Craig Hassall’s storied career includes launching a national tour at Opera Australia and ensuring London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall staged something for everyone. In February, the native Australian will move across the pond to become the President and CEO of Playhouse Square, succeeding Gina Vernaci, who will be stepping down after a 39-year career there.
We caught up with Hassall to ask about his initial thoughts on our performing arts center, the second largest in the country, and his hopes for its future.
Cleveland Magazine: From 2014 to 2017, you served as CEO of Opera Australia before becoming Chief Executive of the Royal Albert Hall. What are your proudest achievements at these renowned arts institutions?
Craig Hassall: Although it sounds like a little dinky thing, my proudest achievement at Opera Australia was mounting a national tour of “The Magic Flute,” a tiny opera that traveled around the most rural parts of Australia. To see audiences in these very remote communities enjoying Mozart was just sensational. At the Royal Albert Hall, we host a variety of concerts, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, the Olivier Awards and world premieres of movies. But what I’ve had the most connection with are the Relaxed Performances designed for children with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities. You see the relief in parents’ faces when the conductor comes out and says, “Normally, you have to be really, really quiet when it comes to the orchestra. But today, you can make as much noise as you like.” While the conductor is talking, the kids are walking around and looking around. And then the music starts, and the children just stop and listen. To see the joy these performances bring has made a huge difference to me and proves the power of music is truly transformative. I know Playhouse Square has a similar program, and it’s terribly important.
CM: Why is making the move to the United States a natural next step?
CH: In hindsight, it is the natural next step. But [before I heard about the position], I didn't have itchy feet. I wasn't thinking of leaving the Royal Albert Hall. I love the hall, and I love my staff. But now that I’ve gone through the process of accepting the role and everyone at Playhouse Square has been so friendly and welcoming, it feels absolutely right to make the move.
CM: You mentioned in a previous interview that you were initially a bit skeptical about taking the President and CEO job at Playhouse Square. Did you have any misgivings and, if so, how did you have a change of heart?
CH: I didn’t apply for the position; I was approached by a search firm. I told the recruiter I’d never heard of Playhouse Square, so why would I go from the Royal Albert Hall in London to a series of venues in the Midwest? I wasn’t even sure where Ohio was. But two things occurred that were absolute game changers. The first was seeing the theaters. They’re extraordinary, and I’m not saying that just because you’re from Cleveland. To have this collection of majestic theaters — the biggest collection of venues outside of Broadway — is amazing. The second thing that wowed me was the incredible positivity of the trustees. Playhouse Square has the most enthusiastic, accomplished, terrific folks who really want Playhouse Square to be a real success and, despite the pandemic, have kept it fiscally sound.
CM: What captivates you about the venues?
CH: The history of these theaters and the fact they were almost demolished really struck a chord with me. Venues like these are so precious all around the world, but sadly, there was an era back in the ’70s and ’80s when they weren’t appreciated and recognized. Luckily, that has changed.
CM: What will the responsibilities of your new role as President and CEO of Playhouse Square be?
CH: I view my first responsibility as reassuring the team there that everything’s fine and I’m not about to change everything — that we’re all on the same side. I’ve worked for companies in the past where I’ve had to come in and do a bit of a rescue job. But that’s not the case at Playhouse Square. It’s respected artistically and is in good shape operationally. Then, I want to understand how Playhouse Square works and why it stays successful, understand the business model, understand the artistic model and understand the key relationships — really get my head around Playhouse Square and the city.
CM: Do you have any thoughts yet about ways to expand audience engagement and attract new patrons?
CH: Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve been very committed to issues such as access, diversity and inclusion. The way I approached accessibility in Australia was very different from London. There’s a lot of good stuff already happening at Playhouse Square. I’m looking forward to learning about what makes Cleveland tick, understanding the market, what works now and what can be added.
CM: Although you’ve not officially arrived yet, can you share any initial observations about how you’d like to see Playhouse Square evolve?
CH: When I saw Playhouse Square for the first time, I was completely blindsided and thought, “Why have I never heard of this place? It doesn’t make any sense.” Nashville, New Orleans, Las Vegas and New York are primary destinations. The notion of making Cleveland one for music theater within the states is totally possible. I think that’s something we can explore when I come over next year.
CM: What do you hope to bring from your past theatrical experiences to your new one?
CH: I really want everyone to feel that Playhouse Square is for them. Because I was a little kid from the middle of the countryside who eventually felt that I could go to an opera or ballet or theater show anywhere in the world, I want Playhouse Square to be accessible to every person who comes there or might want to come there.
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