experience. I don’t want a ‘that’s not my department’ approach if a theatre goer asks the bar staff about tickets or the programming. I want everyone to participate across the board and be as helpful and customer focused as possible.”

The new managerial roles will focus on other areas ranging from the overseeing of the website and customer database to focusing on improving fundraising and reaching out to untapped talent.

The latter will be a big part of the remit for the new Creative Learning Manager, who happens to be Bethan Minter, formerly of Trinity Theatre.

“She will be going into schools, putting together a participation programme and capitalising on and accelerating a talent development programme. Things like that are hugely important,” says JJ. “This particular job is really in my heart as it’s the one that matters – it gets you outside of the theatre and communicating and engaging and will hopefully benefit lots of people.”

The community is a big issue for JJ Almond. He wants the Assembly Hall to be a valuable ‘asset’ for everyone – not just for those with a higher cultural barometer or disposable income.

“We don’t want to be four walls that sell tickets and drinks. We need to reach outside those walls and do something that is meaningful and brings value and enrichment into the lives of people that might not even come to the theatre but might be interested.”

He’s hoping to achieve this in a number of ways including the recent Pay What You Can initiative introduced which enables those on a lower income to pay what they can afford for tickets on selected shows courtesy of the Local Authority’s Go card scheme (available at the Gateway in town.)

“It’s about building a proper relationship and developing a conversation with those who might not ever have even been into our building. That’s what has also underpinned the restructure.”

With all of that now properly clarified it’s time to talk about the proposed new civic centre which will also boast a shiny state-of-the-art theatre.

Hoped to be up and running in five years’ time and costing a rumoured £70million pounds, it is the biggest development Tunbridge Wells has seen for 80 years and would result in the Assembly Hall closing its doors for good. Is he worried?

“We have to be clear that nobody has given the go ahead for the new theatre yet,” JJ cautiously emphasises. “So we are still looking at this building. For us it’s very much business as usual at the moment at the Assembly Hall.

“What I’m trying to do is build a foundation for a future that would work here but would also be suitable for the new one. What theatre should achieve is the same – regardless of its location.”

JJ does admit that if it gets the green light he still wants to be in charge and draw more audiences and productions from London but isn’t he worried that a provincial theatre will struggle to do so?

“I don’t think that’s a challenge. The Royal Shakespeare Company has said they’d love to come here but we just don’t have the space to accommodate them. Now that is the challenge. There’s absolutely an audience dynamic for them here but the shows won’t fit. It’s not just the seating capacity that’s a problem it’s the size of the stage, the lack of wing space.

“When Priscilla (Queen of the Desert) came here we had to hire an extra generator for example so there are always restrictions in the building. My personal feeling is that with a bigger stage, better facilities, more seating then yes, absolutely we can fill the theatre.”

His other key aim is to improve the quality of the programme, regardless of whether the new theatre gets the go-ahead at the end of this year.

“It’s about making sure we invest our time and effort in getting the best work on the stage so we can cultivate the audience appropriately and not dilute things.”

He’s hoping to have much more content on offer but equally those things that aren’t selling tickets will be offered to other smaller organisations like Trinity Theatre to see if they can work elsewhere.

“I’d rather do that than not have it happen in Tunbridge Wells at all but there are however some events which may have a smaller audience that I will include in the programme because they are culturally important or serve a specific audience group or a diversity issue and are therefore important for us to have. Those are the events I want to make a choice about subsiding.”

He’s already supporting some community groups such as Tunbridge Wells Opera and Dramatic Society (TWODS) and the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra (RTWSO) by offering them reduced rates to them so they can perform and is working with charities such as the Friends of Calverley Grounds Adventure Playground and the forthcoming Women Work mentoring event on March 10th.

“This building can cost up to £3,500 a day to run, but for people like TWODS who are important not just historically but in the landscape of the venue, then we can subsidise. I’m trying to have this conversation with other community groups. If I’ve got a spare day then I’ll say ‘have the venue’ but it has to be within three months and a cause that has a large social impact. It can’t be anything niche or has other fundraising areas.”

When we first spoke encouraging community ownership of the Assembly Hall and improving the quality as opposed to the quantity of the programme were two of JJ’s biggest goals. They, along with developing an ongoing discourse with fellow cultural venues such as Trinity and The Forum which he says is now happening regularly – and gives the music nights put on by the latter at the ice rink (he also oversees) during Christmas as a good example – have all been achieved. So, after almost ten months at the helm what would JJ cite as his biggest highlight so far?

After a long, thoughtful pause he responds with: “You can’t escape the real sense of achievement people have when they come out of the Christmas season. We have to be so proud of all the people who work here and deliver all of those things. Panto season is busy in any theatre but achieving a successful one and running an ice rink at the same time – wow!

“Theatre is in my blood, it’s my passion. You have to have an eye on everything, talk to people and try to ensure you’re engaged because through that you really start to make a difference. For me it’s not just about selling tickets but making a difference in the best possible way, with the pay-off that you can see an amazing show as well.”