New stage director at Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
- Credit: Archant
The Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells’ new director joins at an exciting time in the theatre’s history
John-Jackson (‘JJ’) Almond brims with enthusiasm as he talks about his new role as theatre director of the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, a post that has been vacant since Brian McAteer left in November 2015.
The 39-year-old has worked in the performing arts sector for more than 20 years, starting as a teenager running the manual box office at the 100-seat Barbican Theatre in his home town of Plymouth, where he also studied for a business degree before training as a director.
His most recent role was executive director at Park Theatre, London, where he oversaw the opening and operation of the new purpose-built theatre in Finsbury Park for its first three years.
It’s experience that will stand him in very good stead for the journey ahead. “I want to deliver a new theatre for the end of 2020, so my future is here,” he says firmly. Currently commuting, JJ is looking to relocate as soon as possible to Tunbridge Wells, which wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar town, as he brought Cissie and Ada to the council-owned venue three years ago, before the 1,000-seater theatre had been through its major £1.5m refurbishment last summer.
We’re chatting in the revamped theatre bar the day after a planning meeting where the Leader of the Council and the majority of councillors voted in favour of “continuing the journey” towards a new civic complex and state-of-the-art theatre and moving to planning permission stage.
There’s much still to consider, including the final site and size of the new building, but JJ knows what he wants: “We have to have a theatre that serves the productions and gives them the technical facilities they need, plus a facility that is comfortable and enjoyable for people to come to shows. You can’t escape the fact that we’re running a business, so we have to make sure the building will have appropriate running costs and the appropriate ability to generate income.
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“We want the customer experience to be better and more engaging and to deliver a theatre that is designed for that experience. The (1930s-built) Assembly Hall was never designed with either the customer or the show in mind.”
JJ is also keen that the relationship between producer and theatre director is improved. “I can bring a different culture in terms of how we look at securing bigger and better shows and having better relationships with producers.
“I’ve produced shows myself, so I get how important that is. They need to feel that we’re a supportive venue, that we want them here and want to sell their shows.”
That awareness could see a change in the type of shows coming to Tunbridge Wells. “I want bigger, better and more week-long running shows,” JJ tells me, citing 2013’s sell-out Cabaret with Will Young as a successful example he hopes Rent will emulate in 2017. This November brings Mousetrap in its 60th year production year, he’d even contemplate Shakespeare, The Tempest being his favourite. and he loves shows like Ragtime that have “an absolute heart.”
JJ plans to reduce the number of tribute bands, concentrating on quality rather than quantity. He now has a weekly programming meeting with his key managers to make better future decisions and guarantee those ‘bums on seats.’
“When this theatre is full it’s an amazing feeling and an amazing place to be,” he says. “But there’s a gap between the audience we have and know and can talk to and the audience we don’t have a conversation with regularly or who indeed don’t know we are here.”
JJ is keen on getting the community to feel “a sense of ownership” of the building. “The theatre is basically a department of the local authority and funded by the local tax payers, so there has to be a delivery over and above simple entertainment,” he emphasises.
He welcomes the new cultural consortium that has been set up by Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery that also includes Trinity, Strangeface, Applause, The Puppetry Festival and The Forum “all talking together to make sure we are all engaging with one another and delivering the cultural strategy.”
JJ is also having meetings with the theatre’s own ‘communities’, such as Royal Tunbridge Wells Philharmonic Orchestra, TWAODS and Tunbridge Wells International Art Festival, who use the theatre regularly.
“We want to create a wider cultural awareness of what is going on through the whole borough,” says JJ, who is keen on helping older and younger theatregoers who may be isolated from transport links by working with local bus and taxi firms to pick people up.
With a greater sense of leadership and direction, the Assembly Hall Theatre’s present, and future, life is in very capable hands.
Find out more
Assembly Hall Theatre, Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LU
01892 530613, www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk