The Assembly Hall’s new director JJ Almond spoke to Eileen Leahy exclusively about his creative vision for the much loved venue and why he believes it’s a place where people from all areas of the borough should benefit from and enjoy visiting
Although John-Jackson Almond has only been in his new role of director at the Assembly Hall just shy of six months he’s already starting to make his mark at one of the borough’s most established and well-loved theatres.
Having succeeded former director Brian McAteer in May this year, John-Jackson – or JJ as he likes to be known – stresses two things repeatedly throughout the course of our exclusive chat. The first is that he is very keen for the Assembly Hall to be used a lot more for the good of the local community and secondly he’d like it to be a little more flexible, not just in terms of the content it puts on but in terms of working with other creative venues.
Having been joint executive director and producer at London’s Park Theatre for the past three and a half years and in that time produced ten plays, some of which ended up at the National Theatre and in the West End, JJ certainly seems to have all the right credentials for his new role. So how did it come about?
“I was looking for a bigger, better challenge,” he says. “I loved being at the Park Theatre but after sharing the overall responsibility there I wanted to do something independently.”
In terms of having a creative brief to follow, JJ says there isn’t one.
“What I want to see more of in the programme is really good, high quality West End shows. We’ve got Mousetrap coming here which is a classic and celebrating its 60th year. But I’m also hoping we can get other big shows which are now going out on tour such as The Wedding Singer and Footloose.”
Another thing that JJ is changing is the number of tribute bands that come and play.
“I think there are some really good ones like The Counterfeit Stones and Killer Queen, but ultimately there will be less of this genre. We need to clean through the programme and see what shows people aren’t coming to.”
This is easily evaluated by simply judging the ‘number of bums on seats.’
But JJ’s approach to finessing the cultural content offered by the Assembly Hall is also very democratic. Since he arrived he’s opened up a valuable conversation with the audience themselves.
“I’m very keen that we talk to them more,” he confirms. “We’ve now put out surveys after each show to get a steer on what our audiences did and didn’t enjoy about a particular performance. I’m really interested in people’s feedback and all of it comes directly to me.”
Another area JJ says he wants to strike up positive relationships with are the other creative hubs in the town.
“We are lucky to have so many such as Trinity theatre, The Forum, The Grey Lady and the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery so it’s about working out how we capitalise on all our assets. “
But all that, he says, is currently chalked up as plans for the future. For now JJ is happy finding his feet and working out what will best benefit the people of Tunbridge Wells and the Assembly Hall.
“Commercially speaking of course I want ticket sales of 100% but if there’s one major message I’d like to get out there is we’ve got a cultural asset that we can sing from the roof tops about – and it’s your theatre. I’m in no way saying use it or lose it, just make more of it.”