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Manchester Opera House and Palace Theatre director Robin Hawkes talks about his love for the stage

Our writer Glenn Meads caught up with the Opera House and Palace Theatre Director Robin Hawkes to talk about his role and plans for the future.

Following a tough time during the pandemic and immediately afterwards, lovers of live entertainment have returned to these two theatres and others across Manchester.

We had a chat and a cuppa with Robin to discuss his role, his new beloved city and what the Ambassador Theatre Group are doing to keep people returning to these two venues during these tough times, due to the cost of living crisis.

Where did your love of theatre begin?

I have many happy childhood memories of school plays, local pantos and occasional trips to London to see shows with my family. Then it was when Milton Keynes Theatre first opened as this incredible, brand new venue in my town when I was a teenager, that I think I started to realise the impact which a theatre could have on a place and the community which lives there.

 What have you seen recently that blew you away? 

A couple of weeks ago I had the fantastic experience of taking my two girls (aged 8 and 3) to see The Lion King here at the Palace. Seeing their jaws drop at the spectacular sets, costumes and puppets, and then the smiles on their faces as they sang the iconic songs on the way home, was just wonderful – and a brilliant reminder of how big an impact that astonishing production can make on the thousands of children who are coming to see it here in Manchester each week.

When directing for a producing house, you call the shots with the plays. Tell us how your role differs for ATG? 

My job as Theatre Director for the Palace & Opera House is not so dissimilar from the Executive Director role that I did previously for Leeds Playhouse, which is a producing theatre. As well as working with our Programming team to create an exciting and varied programme, I’m responsible for the business side of the theatres, setting the strategy and delivering the budget – and also for the brilliant people who work here and their welfare. Theatres are wonderfully unique organisations to work in – no two days are the same, and so many different kinds of jobs are happening simultaneously under one roof!

The Opera House and Palace were originally set up to house very different productions. Is there a drive to move to that model again? 

Though the two theatres are very similar in terms of audience capacity, they are also quite different in their feel as well as their dimensions. Whilst the Palace has the space to house the very largest productions in the country, the Opera House is increasingly a favourite for producers opening brand new shows, as we have seen recently with Mrs Doubtfire& Juliet, and Back to the Future. Being able to programme the venues in conjunction with each other is a great advantage – it means we can offer alternative options to producers and promoters when there’s the danger a dates clash might mean Manchester might otherwise miss out, and we can create a rich and varied programme to appeal to as many audience members as possible.

How loyal have audiences been post pandemic?

After wondering at times whether theatres would ever be able to reopen again, it has been an enormous joy – and also a massive relief – to watch audiences return with renewed enthusiasm over the last year. I think the period of isolation and reduced opportunities during lockdown has actually helped many people to come to appreciate how much they value the collective experience of live entertainment as part of their lives.

As a consequence of this, and also the backlog of brilliant productions waiting to tour which was probably the one silver-lining of the pandemic, this year is actually set to be a record-breaking year for the Palace & Opera House. We will have we welcomed 975,000 people to the venues over the course of the 12-months – which is just fantastic. Finding ways to repay the loyalty of our audiences is also really important, and we are currently seeing subscriptions growing for our TheatreCard scheme, which offers a range of great benefits including discounts and priority booking for our regular visitors.

What initiatives are there to keep theatre tickets affordable during this cost of living crisis? 

Given the current economic climate, we are really keen to make sure everyone has the chance to see a show here in Manchester regardless of their circumstances. We are running a Price Promise scheme which means tickets are available to everyone for some of the top quality shows in our programme for as little as £13 – which could be less than you’d spend on a takeaway and a night in! And our Local Heroes scheme offers 25% off for people like teachers, social care workers, prison officers, armed forces and ‘blue light’ professionals who are amongst the hardest-working in our region, but maybe don’t always get the rewards they deserve.

What do you love about Manchester? 

I’m a relative newcomer to the city – I arrived here to start this role almost exactly a year ago. Alongside the chance to do this brilliant job, it was also Manchester itself which drew me to move here. It’s such an exciting and vibrant place to be – which feels even more important in life after the pandemic. And it’s a city which really prides itself on the incredible culture and nightlife which goes on here.

What would you change about the city? 

A city on this scale really relies on its public transport to function at its best, so wouldn’t it be great if the trains ran on time a bit more often??

What are your priorities in your role over the next few months? 

I’m really excited to see how audiences are going to respond to some brilliant shows we have coming to Manchester for the first time ever over the next few months, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons which stars Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner. Beyond that, taking care of these two beautiful buildings is always a major priority given their age, and we are going to be carrying out some works on the Opera House façade over the next few months which will help safeguard it for the years ahead, and also give it a fresh, classic look.

Finally, I’m keen to build on the reputation of the theatres beyond the incredible productions on our stages – opening them up with new theatre tours and workshops, and also making sure people know they are fun and rewarding places to work, too!

If you want to know what’s coming up at The Opera House and Palace Theatre, please click here.

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