The Hackney Empire is now splendidly refurbished, but in the early nineties, when the place was ‘managed’ by the heroically unorthodox Roland Muldoon, you could glimpse the sky through holes in the roof. It was encounters like this that persuaded me to give up on my accidental life as a ‘consultant’ to arts and voluntary organisations. Consultants may know the cost of roofs but they rarely see the sky at all. Thank you, Roland. . . Published in the Guardian, 27 February 1993.
It was, as the organisers freely admitted, a budget production. The Wren Chamber Orchestra had been cut down to nine players, and the set was ‘unassertive’. A plywood door featured prominently, and anyone suffering a momentary failure of imagination in the closing scene might have wondered why Don Giovanni’s banqueting hall looked like the space between two pillars of a motorway flyover. Mozart’s opera had been trimmed, sheared of its chorus and squeezed into three hours to ensure that the musicians didn’t run into overtime.
There may only have been eight singers, but they were real professionals, and their performance was splendidly spirited. So were the costumes. Accustomed to performing in the open air at English Heritage sites, Opera Box don’t go for the current ‘painted Wellingtons and raincoats’ look. Having acquired a second hand wardrobe from the Coliseum, they step out in gaudy dressing-up-box style and are in no danger whatsoever of being overshadowed by the stage curtains with their luxurious crimson velvet, their golden ropes, tassles and fringes to match.
The appreciative audience was no run of the mill Covent Garden crowd either. There were certainly some well dressed visitors, even one unlikely looking young fellow in evening dress. But in general this was an unaccustomed, lower middle class crowd – a fact that was noticed with approval by the Deputy Leader of the Council, himself unexpectedly impressed by his first operatic experience.
One elderly lady whispered loudly through the first three minutes. She evidently had no idea what to make of the heads that turned towards her so sharply, and only fell silent once the real action had started and Don Giovanni was poking his rapier into the much-padded stomach of Il Commendatore. Some members of the audience brought drinks to their seats, while others watched the whole show from tables by the bar – a large area still sporting flock wallpaper left over from the days when the theatre was in use as a Bingo hall. Some were even smoking.
So Mozart arrives at the palace of variety that is the Hackney Empire. Don Giovanni steps out onto the stage that once belonged to Marie Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, and has since been rededicated to the cause of New Variety and used as a launchpad by the likes of Lenny Henry and Harry Enfield. The Empire is now a multi-cultural house of many audiences. Kurdish singers are followed by Jamaican comedians or the passionate gospel of the Five Blind Boys from Alabama. It’s Eartha Kitt and the Inkspots, then Ken Dodd and then a benefit concert – for Women Against Pit Closures, the Anti-Racist Alliance or, the Hackney Empire itself.
The Empire was devoted to popular variety from the start, but the three busts put in the foyer by the architect Frank Matcham are of classical composers.
‘Mozart, Haydn and Bach’, suggests administrative Director Ann Cartwright, concluding that in the early days Variety implied a broader conception of popular family entertainment than was in place by 1956, when the Empire went out of business with a performance of ‘Charlie the Chocolate Coloured Coon’.
‘Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven’, ventures artistic director Roland Muldoon, explaining that he himself more or less subscribed to the view that opera is elitist – until he watched a rehearsal of Don Giovanni and realised it was really ‘a formula musical’.
‘Handel, Purcell and Haydn’, says Brendan Wheatley, lead singer and organiser of Opera Box, who goes on to enthuse about the wonderful acoustics of Matcham’s ornate auditorium. He welcomes the chance to bring opera to a wider audience, and praises Muldoon for treating the event ‘just like a variety gig’ – flyposted publicity and all.
Meanwhile, there is much-reported trouble behind the scenes. The Hackney New Variety Management Company Limited, which programmes and runs the theatre, is faced with an accumulated deficit of £154, 000, up from £93,000 at the end of last year, and net current liabilities standing at £163,000.
The situation could hardly be otherwise. The Empire has always struggled along with a public subsidy ratio that has never risen beyond 16%. It wants to innovate but has no money to cover its risks. It wants to run more effectively, but cannot afford the necessary workers. So it gets by as it can – held together by the heroic endeavour of part-time staff, and heavy doses of self-exploitation all round.
