Steve Orme Interviews – Peter Ireson – Venue Director at Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall
“The East Midlands has been a hotbed of entertainment for decades – and Nottingham can rightly claim to be the region’s capital when it comes to attracting big names.”
Although acts and tastes come and go, one asset that has remained constant is Nottingham’s Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall.
Well over half a million people visit the venue each year to see more than 600 performances including rock musicals, ballet and everything in between.
Being responsible for putting on those shows might be a daunting prospect for some people. But Peter Ireson who has been venue director since 2019 and has worked in all areas of the performing arts reckons it’s his dream job.
“Obviously I have my nervous times as the boss. It’s a great privilege but it’s also a big responsibility. Over Covid I worried about the venue and I worried about the staff – but it’s what I chose for my career and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Covid managed to do something that not even two world wars had achieved: the closure of the complex. Since reopening in June 2021 after being out of action for 15 months, the venue has regained its reputation as a place to go for a great night’s entertainment.
The Theatre Royal, with its classic façade and Corinthian columns, cost £15,000 when it opened in 1865. Most of the country’s major touring productions now stop off at the 1,107-seat theatre which hosted the premiere of Agatha Christie’s masterpiece The Mousetrap in 1952. It’s been described as “one of the most beautiful Victorian theatres in Britain”.
In 1982 the £12 million Royal Concert Hall was completed, with Elton John the first act to perform in the 2,257-seater auditorium whose acoustics are said to be among the best in Europe.
Peter acknowledges that he and his team have a responsibility to the arts community: “We very much see ourselves as custodians of those buildings. They were there before I was of working age and they’ll be there long after.
“My job is to keep the venue going and keep it successful. It’s about keeping the business sustainable and handing it on to the next generation of theatre workers and producers.
“We’re trying to develop and grow the venue to get more people involved and see how live entertainment can connect, inspire and challenge people.
“That’s what drives me on as well as the financial and artistic success of the venue. It’s for the people of Nottingham and surrounding areas. It’s a great resource.”
Peter has 30 years’ experience in venue management and arts administration. He got the bug with his first job in the mid-1980s, at London’s Mermaid Theatre where he was selling ice creams. “It was infectious. I just love it and I still get that buzz,” says Peter.
He actually worked at the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall in the 1990s as a front-of-house manager before leaving to run his first venue: Bedworth Civic Hall. That led to multiple roles at Derby city council where he spent 16 years.
There he was responsible for large outdoor events and oversaw tourism as well as being director of Derby LIVE. One of his achievements was reopening the old Derby Playhouse as Derby Theatre in 2009 after the venue had gone into administration. That enabled him to lift the Theatrical Management Association’s manager of the year award.
“The theatre industry was so relieved that such a popular, long-standing venue had actually been saved because there was a real concern that it could be lost to the city,” Peter explains.
He recalls that he loved his time when he first worked at the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall: “It was always in the back of my mind that my dream job would be to go back there as the boss. I was absolutely thrilled when I managed to secure that role.”
The venue is owned by Nottingham city council and has to balance its books by taking in touring productions – it doesn’t produce any of its own shows. So does Peter agonise about having rows of empty seats for a particular event?
“Most theatre managers wake up in the night worrying about those things. We’ve got staple shows which always do very well, like The Rocky Horror Show which will come around every couple of years.
“Research has shown that people are cultural omnivores. They have much more diverse and broader tastes than we sometimes imagine. Like any business, we’ve got the shows which you might call bankers which will always do really well. But tastes do change over time, so you’ve got to be looking for the new shows.
“Some do really well and some don’t do so well. We rely on promoters and producers who are looking for the next big thing, who are looking to develop shows.”
Peter outlines the success of the Theatre Royal: “Everybody who is anybody in British theatre in the past 150 years has played that venue. It’s been on the touring circuit of British theatre for so long.
“It’s an absolutely gorgeous building to work in. Whenever I invite new people to the city and I show them around, they’re absolutely blown away by it. The way it’s set out no one’s that far away from the stage. It feels really intimate and it’s a great experience for both performers and audiences.”
While going to work may be an ordeal for some people, it’s a joy for 61-year-old Peter: “You walk into the venue and some days there’s a large rock show getting in, there are roadies everywhere and flight cases being pushed around. There can be a big musical and you can hear the cast being called to the stage. Sometimes it’s just a magical place to be in, with so many creative people and then see the audiences turning up and their anticipation. At the end people walk away having had a great experience and being thrilled and uplifted.”
Does Peter feel the Royal Concert Hall is missing out because the biggest acts will go up the road to play at Nottingham Arena?
“Not really. There’s room in the city for everything. What’s great about Nottingham is that you’ve got a diverse range of venues. You’ve got Rock City, voted best rock club in the country, you’ve got the Arena which gets the really big acts, you’ve got us, the Playhouse and Lakeside Arts. It’s horses for courses.
“We work closely together. We’re all part of the cultural ecology of the city. We do our best to complement rather than compete. Overall it gives a very rounded, comprehensive offer.”
Peter says he looks forward most of all to two events at the venue: the annual pantomime which last year featured Shane Richie in Dick Whittington and the Classic Thriller Season which is held every summer.
He’s ambitious for the venue as much as for himself: “I have a fantastic team here and we’re always looking at how we can do things better, how we can engage more people and how we can grow audiences. That’s what makes us get out of bed every day.”