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I Want Your Job: Theatre Manager  
In the first of a two-part interview, we get an insight into what it's like to run one of the West End's best-loved theatres...
Gareth Parnell

Gareth Parnell, who has worked as Theatre Manager at the London Palladium for 15 years, tells us what his job entails – and how he feels about working in one of the world’s foremost variety theatres, which has been entertaining audiences for nearly 100 years…

What is your background?
I did a degree in English Lit and some drama at university. I have no technical qualifications in stage management, but I think a passion for theatre is more important than formal qualifications in this role – my House Manager and Assistant Stage Manager also came up through the ranks.  We have a great system here where we are constantly looking at our staff to identify those who have a particular talent for the role.

How long have you worked at the Palladium?

15 years. Before that, I worked for Stoll Moss theatres, so I worked in every theatre the company owned – including the playhouses. I used to spend a day a week in each theatre.

What are your typical hours?
You can work one of two shifts, usually it’s either 10am – 6pm or 2pm until the time the show finishes.

These are much more sociable hours than they used to be, aren’t they?
Yes.  I was talking to the son of George Margrave, who was the manager here in the 50s during the big era of the Palladium and he was saying that the workload back then actually ended up killing his father. He would never see him because he would virtually spend all his life in the Palladium he would leave home to be at the theatre by 9am and then he’d return about 1 o’clock in the morning when his wife would cook him dinner, and then do the same all over again the next day.

Where there more shows in the theatre each week then?

Yes, it was twice-nightly, 6.30 and 8.30.  Then of course on Sunday the big ATV production of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which is a tradition that continues today really, with our Sunday concerts. I love Sunday concerts because it’s rock’n’roll, or comedy, or concerts – so that’s great stuff.  But if you’re not careful, the theatre can get a hold on you – and you have to get home. You have to get that work/life balance.

Do you select the team that work with you yourself?
I pretty much am in charge of the selection process, which is excellent. I’ve got a fantastic team with me now. I’ve got a House Manager, an ASM, a Bar & Catering Manager – because our Bar & Catering operation has really expanded in the last four years, it’s very very successful. Also with Merchandise operations being what they are these days I’ve also got two very hands-on guys in the office who deal with just the retail side of things as well. So between the 6 of us, we’re a close-knit team and we sort of run the theatre form upstairs really.

In the 15 years that you’ve been here, what is the biggest change that you’d say you’ve seen?
The change of technology and communications has helped amazingly – the advances in automation, the fact that we used to have to have 30 crew a show and now it’s 2 guys behind a desk. With the advent of the internet and communications technology, it’s made our lives a lot easier, a lot more focused. I joined the company in 1987 or 1988 – things seem quite Dickensian now!

What departments do you work most closely with?

Obviously very closely with my crew, and liaising very closely with the resident company, as you always do. We’re one big, amorphous happy family really!

Do you get to work with the cast of the shows?
I think you can become as involved with the cast as you’d like to be. To be honest, there is a company manager for that, so I liaise with her. And if they’ve got any issues whatsoever that they’d like to take up with me, I’m the person who’s addressing them!

The London Palladium is possibly one of the most famous theatres in the world.  You clearly have a particular affinity with this theatre. What do you like most about being involved here?
The Palladium is very very special, and every year it throws up more of its secrets and its joys. Not a month goes past when someone doesn’t call me who worked here in the 40s or 50s or 60s, they’d like to come in, and I show them around and hear their anecdotes… it has a very special place in the affections of people across the world. And not a week goes by when you don’t hear that.

Are there any ghosts in the Palladium?
No!  People keep trying to persuade me there’s a ghost, but if there was I’d have seen it by now, believe me! Not an inkling, not a chain rattling… so no, I don’t believe so! I’m open to influence on this one, but I’ve spent so many nights in this theatre in the dead of night, alone, that if a ghost existed they would have made contact by now, just out of politeness really…!

So the Palladium holds no secrets?
Nothing that I can divulge!

In the years you’ve been there, have you got a favourite production?

It always changes, to be honest with you, because there’s been some terrific ones obviously.  Oliver!, because it is the show I started with… Saturday Night Fever was great – to work closely with Robert Stigwood and the Bee Gees – Robert Stigwood was a huge legend in the pop world in the 60s, and a great character!  The King And I of course was great and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was groundbreaking, just an amazing production. And then The Sound of Music, which was phenomenal – the whole way it was launched, the production was just first-class. They’re all great! I can’t really distinguish, I love them all in their own way.

Check back next week as Gareth tells us how he got into theatre management.

Posted on: 15th July 2009

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