BWW Interview: Julian Bird Discusses the 2020 Olivier Awards
Julian Bird is the Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre. 2020 marks 10 years since he joined SOLT and took over the running of the Olivier Awards. Bird spoke to BroadwayWorld about his career and this year's award ceremony, which takes place on 5 April.
Who inspired you most growing up?
Like so many people, my love of the theatre comes from my parents taking me so often. I loved everything about it and was lucky to live near the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead.
My mum and dad took me regularly to many different types of show. And, like so many people, I acted at school (mostly terribly), and I have to thank a brilliantly inspiring drama teacher called Adrian Kramskoy, who helped so many of us.
What's your earliest memory at the theatre?
I can actually remember my first theatre memory vividly. It was a pantomime, and in my case, it was a production of Aladdin at the Wimbledon Theatre, which starred Cilla Black. I remember many things about it (I was between three and four years old), but especially being mesmerised by the spectacle and the music, and also the fact that I found Abanazar and the bangs (which I now know as pyros) very frightening every time he appeared. I have loved panto ever since!
Congrats on 10 years at SOLT. Any highlights?
Well, there are so many highlights, from our work on the theatre workforce of the future and inspiring audiences of the future, and the quiet day-to-day work behind the scenes with thousands of children, to our high-profile schemes such as Kids Week, where children go free to the theatre every August with an adult, and leading the work on Theatre Tax Relief.
And of course, I'm proud of relaunching the Olivier Awards, and now on the verge of producing my 10th ceremony - having moved it from a relatively private event in a hotel ballroom to a worldwide event at the Royal Albert Hall.
What can we expect at this year's Olivier Awards?
As ever, I'm excited about the two main elements we try to achieve at the Olivier Awards: showing the world the amazing shows and talent both on and off our stages in London, and also inspiring a new generation of talent and audience. Over the years, I have had so many people telling me that being able to watch the awards on TV inspired them to pursue a career in the theatre, and I'm excited to inspire a new generation.
What have been the factors at play in moving the ceremony to the Albert Hall and broadcast? Growth in audience interest? Social media?
There are many factors, from two great broadcast partners in ITV and Magic Radio to a group of partners, led by Mastercard, that believe in the importance of the arts and theatre.
There's also a great demand and love of theatre in this country. While it's certainly a lot of hard work in persuading people of the importance of celebrating the leading theatre industry in the world, we deserve to have a great night to celebrate this internationally, and now we have something we can be proud of.
What inspired the #BeInspired slogan associated with the awards?
We wanted to celebrate the massive talent on our stages, and in the creative departments, and truly inspire children and young people to both consider a career in this great industry or at least think about going to their local theatre and seeing a show.
What has been the most surprising aspect of organising the Oliviers?
Without a doubt, the extraordinary team that I have around me. Many have been with me for the whole 10 years, some a bit more recent, but it's a real team effort. We produce the entire thing: from what you see on stage, to the red carpet, to the media operation, to all the accompanying events, to all the TV and radio broadcasts. It's a huge undertaking that encompasses about 1,500 people in total! I try not to think about it too much as it can be overwhelming.
What have been your highlights in British theatre?
As I mentioned, pantomime in its many guises, I really adore - very few other things bring in audiences that encompass many generations of the same family to enjoy a night in the theatre. I have also loved so much over the years, both plays and musicals. My absolute favourite of recent years was seeing Hello, Dolly! in New York with Bernadette Peters playing the lead role.
What do you think we should see more of in British theatre?
I'd love to see more repertory theatre around the country - not least because it has historically been a great training ground for actors, plus true local theatre truly brings in a local audience.
Any advice for aspiring producers?
I would always say two things: network as much as you can, and don't be afraid to ask an established producer for advice and support. My experience is that people in our business are incredibly supportive of those starting off.
Our challenge now is to enable those from all backgrounds to have opportunities in our industry, and we are all working hard on that.
If you could revive any production, from any time and place, which would you pick?
Brigadoon at the Victoria Palace Theatre. It's a show I absolutely love (and can't wait for the little revival this summer at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester). I was privileged to produce the centenary gala honouring Alan J Lerner for the BBC a couple of years ago, and it was amazing to have an 80-piece orchestra playing quite a bit of the lovely Brigadoon score.
Why should people come to or tune into the Olivier Awards?
We have some amazing surprises ahead for the night - three special performances, in fact - as well as some stellar talent presenting the awards and performing extracts from the nominated shows.
I'm delighted that Jason Manford is returning as our host. I genuinely adore working with him. It's quite a stressful process with little rehearsal time, but somehow, he and I manage to get through it, and he does an amazing role as a warm and engaging host.
So, join us on the night - I think you'll love it!
Check out the full list of the 2020 Olivier Awards nominees here