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The Royal Albert Hall’s boss Craig Hassall says ‘cost is not the problem’ with theatre

Exclusive: In his Attitude Business Profile Craig Hassall expresses concern over the challenges facing the arts.

By Emily Maskell

Words: Alastair James; pictures: Andy Paradise and David Levene

The magic of the performing arts, whether it be theatre, music, ballet, or opera, is that they can convey us to a far-away world full of wonder.

For Craig Hassall, chasing that passion has brought him from Sydney, Australia, to the UK, where he’s now the ultimate man behind the curtain at the Royal Albert Hall.

In the latest issue of Attitude – available now – he discusses where his love of the theatre began, whether he thinks the arts are open to everyone, and his plans to modernise the Royal Albert Hall.

Photo: Andy Paradise

Where did your passion for the arts come from?

I’m from a farming background, but I had an amazing scholarship to a wonderful school in Sydney. But the arts weren’t on the curriculum; it was very sporty.

I had two really enthusiastic teachers; one taught French, and the other English. [Thanks to] them, my whole world was opened up to the performing arts.

I was completely starstruck. I thought about becoming an actor and I auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney but didn’t get past the first audition. So, I decided, ‘I’ll work on the sidelines.’

Do you have a favourite art form?

My first real job in the arts was at Opera Australia. I thought, ‘It’s almost theatre but not really, but it’ll do.’ Then I grew to adore opera and ballet.

But my first love was theatre — it’s the one that actually moves you the most. Opera can too; it’s so dramatic and camp and over the top.

But I love the texts and the emotional journey that one goes on at a really great night at the theatre.

Photo: Andy Paradise

You said you wanted to be an actor. If you could play a role for one night, which would it be?

Wow, that’s really hard. Probably something in an Arthur Miller play. I can’t tell you which one…

What was it specifically about theatre that interested you?

If you go and see something like Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or some of the ballets that I’ve been lucky to work on in my career, you go into this unimaginable world.

Baz Luhrmann did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Opera Australia. It was set in the Raj in 1915. Oberon was an Indian god and Titania was with all her fairies in a lily pond below this very Victorian bandstand.

It was just the most escapist, beautiful, bucolic world. That’s what theatre can do. You create this world that you’re transported to for a little while. I love it.

Is there a particular performance that’s stuck with you?

When I was working at the English National Ballet, we put on Swan Lake at the Palace of Versailles. It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever worked on.

We had a stage in the middle of a lake with this amazing fountain on the back of it and during the finale, it spouted water in the air.

For act four, when the prince comes to the forest to find his beautiful swan, we talked the Palace into turning the lights on in the Hall of Mirrors.

So, you looked up the hill and all the chandeliers were lit up to represent the castle and there was the prince running on stage and it’s late in Paris in the summer. It was one hell of a thing to pull off.

Photo: Andy Paradise

Describe a typical workday.

I usually walk to work so I can get my head sorted before I enter the building. It’s about 45 minutes. I love podcasts, so I’ll put on my headphones and barrel along.

I like political podcasts like the BBC’s Newscast. It’s my Bible. Then I have various meetings. It’s a lot of planning. Everything I do is about that. But I love that it’s always different.

After work, I’m out quite a lot either at the Hall, at dinners, or catching up with friends.

Has being LGBTQ ever impacted you in your career?

No, neither positively nor negatively. I’ve always worked in very gay-friendly environments. I’m kind of swimming downstream a bit. I’ve certainly never felt any prejudice.

In the world I live in there are a lot of people with different backgrounds. Whether it’s socio-economic, religious, or sexual preferences, it just doesn’t matter, you leave it at the door.

Photo: David Levene

What are the current challenges for the arts?

It’s been a rough two years for all of us. The biggest victims in our business have been the freelance artists. The problem is people retrained to simply earn a crust.

We’ve lost so many skilled workers from the industry. The biggest challenge has been rebuilding that network. The other problem is theatre companies being quite conservative with their programming because they want to make sure they get bums on seats.

I worry there’ll be less commissioning of new works, less adventurous programming, less breaking new ground. And if we don’t push the boundaries then that will be the beginning of the end.

How much did the pandemic impact the Hall?

We managed to keep most of our staff. I fought hard to look after them and keep them. As a result, we were able to re-mobilise pretty quickly.

We had about 400 rescheduled shows and the audiences for those tended to come with them. We lost about £60m, which is terrible, and we don’t receive any government funding.

But we’re trading our way out of it. We’re hanging in there.

Is theatre an exclusive art form?

No. The theatre is cheaper than going to the football or going to a concert or the pub. Cost is not the problem. I think there are a lot of barriers — the biggest is perception. People think it’s not for them.

Some things I’ve seen on stage, the most incredible physical feats — they blow your mind. But it’s a real challenge to convince people of that, and particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

It does seem to be a thing that theatre and opera and ballet are for middle-class white people, which is a real shame, because that’s not what these art forms are aimed at.

Photo: Andy Paradise

What can the Hall do to break down barriers and attract more diverse audiences?

Demonstrate in our actions that we are truly available to everybody. We hosted a concert for Pride the same weekend as the Jubilee.

Seeing the audience was really moving because they were so pumped to be the Royal Albert Hall relevant by making programming diverse. If you’re truly inclusive, you’re going to attract a lot of people.

So, no one will feel, ‘That’s not really for me.’ If I can achieve that, it’ll be a nice thing to hang my hat on at the end.

Are there any tangible changes?

We’re in the middle of scoping a massive broadcast facility underneath the Hall. That’s about representing the vision of Prince Albert, who was the founder back in 1860.

It’s setting up a virtual Hall with Dolby Atmos studios, recording studios, podcast suites, and so on. It’s making what we do accessible to audiences who can’t physically get to the Hall if they’re abroad or outside London.

I want to keep this notion of being a hall for all, that’s really important.

What’s your favourite thing about the Royal Albert Hall?

It’s this eclectic melange of all these weird and wonderful things. A strongman competition, the Proms, trip-hop DJs; what I love is that it brings an incredibly diverse audience. Everyone’s welcome.

You can choose to see a play, musical, ballet, or opera right now. What do you pick?

Six: The Musical.

The Attitude September/October issue is out now.