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‘Perth has got its mojo back’: Theatre and Concert Hall chief Nick Williams reveals secret to venues’ ‘most successful year ever’

The outgoing chief executive is confident he's leaving the arts organisation in a good place as he embarks on a new role in London.

Outgoing chief executive Nick Williams has turned the once-ailing Perth Theatre and Concert Hall into a hub of artistic activity. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.
Outgoing chief executive Nick Williams has turned the once-ailing Perth Theatre and Concert Hall into a hub of artistic activity. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

When Nick Williams took the wheel at Perth Theatre and Concert Hall in 2019, he steered it out of what he calls a “sticky situation”.

“There’s a lot of well-reported troubles from that era, primarily financial,” says Nick candidly.

“I think the organisation had lost sight of what its audiences wanted, in the end.”

Back then, the Swansea-born arts management veteran’s remit was to revive a venue which had drifted into stagnation.

He moved up from London – his home of almost 20 years – to Perth’s North Inch, and began enjoying his “shortest ever” commute of eight minutes’ walk from home to work.

He had no way to know that just a few months into his new role, the world as we all knew it would erupt, and the theatre and concert hall would be closed down by Covid-19.

Nick Williams at the empty concert hall during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Image: DC Thomson.

“Obviously leading through the pandemic was uncharted waters,” laughs Nick wryly. “It was for everyone.”

With the organisation already in trouble, the pandemic which saw arts venues deemed “non-essential” could well have been the final nail in the Perth Theatre and Concert Hall’s coffin.

But against all odds, the venue has just celebrated its most successful year on record, with visitor numbers exceeding their targets by 40% and the organisation delivering a £16 million economic impact to the area in 2022-2023.

So what changed? What is the secret to this sudden success?

What do the people of Perth want?

“Give the people what they want,” says Nick simply.

Or at least, it sounds simple – but he admits it’s not always the easiest thing to do when the relationship between a venue and its audiences has broken down over time.

“That’s one of the things we didn’t do very well previously – talk to our audience, and listen to them.”

So what do Perth audiences want? Familiar faces on stages, big names on classical bills, and a great night out, according to Nick.

And while local peoples’ tastes in concerts and plays may be hard to pin down – “different people want to see different things” – one message Nick heard loud and clear from the get-go was that money talks.

The popular theatre subscription programme, which was axed when Perth Theatre closed for redevelopment in 2014, was never brought back. And as an incomer, Nick soon saw that it was a priority for the people in his community.

“I remember I was at an outside event at the Black Watch museum in the summer of 2021,” he recalls. “And literally 10 people in a row said: ‘Oh, I remember the theatre subscription, that was great.’

“I thought, ‘OK, this is such a clear steer’. So we brought it back this year.”

Audiences responded, with 300 people signing up for the subscription programme immediately.

And Nick reckons it was that willingness to accommodate changing audience needs which ultimately saw Perth Theatre and Concert Hall through the dicey 18 months of lockdowns, when the youth theatre, Little Stars programme and even panto were all moved online.

Gig on a Truck was standout success

“The arts were deemed non-essential [during Covid], and interestingly, our vision statement is to make the performing arts essential to our communities,” he says.

“Every time there was a change in the rules, we stepped into that space. Because we very strongly believed that we were providing people with a way out of the difficulties of that time, even if it was just for an hour or so.”

Perth Theatre’s panto dame Barrie Hunter promoting the 2020 online panto. Image: Steve MacDougall / DCT Media.

It’s clear from the way that he swells with pride that for Nick, a shining success of the venues’ pandemic programme was its Gig on a Truck venture.

The project saw musicians travelling to care homes across Perth and Kinross to play small concerts to residents who were stuck, and separated from loved ones by regulations.

“After the terrible stories of what happened in care homes, we really wanted to respond to what those residents needed,” he says earnestly.

After the pilot week, the Gig on a Truck team went on to perform a whopping 63 concerts across the region in 2021, proving that for those whose lives were made small by the restrictions, entertainment really was essential.

Perth musician Katie Whittaker toured care homes with Gig on a Truck in 2021. Image: Ian Potter.

And Nick reveals that Concert Hall was the first venue in the UK to host a live audience again in May 2021 with five sold-out lunchtime classical concerts, which were broadcast by Radio 3.

“We were only allowed 100 people in the 1,200-seat Concert Hall,” he explains. “But people were queuing in the street, waiting to come into those gigs when we opened the doors. That was a really strong marker that what we do is really important to our audiences.”

New chapter for Nick, and for Perth venues

Now as he gets ready to embark on a new chapter running a London-based arts complex, Nick is confident that the Perth Theatre and Concert Hall team are well equipped to continue his legacy of communication and close relationships with the audience.

