Let’s hear it for the Birmingham Hippodrome, officially Britain’s most popular theatre – but more than that, a much-loved and key player in the Southside community and beyond
We don’t have to tell these children how great Birmingham Hippodrome is – they already know it! Together with thousands of other local youngsters each year, they’ve been given their first taste of ‘the arts’ thanks to Britain’s most popular theatre… and as you can see they’re all just loving it. And they’re not the only ones. Last year, the Southside theatre notched up its highest-ever annual attendance figure since records began 50 years ago, with nearly 630,000 paid visitors from more than 50 countries as far afield as Australia, Japan, India and Brazil. The staggering figure officially made the Hippodrome the UK’s Number One Most Popular Theatre. A breakdown of the figures reveals that 40 per cent, or a quarter-of-a-million theatregoers, came from outside Birmingham and the West Midlands. According to Marketing Birmingham that generated a contribution to the local economy through visitor spending in the city of more than £60million. Impressive!
The theatre is well-known of course for its hugely successful major shows – the last 12 months have seen sold-out productions including Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, War Horse and a blockbuster Christmas pantomime that attracted an audience of more than 115,000 during its run. The Hippodrome is also the home of the world-leading Birmingham Royal Ballet and partner of DanceXchange which produces Birmingham’s annual International Dance Festival. It’s all a far cry from the trials and tribulations the theatre was facing over a decade ago after it was hit by unexpected costs incurred in redeveloping the building in Hurst Street. The Hippodrome site dates back to the 1890s when there was a stage and circus ring under the name the Tower of Varieties. This eventually became the Tivoli in 1900 and then the Hippodrome under the ownership of impresario Thomas Barrasford in 1903. The current neo-classical auditorium was designed in 1924.
Today, the theatre – a self-funding independent charity – has expanded well beyond what happens on the main stage. Under the banner Hippodrome Plus it runs a huge programme of education, access, free outdoor performances and activities as well as many workshops for the young, disadvantaged and disabled. Paul Kaynes, director of creative programmes who heads up Hippodrome Plus, said: “People don’t necessarily know about all the work that goes on in the community behind the scenes. We aim to bring the streets of Southside alive and this is primarily through reaching young people. Last year with all of our activities we reached 70,000 people this way.” This year the programme is even bigger and bolder and includes the exciting Summer in Southside, a mainly free open-air extravaganza of cultural activity being held on three consecutive weekends from 9 and 10 August in Hippodrome Square, Inge Street, Hurst Street and the Arcadian.
“We close the roads around Southside and put on all sorts of things on the streets during the day and the evening,” said Paul. “The first weekend is all about the arts and artists from the West Midlands, the second is a mix of amazing UK and foreign artists featuring circus, dance, theatre and roaming acts that just pop up here and there, and the third weekend is a huge audience participate dance event.” One of the amazing things about the Hippodrome Plus programme is that it is run by a core team of just five people, supported by 25 volunteers. Such a small team hasn’t prevented Paul’s outreach projects from becoming the envy of every other theatre in the land. “Most theatres work with young people and schools in some way but what picks us out is our work with children with learning disabilities. Also with young carers who have responsibilities way beyond their years to look after sick parents or other family members. We give them the chance to take a break from it all and come to us and just enjoy themselves. This is among the most special work that we do.
“Our aim is to reach the city’s most disadvantaged children in schools that are in less wealthy parts of the city. Children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to come to a theatre and enjoy the activities.” Paul is planning a number of exciting new Hippodrome Plus projects moving forward. Among these is a yet-to-be announced initiative to take art out onto the streets later in the year. “I can’t say any more about it right now,” said Paul, “but we should be able to tell more shortly. It is a very exciting development. “Southside is a truly wonderful, vibrant area of the city with so much going on and I would also very much like to create a season of work every year that reflects this amazing community but for a slightly different type of audience than we would normally get at the theatre.” All-in-all, a truly amazing Southside story!