Robin Hawkes is the Theatre Director of Manchester’s Palace and Opera House, taking on the role following six and half years at Leeds Playhouse during which time he led the theatre through a £16.8m redevelopment as Joint Chief Executive and Executive Director.
Robin started his new role in January, having previously worked at The National Theatre, but a career in theatre wasn’t always on the cards, “right through school and university, I never really knew what I wanted to do for a career,” says Robin, “but I’d always been involved with school plays and the student drama society. I didn’t ever really imagine that you could actually have a proper job in the theatre world in those days.”
After graduating Robin spent two years in Japan working as an English teacher, and while he was able to experience the Japanese theatre scene as an audience member, he couldn’t see how he could practically get involved.
“I really enjoyed the work I did there, but I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in teaching, and the one thing I really missed from home was being involved in theatre in some way or another.”
Robin’s first job back in the UK was behind the bar of a West End theatre in the evenings, while during the day he did various work placements and internships with some small theatre companies in London, “I never really imagined things would develop from there to where I find myself today,” laughs Robin.
Robin was already familiar with Manchester when he took on his new role, “it’s only just over an hour away from Leeds, so I’d come regularly as a visitor, it had always felt like it’d be a really exciting place to work because of the amazing range of cultural organisations here, and also because of the way in which culture is so much of a part of the identity of people in Manchester.”
Like all theatres, Manchester’s Palace and Opera House were grappling with trying to return to normality following the pandemic, and although acutely aware of the challenges he faced, Robin was still excited by the prospect, “these two theatres in particular, because of their scale, because of their history, because of the incredible programme that they put on, are just brilliant places to work, particularly at that point where it was time for theatres to reach back out to the world and draw audiences in.”
“I thought it’d be a really exciting place to be, because on the one hand, we’ve got the kind of programme which means people are keen to return even after a very long enforced break, and also, because the challenge of doing that is not a straightforward one either.”
Both theatres have got capacity of nearly 2,000 seats each, so Robin has faced an extraordinary challenge, but he feels what he learned working at Leeds Playhouse during the pandemic has allowed him to think about his new role differently, “interestingly, during the pandemic, more than at any other point, it was necessary to really connect across organisations around the city, and around the city region, for support, for partnership, to share challenges,” says Robin.
“So one thing that I’m definitely trying to do now I’m here in Manchester, is foster that same connectivity between the Palace and Opera House, and other organisations in the city.”
It’s been a busy nine months for Robin, as well as taking on a new job, he also relocated to Manchester with his family, at the same time they were welcoming their third child, “it’s been a time of huge change and upheaval, but maybe it’s good to get all that out the way in one go,” laughs Robin, “but one of the things I was really excited about was that challenge of coming here at the exact moment when theatre needed to gear back up in a changed world, but still find a place where it can do what it needs to do, and serve the people of the city around it in a slightly different context too.”
“I don’t underestimate that the scale of that challenge, and it’s not a case of the job ever being done I don’t think, it will be ongoing as things are still shifting and we need to make sure we’re keeping pace and responding to that too.”
For now, Robin is celebrating, “the Palace and Opera House has been reopened for just over one year since the pandemic, over the course of that 12-month period, we’ve had more than three quarters of a million people come to see shows at the venues.”
“Given there was a time when we all wondered if theatres would ever open their doors again, that just feels like a fantastic achievement, and I’m so proud of the teams here who very practically had to prepare the theatres to reopen, and our communications team reaching back out to people, and the team who put together this brilliant programme, which has been a big draw for people.”
Manchester Opera House is currently home to the UK Premiere of Mrs. Doubtfire The Musical, “we’re really proud of the strand of our programme which is that ‘Manchester sees it first’, and they’ve got some really good examples of that happening at the Opera House prior to me arriving here. But there’s nothing quite like the excitement of sitting down for that very first performance of a brand-new production, knowing that yes, you’re literally in a room with the first people in the country ever to see it.”
“When that can happen in a place like Manchester, rather than in London, it feels really special I think. For the producers as well, there’s real advantages to be able to create and develop work slightly outside of the intense spotlight of London.”
Robin is clearly excited that people in Manchester get to see Mrs. Doubtfire first, “It is a really brilliant show, and a fantastic night out. It’s got great authenticity to the spirit of the movie, which of course there’s such fondness for, and a really astonishingly impressive lead performance from Gabriel Vick, who has to deliver all of the incredible repeated transformations from Daniel to Mrs. Doubtfire, but right in front of the audience’s eyes!”
Emerging from the crisis that was the pandemic, The Palace and Opera House now face a new challenge, “like every business, but in some cases more so, the economic pressures are really challenging at the moment. We’ve got two great big buildings with enormous footprints, and historic design which means that the costs of running the buildings in terms of utilities is just going up and up and up, and like every business, we’re facing supply costs of all kinds as well.”
“We know you can’t just simply put all of that onto the ticket price, especially whilst inflation is doing whatever it’s doing, because we don’t want to get to a point where coming to the theatres is unaffordable for our audiences either. So it feels like a particularly difficult thing to experience so soon after having worked our way through the pandemic.”
This means the upcoming programme is particularly important for the two theatres, and Robin is excited about the kind of productions coming in, “we’ve got a great programme, including some really big name shows like Jersey Boys, Beautiful the Carol King Musical, and Dreamgirls. I can’t wait for English National Ballet’s magnificent Swan Lake which is coming up too.”
“Then of course, The Lion King arrives at the Palace for an extended run from the end of October, which is going to be just a massive event for the theatre, and hopefully for the city too.”
“As ever we’ll finish with another brilliant Panto at the Opera House, this time Peter Pan starring our own local hero Jason Manford, and Ben Nickless, who many people will remember from the final of Britain’s got talent this year.”
For The Palace and Opera House to survive, Robin knows a terrific programme won’t be enough, “because of the amazing history and heritage of our beautiful historic buildings, both of them well over 100 years old, the experience for audiences of visiting our buildings may be even more special in a way.”
“So one thing that’s happened over the last just few months is we’ve launched a new creative learning programme, and the plan for that is to open up and connect the buildings much more for people across the city region, something outside of the traditional show going experience.”
“We’re launching a new series of backstage tours, to give people a chance to see behind the scenes and learn a bit more about their incredible buildings and their history and heritage, and then alongside that, starting to engage more with schools and young people and different communities to bring the buildings to life a during the day as well.”
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Robin is committed making the Palace and Opera House an important part of Manchester life, “this is a city which has always prized culture as a really important part of people’s lives, even more so probably now, it’s incredibly humbling to be a part of it.”