Meet Julian Bird, Chief Executive for the Society of London Theatre and producer of the biggest night in theatre, The Olivier Awards. We chat with him about the changes in the theatre industry, what it’s like to work in the heart of the theatrical world and the upcoming
Words: Tomm Ingram
You’ve been the Chief Executive at SOLT since 2010. What changes in the London theatre industry have you seen since then, and how has SOLT adapted to these changes?
The great thing about the theatre industry is how fast it changes and adapts, with new productions and artists, while also celebrating some of the long-running productions that people know and love. Technological changes are enabling theatre designers to do more amazing things, from projection to video, lighting to automated scenery. In addition, more people are coming to theatre performances each year.
How would you describe your job to somebody who doesn’t know the ins-and-outs of theatre and the West End?
My role is hugely varied – but probably overall it is to promote and advocate for our world-leading theatre industry, whether that is to politicians, stakeholders, in tourism or just to people who might be considering coming to see a show. We also have a long-range view too about the industry on areas such as inspiring the next generation of theatre professionals, making theatre a more inclusive and accessible working environment, and enabling young people to experience live theatre.
The West End doesn’t tend to have ‘seasons’ like Broadway. Is there ever such thing as a ‘quiet’ time of year in the world of theatre?
The honest answer is not really! To give an example, around 110 productions open each year that are eligible for the main theatre categories at the Olivier Awards – so we have new shows opening all-year-round. This, of course, is fantastic both for Londoners and people visiting from around the UK and the world, because there is always something new to experience.
The Olivier Awards is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, night of the year for UK theatre. What are the most challenging aspects of putting it all together?
I guess the most challenging part is the sheer logistical exercise of the biggest single show in the year, plus a major media event on the red carpet, three live TV broadcasts on the night, and thousands of people on and off-stage.
I have the most extraordinary team who work with me on it, and it’s very much a team effort!
After all the hard work pays off and the awards are over for another year, how soon after are you planning the next one?
We are always working more than a year ahead on different aspects, whether that is with broadcasters, sponsors, the venues, or potential content ideas. But the Oliviers are just one of the major elements of the year – other public highlights include West End Live (where we take over Trafalgar Square for a weekend in June and all the shows come and perform for free) and Kids Week (our August promotion to enable children to visit the theatre free with a paying adult).
Is there anywhere you like to go or anything you like to do to unwind from the busy life of the theatre?
Travel is my major other passion – both in the UK and abroad – coupled with the opportunity to try different food wherever we travel. But I do genuinely adore going to the theatre and many other arts in my spare time too!
What shows are on your radar at the moment? And what’s coming up that you are most excited for?
We have just had a wide range of wonderful new shows open, from musicals such as Come From Away,
9 to 5 The Musical and Only Fools and Horses The Musical, to plays such as The Price and All About Eve. The schedule for the year ahead looks just as exciting, coupled with some major anniversaries of shows in the West End, not least the West End productions of Mamma Mia! and Disney’s The Lion King both celebrating their 20th anniversaries.