Dawn of a Grand new era

Adrian Jackson

Back on stage: Adrian Jackson, the new chief Executive on the Worlverhampton Grand stage were he first appeared aged 12.

WOLVERHAMPTON’S venerable old theatre is about to start its new season with a grand new vision.

This will be new Chief Executive Adrian Jackson’s first full season in charge of the Grand as he looks to take the magnificent Charles J Phipps creation into a new era.

The Grade II listed theatre first opened its doors to the public in 1894 and its façade is largely unchanged from that day although among the ups and downs, which saw the Grand almost closing in 1980, there have been two major refurbishments, the last in 1998, and under Jackson a third transformation is promised.

The Grand is one of Jackson’s favourite theatres, one he has visited regularly in his previous dual role as chief executive and artistic director at Lichfield Garrick. He said: “And of course I know Peter Cutchie very well (his retired predecessor as Grand CEO). I had a lot to do with him and always followed the Grand.”

The moveadrian conduct from the Garrick for Jackson is one of scale.  “A theatre is a theatre. It doesn’t really matter if it is 100 seats or 1,200 seats, it still does the same thing.

"The only difference is the scale of production, which means the big boys, the big No 1 tours, that’s the major difference, so the product offering is different. It is fantastic now to bring in those big shows.”

Adrian Jackson has a parallel career as an international conductor, arranger, musical director and producer

And the difference in scale was always a frustration for Jackson at the Garrick where he increased capacity to almost 550 in the main auditorium but that still left the theatre too small to be a viable venue for major touring shows, unlike the 1200 seat Grand.

But Jackson arrives with a new challenge; Wolverhampton City Council reduced its grant to the theatre by £10,000 last year, but last year’s already cut £383,000 is about to be reduced by £248,000 over the next two years – a quarter of a million black hole which needs to be filled from elsewhere.

“It will give us challenges we haven’t had before and to rise to these we will have to change the way the theatre operates and the way the commercial aspects of the theatre operates. It goes right across the board from deals we do with producers right through to what we offer customers.

“My plan is that we are going to make some significant changes to the frost of house, we are going to open it up a lot more and we have a major capital scheme which we have got underway and which will kick in next year.

“I suppose we are changing the Grand from a product driven theatre to a destination, a place people want to come whether to see a show or not; I want to make it so people think they can go to the Grand for a drink, or to listen live music. I want to introduce more intimate theatre to the Grand.

“You have 1200 seats and a beautiful auditorium . . . but it is big. I want to introduce some smaller performances within the front of house area so within our remodelling of the front of house we are putting in a performance space or maybe even two so we can have intimate drama, or live music and we can just do something different, such as comedy nights for 50-100 people, perhaps a post show comedy club – all that sort of stuff I am looking at doing.”

Jackson transformed the Garrick front of house, turning what had been the theatre bar, operating during performances into a café bar serving breakfasts and lunches, and introduced free live music before shows on Fridays.

The capital work will be helped by a £400,000 grant towards the refurbishment project by the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership.

One advantage the Garrick had over the Grand was a studio, a black box space with 158 seats, depending upon the layout, and that is something else Jackson is looking at.

“Now I am getting around Wolverhampton a lot there are a lot of spaces within five minute walk or less of the theatre and there are potential development opportunities for the theatre. It would be lovely if the Grand could have a studio theatre then we artist's impresion of bar areacould do other things and complement the current offering – however we have to make sure the numbers stack up. Acquiring another building is going to bring with it revenue consequences and costs and we have to make sure we can make it work commercially as well as artistically.

Visions of the future: an artist's impression of the revamped bar and front of house at the Grand

“I was in the Arena and I had never been there before and I thought, this I perfect for us to start a rep company, perhaps a Grand Rep Company in association with . . . There are possibilities within easy walking distance of the Grand or adjacent to the Grand. We would just have to make sure we can make it pay. It is the issue of your grand artistic vision and what you would really like, versus whether you can afford it or not.

“With any sort of project like that you are talking several million pounds and not only have you got that capital outlay to get back you have to think about your running costs so it is a big undertaking and for a small studio theatre to generate that sort of cash, it is a pretty tall order, so we have to look at how we can bolt other things on to it.”

The vision is evolution rather than revolution though. Jackson said: “I don’t think there is any point in changing a formulae that is working The Grand has been here for years, it has a big audience base, a big friends organisation and the shows coming through are all No 1 tours and that is fantastic. There is no point at all in changing that because it is working and it is what people want.

“One of the things I am looking at is increasing the number of one nighters. When you have a show in for a week the demographic, the audience appeal for the whole week, is the same because you are appealing to the same group of people. With a series of one nighters through the week you will bring in a different group of people each night, different demographics, and from an audience development it means you are having a variance over a seven day period.

“I am also exploring producing whether it is intimate theatre, using adjacent theatres, like the Arena or doing something bigger or doing co-productions. There is a whole host of opportunities. I always say though, the team you have around you are creative people and it is marvellous for them to be able to be creative rather than just take someone else’s work and put it on stage. So if you give your staff the chance to create something of their own it works wonders.”

Incidentally this is where Jackson’s love affair with theatre and the Grand started, way back in 1978 where as a 12 year old he appeared with West Bromwich Operatic Society as Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man.

He said: “The first day I started here I walked on stage for the for the first time in 37 years and all those visions I had as a kid hit me again and now the ceiling has been done and put back to its original glory, it really is a beautiful theatre.”

Roger Clarke

Back to where it all started 

Adrian Jackson explains the role of the conductor 

Feature index Home Grand