Meet the brand new boss at York’s Grand Opera House – as he talks about upping the game, going digital, and what audiences can expect
John-Jackson (JJ) Almond is the new theatre director at the Grand Opera House, taking over from Rachel Lane, who had been with the venue since 2018.
JJ Almond began his extensive theatre career at the young age of 16 as a casual box office manager at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth, his home town.
After completing a business degree at the University of Plymouth, JJ worked at the Plymouth Theatre Royal box office before leaving to train as an artistic director at Mountview in London.
From there, he has held roles in a variety of theatres such as duty manager, artistic director and joint chief executive – and he has producer and director credits under his belt too. In 2003 he even had a brief stint at York Theatre Royal!
For the past six years he has been theatre director at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells.
From his first theatre job as a teenager, JJ, now 44, has made a new home as theatre director at Grand Opera House York.
YorkMix sat down with JJ to find out more about his plans for the Grand Opera House, what he thinks of York and what he’s most looking forward to.
Q&A with JJ Almond
What is your vision for the Grand Opera House?
I think we just have to go ‘where are we? What do we need? How do we contribute? How do we make that happen?’ The programming is centralised, but we do look at data and insights into what will sell, what should sell, what should fit in the programme, what will appeal to the audience of York – but that has to fit into a bigger national picture for the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG).
We want to up the game a little bit. We’ve got Blood Brothers, but we’ve also got We Will Rock You coming, we’ve got The Rocky Horror Show coming. So I think we were seeing already that there’s some greater kind of uplift in the programme. We’re never going to be able to have Lion King because it just won’t fit into the building. So we have to be realistic about what the building can host. We will start to see the production value of some of the shows being at a higher level as we progress the programme.
It’s been a difficult 20 months for the theatre industry – has the Grand Opera House bounced back after the pandemic?
Being part of a massive group in a pandemic has been hugely helpful to all of the venues, not just this one. [Theatre owner] ATG has taken some really great measures during the pandemic. It protected a lot of jobs – there are 58 theatres across the whole of the world in three different countries for this group. So it’s really tried to protect as much of its core staffing as possible. It has had to make some difficult choices, it’s had to look at how we find economies of scale in some of our departments and structure. But all of that is about protecting our ability to continue to keep our buildings open and operate them as best we can.
That’s trickling down into the venues, which means we’re in a good state, we have had investment, we hope for future investment. ATG wants to invest in the programme, and we’ll look at what we can do physically with the venue.
In terms of the actual venue, we’re in a Grade II listed building, it needs some TLC. In the pandemic, lots of buildings haven’t had that kind of day to day detailed care and attention because they haven’t been open.
What can we expect to be done differently?
It’s early days. One thing that I can say is I think we need to have some digital transformation. We need to think about how we apply ourselves in the digital world. We’re in a city that has a particular demographic for the audience that engage with the theatre in tried and tested traditional means. But there’s a whole audience segment out there that engage digitally, and we need to embrace that end of the audience spectrum and try and develop our audience and develop new custom coming into us.
Internally, I think the team are getting the impression that I would like to be as paperless as possible. I’ve done that in two organisations, it’s painful to get to paperless because people like their paper. But ultimately, once you get there, it’s a whole world of difference. You find more space in the building! A paperless approach is a bit more sustainable and environmentally friendly as well.
How are you enjoying being back in York?
It’s lovely to be back. It’s a beautiful city. I walk to work across a river – it’s just amazing. My recollection of my time here in the summer as well is that when the sun’s hitting those buildings, it’s like the whole city has a sense of warmth about it. I’m really excited to be back.
What is it that you love most about the theatre?
Theatre has the power to make change. That’s the thing that I’m most passionate about. On a conscious and a subconscious level when you watch a show, if it’s a show that makes you think, challenges you or has messages within it, it empowers people to make changes in their own lives.
Even just the way to have conversations with people, or it stimulates debate which makes people think differently, or there’s cathartic moments within a piece of theatre that you are able to have an emotional release from, theatre’s got so much power in just the stuff that we see in the programme here.
Ultimately, we’re putting theatre in front of people to encourage and empower change – and I think that’s essential, as we grow as people, for our minds to form in a way that make us round sensible human beings with kindness at our heart.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
Marrying my husband! Professionally, it’s hard as there’s so much to look back on and reflect on. I did a production of something called Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens in 2010, which is where I met my husband. It’s an AIDS musical. It’s monologues and songs – the monologues are from people that have died from AIDS, and the songs are from people that are living that have been touched by the virus in some way.
To do it properly you need a cast of 40 – so it’s huge. We got 40 people to volunteer their time every day for a month to deliver that show in London at the Shaw Theatre, and the money that was raised from it went to the Terrence Higgins Trust. To lead a production like that, I think that’s a really proud moment.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to seeing audiences enjoy themselves in front of live entertainment again. Sold out shows, people having fun and enjoying themselves.