The pattern is familiar enough, as is the downward spiral that can suddenly take over. Demoralisation tends to increase with the deficit. Tensions grow between the artistic side and the administration. The voluntary board members look into the abyss called ‘personal liability’, and get the jitters. They consider bringing in the liquidator and wonder, guiltily, whether their artistic director, a long-standing champion of seat-of-the pants survivalism, will be able to turn things around.
Since the building is safe in the hands of a separate trust, they may even be tempted by the idea of letting the management company go down with its debts, and then starting again with a clean slate. This is called letting your creditors pay for the relaunch – an innovative approach to arts funding that, even in these hard times, should not be recommended to the Arts Council as worthy of a pilot study. We must hope that the Hackney Empire is able to turn this corner, and that the various people and organisations that are in a position to help respond positively.
But there is a more general issue here, concerned with arts management. A few years ago I was asked to help assess a funding application from the Hackney Empire. The application was to be judged against a business plan giving projections for the next three years, and our conversations with Muldoon were interesting.
A business plan is, no doubt, a brave thing to wave in the face of the world. Part rudder and part flag, it should include a shared statement of intent, and be full of strategic deliberation and disciplined ambition. It is formed – as everyone in the arts world was told in the late eighties – after a proper assessment of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, and it is then put in place as a bulwark of reason against the swelling uncertainties of an imperfect world.
Talk to Roland Muldoon about this, and his eyes are likely to roll involuntarily up towards the ceiling. He counts off numerous cogent reasons why it is impossible for an organisation like the Hackney Empire to live by projections alone. Ask him about the deficit and, although he understands it very well, he will say something decidedly unreassuring like ‘it’s weird how the figures move around’. This is not the demeanour of the committed business planner, and Muldoon is fortunate to have other people in his administration who are willing to go the laborious distance with visiting assessors.
Yet if Muldoon is not a business planner, there can be little doubt that he is a manager of the most adroit kind. He knows how to get by. He can cope in the most inauspicious circumstances. He can back a hunch. It is thanks to these qualities that the Hackney Empire has achieved so much: building a collection of diverse and loyal audiences that must surely be the envy of many.
The conventional business planner is hardly likely to see things this way. Indeed, from his point of view, it is far from certain that the Hackney Empire has ever had any right to exist at all. The figures have always looked like a disaster waiting to happen. And when you really stop and examine it with managerial eyes, the Empire seems less like a properly consolidated organisation than a camp-site, a somewhat stabilised squat: part pub, part theatre, part carnival, part memory of the sixties. This may indeed be why the project has worked, but that awkward fact does not easily register in the mind of an upright Master of Business Administration.
So, faced with the hugely impressive achievements of the Hackney Empire, the arts world might ask the question again: who is the naive Utopian dreamer? Is it Roland Muldoon, who knows a hundred ways of juggling with the various columns of figures that would have closed him down ten times over if he had ever let them all land at once?
Or is it actually the visiting business planner, who steps in from a city consulting firm, and devises ideal schemes that really only make sense if you leave out the world as most arts organisations know it?
The consultants may come and go, and the business plans may change too. But Roland Muldoon will still be there, scratching his head, searching for his beret under the man who has accidentally sat on it, and laughing. He’s all for a business plan he says diplomatically, but ‘how do you plan when you’re ducking and diving and weaving all the time?’ As for the opera, ‘it’s all low-budget culture from now on,’ he says.
Back in the sixties, Muldoon and his wife used to call their theatre project ‘Living the Contradictions’, and he’s not going to change his ways now. These are pretty bleak times, he says, and they call for ‘a new fudge between amateurism and professionalism’.
Hackney’s Don Giovanni may make his final exit through Hellmouth, dragged off in a flamboyant panto-like display of flames and dry ice. But Roland Muldoon has other plans for the Empire. ‘We are going to trade our way out of deficit’, he says in an unexpected burst of management realism, ‘and then use the surplus to innovate’.
A chart on the wall behind him suggests that his strategy is already taking shape: coming soon – The Chippendales.
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