And he remains moved by the “unmatched loyalty” of Perth audiences for their theatre and concert hall.

“Thousands of people, rather than taking a refund, donated their ticket money and said ‘we want you to be here when we come back’,” he says.

Peter Cargill and wife Sheena Cargill showed support for Perth Theatre during lockdown. Image: Steve MacDougall / DCT Media.

“And actually, it was a really moving expression of where we sit within local people’s thinking.

“I think that’s part of the catalyst for the successful year we’ve had coming out of Covid, is that people have gone: ‘This organisation needs us as much as we need it’.”

However, Nick emphasises that the onus is on Perth Theatre and Concert Hall to make their programme valuable to their audiences, quipping: “What’s the point of a show if no one comes to see it?”

Scottish exclusives have been a game-changer for the venues, making it a cultural hub not just for local audiences but for wider audiences as well.

“We’ve been running a whole bunch of talks before theatre shows,” explains Nick. “And one of the academics from Edinburgh University who’s been doing that said to me a few weeks back: ‘Perth has got its mojo back.’

“I think it’s been quite a long time since that has been broadly known, that people want to come here and see the stuff. And now about 34% of the audience come from outside Perth and Kinross, which is quite a decent number.”

No more ‘Horsecross Arts’

That said, it is the local audiences and the standing within the Perth community which Nick believes is key to ensuring the continued success of the Theatre and Concert Hall.

To that end, inclusion has been at the forefront of the venues’ recent rebrand, which saw it ditch the “confusing” moniker of Horsecross Arts and go back to the good old Perth Theatre and Concert Hall.

“It’s not a radical rebrand, it’s not like we’ve created a new name,” he explains. “In fact, we’ve got rid of the name that was confusing to people and just reverted to what people actually know us as, which is the theatre and the concert hall.

“You need to bring your audiences with you rather than push them away.”

Perth Concert Hall launch their new brochure ahead of the summer season with chief executive Nick Williams. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

And he witnessed first hand the effect that prioritising inclusion could have when the theatre staged Oh When The Saints, in partnership with St Johnstone FC, last summer.

“I had always said this is much of a civic role as it is an arts job, actually,” observes Nick. “Working with St Johnstone was really important, because we’re two major civic institutions.

“We did a lot of outreach work with the supporters’ clubs, with the club, to reach people who might not otherwise engage with Perth Theatre, and who might have had a certain perception of the theatre.

Colin McCredie in Oh When the Saints at Perth Theatre. Image: Perth Theatre.

“A number of people I chatted to in the foyer said: ‘Gosh, I haven’t been in here since I was a kid and we came to panto, and that was 50 years ago’. My question was: Why not?’

“And they’d say: ‘Well there wasn’t really anything for me. But this is for me.’

“Some of those people have started to come back, and we’ve seen that in our demographic stats,” he beams. “We saw that 34% of the people who came to that show were first-time bookers.”

Dressed up or dressed down, all are welcome

Frequently turning up to shows in “jeans and trainers”, Nick is keen to emphasise that there is no dress code or “posh, buttoned-up” atmosphere at Perth Theatre.

Likewise, he explains, the restructured Youth Theatre now has a £1 “no questions asked” bursary scheme, so that “any child from any background” can join without money being a barrier to access.

The cast of Oh When the Saints at Perth Theatre. Image: Publicity.

“We don’t ask questions,” assures Nick. “We don’t need to know.”

He knows all too well the effect that early access to the performing arts can have on a child, crediting his lifelong love of theatre and music to his chance to “have a go” at youth theatre and playing clarinet while growing up in Swansea.

“Exposure and engagement and the chance to have a go is really, really important for young people,” he says.

“We have a big programme here, we work really closely with the music service at the council. Our youth theatre is as strong as it ever has been, and we will be launching a Teenage Fan Club in the future.”

Future is bright for Perth Theatre and Concert Hall

Ultimately for Nick, the fact that Perth Theatre and Concert Hall is back on its feet means he’s “done the job I came to do”.

And with an upcoming programme including a major revival of Tally’s Blood for the first time in 20 years, a site-specific show in Dunkeld, and a performance from Perth Concert Hall super-fan Nicola Benedetti, he’s confident that the future is bright beyond his departure.

In any case, he knows that the audience will keep the venue staff right.

Nick Williams may be leaving for London, but he believes the future is bright for Perth Theatre and Concert Hall. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

“When we moved to digital ticketing, this 82-year-old woman came up to me in the foyer and said to me: ‘Now, I’ve got something to tell you.’

“I thought, oh dear here we go,” smiles Nick.

“She says: ‘All of these people in this queue, don’t let them tell you that digital ticketing is difficult. They’ve all been on easyJet!’

“And I thought, oh you’re so right!”