Grand Opera House boosting Belfast's night-time economy, says theatre chief

Chief executive of Belfast's award-winning Grand Opera House, Ian Wilson
Gail Bell

IT has delivered laughter, tears and applause since 1895 – and there's been a warm, Belfast welcome on the mat ever since at Belfast's Grand Opera House, which is currently celebrating its official status as Northern Ireland's 'Most Welcoming' theatre.

The iconic venue was a finalist in the overall UK competition – judged in the suitably theatrical surroundings of London's Guild Hall last week – but, sadly, chief executive Ian Wilson did not fly home with the overall award.

Not that it matters, of course, because the Grand Opera House has always been a silent winner in the hearts of its fans and patrons who are made to feel welcome as soon as they set foot in the building.

Imbuing that warm glow before, during and after curtain-up is all part of the service and the reason why the Great Victoria Street landmark is delivering – to borrow popular theatre-speak – more –'bums on seats' than ever before.

"There were 260,000 people through the doors last year and we turned over £8 million, so I believe we are making a growing and significant contribution to Belfast's night-time economy," says Ian, who took up the top post at the beginning of the year – right in the middle of panto season.

For a seemingly serious, sombre-suited chief executive, panto, surprisingly, is one of his favourite types of theatre – along with ballet.

"One of my prized possessions is actually a pair of ballet pumps signed and given to me by Darcy Bussell who performed at the Grand Opera House with the Royal Ballet in 1998," he reveals. "I was press officer here at the time and I found the ballet, along with my first panto, to be stand-out experiences in theatre.

"The ballet was a huge project as the ensemble – dancers and orchestra, numbered about 200 people – we needed portacabins just to store the wigs and shoes. Thankfully, the debut visit was so successful that the company returned two years later."

His first 'wow' moment in the theatre, however, took place some years earlier at the Grand Opera House when he came to see 'Cinderella' and an unforgettable Frank Carson as Buttons: "I think panto it is a genre you just fall in love with and people aren't snobbish about it any longer.

I may take my work seriously as chief executive of this wonderful theatre, but I can be as silly as the best of them at panto time."

Silly slap-stick it may may, but pantomime is the golden goose for theatre's coffers. The Grand Opera House's collaboration with pantomime producers, Qdos Entertainment – with whom Ian set up HQ Theatres before becoming GOH chief executive – has proved a hugely successful one.

A total of 57,000 seats have been sold already for this year's 'Peter Pan' with – 9,000 up on the same period last year.

After starting his career in the marketing department of the Grand Opera House (after training in journalism and business) Ian spent 14 years in London's West End, setting up his own PR company, Contact PR, and representing several famous names, among them Ms Musical Theatre herself, Elaine Paige.

Now back in the theatre he loves best, the main challenge, he says, is "getting the programming right" by aiming for variety and affordability for all types of theatre-goers – while still taking the occasional risk.

With this in mind, there will be, he promises, a few more 'risks' in the future, with mainstream shows scheduled alongside those with a more esoteric following – as well as satisfying a growing appetite for musicals.

His own personal favourite, the show-stopping '42nd Street', will be presented for the first time on the Grand Opera House stage by St Agnes' Choral Society next year and there are also more 'access' performances planned to make the theatre inclusive for everyone.

"There are 150 employees here and despite losing £14,800 in arts funding this year, I think we are doing a great job in offering a colourful and diverse programme," he adds.

"We go the extra mile to get big shows here that wouldn't otherwise come – 'Beautiful' [the hit Carole King musical in Belfast this week] is a good example. We have an arrangement that we pay for flights and freight and theatres in England don't have to do that.

"Things have undoubtedly changed over the years – In 1895 there were 2,200 seats in the auditorium and today there are 1,158 – reduced for health and safety reasons. And now we ask that people to turn off their phones before a performance when in 1895 it used to be a request for ladies to remove their hats.

"But other things remain reassuringly the same: the elephant heads, the dancers and buddhas carved into the beautiful ceiling are here to stay. I'm still struck by them every day I come into work; sometimes I just go into the auditorium when it's empty and silent and breathe it all in. I think I must have the best job in show business."



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