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Half in London, half in Cleveland: Craig Hassall prepares to lead Playhouse Square

Craig Hassall will come to Cleveland next year, after a six-year run leading London's famed Royal Albert Hall. [Paradise, Andy /  ]
Craig Hassall will come to Cleveland next year, after a six-year run leading London's famed Royal Albert Hall.

Playhouse Square will have a new CEO next year when Craig Hassall arrives from Royal Albert Hall to lead the nation’s second-largest performing arts district.

Ideastream Senior Reporter Kabir Bhatia: London and Sydney are a little larger than Cleveland — what made you gravitate toward this opportunity?

Hassall: I've always had a desire to work in the United States. I've worked in Sydney and I've worked in the U.K. now and it just made sense, at some point in my career, to try out something in the States. I had never heard of Playhouse Square, to be honest, and the recruiting firm found me here in London and talked about it. Honestly, the more I learned about Playhouse Square and also about Cleveland, the more interesting the idea became to me. And then the clincher for me was actually visiting Cleveland and seeing Playhouse Square and seeing the venues — which are extraordinary. I mean, it's one of the best kept secrets about the U.S. performing arts market, I would say.

Bhatia: In your current position, you shepherded Royal Albert Hall through the COVID-19 pandemic and its first closure since World War II. What are your plans here as we emerge from this pandemic?

Hassall: For the creative sector, for our world, there are two things to look to. One is getting the sector back on its feet, artistically, in terms of touring shows and artists. The freelance sector suffered hugely during COVID. If you're a freelance writer, musician, actor makeup artist [they] had no work for almost two years. So, the sector has suffered hugely in terms of the people that worked in our business. And the other thing is staff. Staff working in places like Playhouse Square, the Sydney Opera House or [the Royal Albert Hall], it was hard. We're all working remotely. And one thing I did here at the Hall: I was really keen to hang on to our staff, not lose our staff. So we found a way to keep everyone employed all the way through and that was important. I love our staff. They're wonderful. But also it means remobilizing, coming out of COVID, is much faster if you have all the staff who know how to open the doors and turn on the taps and all those things.

Bhatia: When it comes to staff, just after you were announced as the new CEO, many security guards in Downtown Cleveland said they want to unionize. Any thoughts on that?

Hassall: I've worked with unions all my life. When I was in Australia, the opera company [had] lots of different unions: the crew, the building, security guards, so I'm quite used to working with unions. I think all unions really want is what's best for their constituents — who are the staff. I think the important thing is to have an open and transparent discussion. There's no point hiding anything. Ultimately, we all want the same thing and I find, if you're just very upfront about what you can afford ... work with unions to prioritize what we can afford and see what's possible. I'm always willing to have a discussion with unions and I've done that throughout my whole life.

Bhatia: You're arriving in February, just before the Cleveland International Film Festival gets underway. What are your thoughts on new programming, or expanding certain types of shows, at Playhouse Square?

Hassall: The key, really, for me is not to come in and suddenly just change everything. They key is to come in and understand the pattern of touring, the audience appetite, the kinds of audiences we have. I don't know any of that yet. So, it would be a mistake for me to come in and say, 'You know what? We're gonna program a jazz festival for three weeks of the year.' Because there may be no audience for jazz — I don't know. Or a film noir festival. I mean, I just don't know. The trick is to work with the team at Playhouse Square, who do a brilliant job, and find out what works. There's probably a lot of things they've tried that may not have worked in the past and it be a mistake for me to come and just ignore that and crack on. So, the first six months is just [to] get my feet under the desk, talk to the staff and work out what's going on in Playhouse Square. And then work with the board and the staff on what I might want to do in the future. There is great potential to grow audiences and repertoire as well.

Bhatia: As you look back on your career at the Royal Albert Hall, what are some of the shows that really stick out in your mind?

Hassall: Before I give you examples, I'm not suggesting these are the things that I'm gonna say will work at Playhouse Square, because I need to find out. But just personally, here at the Royal Albert Hall, the day I arrived in London six years ago, Ed Sheeran was on stage with Liam Gallagher. And I was hosting Kate Middleton, as she was in those days, before she got married to Prince William. So there I was like, 'Oh my goodness, what an extraordinary night!'

After that, I remember there's a band called Kraftwerk. They're standing there with these four keyboards. They hardly moved the entire time, but behind them was this 3D screen and we're all wearing 3D glasses watching this. And I just loved their music. That was an absolute highlight.

The other one is very recent. There's a guy called Bonobo... he's a British trip hop DJ. He's about 40 years old and his music is very sort of trippy and just so relaxing. He performed five sold out nights here. On the last night, he happened to run into a woman called Anna Lapwood, who's an organist and she's our one of our associate artists. She was rehearsing the organ at 1:00 o'clock in the morning. [Bonobo] was in here just hanging out and heard her and said, 'You're amazing; you've got to be in my last show.' So he wrote a piece for her to be the finale of his final show the next night. It was so exciting. I loved that [and] it was one of those really magical nights at the Royal Albert Hall.

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