Prepping for a last minute ministerial visit, clutching coffee and exchanging blows with a cold, Fiona Allan also has the not at all small matter of Miss Saigon, which has now opened. But get the thoughtful chief exec and artistic director talking about the future of theatre and culture in this city, and whatever else is going on, she'll find all the time in the world.
So Miss Saigon’s a big deal. What excites you most about it?
I'm always excited to see a show that occupies our entire stage. The Hippodrome is one of the biggest in the country and often touring shows don't take advantage of that, because they also need to work in the smaller venues on their runs. But a show like Saigon only goes to the massive houses. It's an epic production, which arrived in sixteen 45-foot lorries. And there's a helicopter on stage — an actual helicopter — which is 1.5 times the height of a double decker bus, with a 3.6 metre rotating blade.
How far ahead was the production scheduled and when can we expect to see your mark on the Hippodrome’s programming?
Monumental productions like this are booked in two, three, even four years ahead — it'll be 2019 before you'll really see my programming, which, given that I started in 2016 is a long wait. The smaller shows like Vamos Cuba — our co-production with Sadler's Wells — I did work on. And while the big musicals will remain and will always be popular, the weekly runs where we can offer something slightly different are so important if we're going to do a real job of making attendees younger and more diverse.
Why do you need to do that?
Our average audience member right now is 50, white and fairly affluent — that's an unsustainable position in this city and I genuinely believe that we're here to serve the community, and should embrace the entire community we're serving. Which means having an offer that wider audiences will respond to.
This is clearly super important to you. How do you do that?
A lot of the shows we're bringing into The Patrick Centre — our 200-seater auditorium — allow us to introduce new ideas, like Groove on Down The Road, a hip-hop take on the Wizard of OZ, coming to the centre in September. Partnerships are also important in attracting a new demographic. We've recently put the tickets on sale for TEDxBrum. I went to the event last year and immediately started talking to the TedX team about whether they would consider moving it to the Hippodrome, which obviously has a lot of space. What an amazing opportunity that is for us because we can grow the event over time and it'll bring us a completely different audience.
You’re working with all sorts of new partners, right? Flatpack Film Festival, for example.
We worked with Flatpack this year, yeah. We also worked with Pride andSHOUT Festival. I've charged the team with looking at all local festivals that are doing such a good job of appealing to exactly the demographic we want — and saying "why aren't we engaging with them? Why haven't we been having artistic conversations with the people who are really making a difference?" These are the sorts of events that make the city more interesting. More exciting. More likely to make people stay here. I don't think that students go to uni in Birmingham, graduate and think, "I know, I'll stay here because it's got a great symphony orchestra". They’re more likely to think "I'm staying in Birmingham because I really like First Fridays".
If we were going to buy a seat at a single production, what should that be?
Oh I can’t pick just one, that’s too hard. But I can get the list down to three. I think. Saigon [pictured], is one of the world's most lauded musicals and it's so expensive to stage, it might not come round again for years. Secondly, go seeDaniel Bye. A solo artist coming to The Patrick Centre in October, he just stands there and tells you a story. I think he is beautiful and I've never left one of his performances without really thinking about the world — sometimes you need that. Thirdly, Carlos Acosta is coming to the Hippodrome with his new company. He's quite extraordinary. He left the Royal Ballet to set up a dance company in Cuba performing a mix of ballet and contemporary.
Do you think you’ll be chef exec in five years, Fiona?
I hope so — I've just bought a house in Bournville and it's going to take me at least five years to do it up. Seriously though, I've bounced around in my career a fair bit and though I'm not sure I'll retire in Birmingham, I've put down roots, and I'm certainly going to enjoy it while I'm here.
Miss Saigon continues until September 23. Tickets are from £30.