What will the centre hold?

It will take a lot of money to turn the South Bank Centre into the capital's cultural flagship. That and some people with vision. Michael Church meets Jodi Myers, its new director of performing arts
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The Independent Culture
In the melting-pot? At the crossroads? None of the usual cliches adequately reflects the current turmoil at the South Bank. If his Lottery mega-bid is smiled on by the Arts Council, chief executive Nicholas Snowman will set five great works in motion. The Hayward Gallery will be expanded; the Queen Elizabeth Hall will be reshaped; the Purcell Room will become a rehearsal space, and a new underground auditorium will be built; the Festival Hall will undergo major surgery; and Richard Rogers's glass wave will envelop the whole complex in a Mediterranean microclimate.

And that's just the buildings: what goes on inside is changing just as radically. Fewer classical concerts, more world music and jazz; more dance and small-scale opera; a more populist general ethos. Out go the fuddy- duddy old "Queen Elizabeth Hall", and "Purcell Room"; in come snazzy "RFH2" and "RFH3". And changes at the top reflect this shift: Henry Meyric Hughes, discreetly forced out of his job as director of the Hayward three months ago, was simply too donnish for the shiny new corporatism.

The latest figure to parachute into this war zone is a new director of performing arts: Jodi Myers, fresh from an analogous job at Warwick arts centre, and heading a team responsible for music, dance and literature. Myers is a forthright woman with a solid track record, but in her first press interview - chaperoned by the press officer, as such grandees always are - she seems a trifle daunted. "With so many balls in the air" - you can almost hear the earth shifting under her feet - "we have to make sure none crash to the ground."

First things first: how long will the place be dark? "We will at no point close the entire South Bank. The worst-case scenario is that the Festival Hall could be shut for a year, and the QEH and Purcell Room for two. But before we take those out of commission, the new auditorium will be in place, so some of the programme can transfer there." If the plan gets the go-ahead, they will start stripping out the concrete walkways this autumn, but the halls won't be touched before autumn 1998, because the programme is fixed until then. The reopening is due in January 2001: they're on a tight schedule.

Myers is a practical person, rather than an aesthete or an ideologue: our interview is dominated by talk of audiences, with art almost as an afterthought. In the old days, the South Bank clientele were a homogeneous bunch who came with great regularity: today's clientele are more varied, and visit more spasmodically. "Rather than one core audience, we now have several smaller core audiences." Planning is made harder by the fact that they book on impulse: a quarter of the house for the opening concert of the recent Birtwistle bash bought tickets on the day.

Which audience is Myers surest of, and which worries her most? An anxious pause, a careful reply. "There is no one area of the programme which is struggling more than any other." Then she reverts to that Birtwistle bash: "It was the sense of it being an event that drew people. Eventability is becoming our key aim - whether it's a classical concert, a dance night, or a reading. Forthcoming appearances by Sir Georg Solti and the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keeresmaeker are her examples of the former; Seamus Heaney packing out the QEH last month an example of the latter.

Could she define eventability? "It's something intangible. It's partly determined by what's going on elsewhere in London at the time - what the competition is. But audiences have got bored with seeing the same thing for years. Without being gimmicky, we need to attract them back. We need to make it easy for people to book, easy to get something to eat, so they're relaxed and can come in feeling good, and sit in a comfortable seat." But it turns out that, for all this solicitude, the Festival Hall's seats will provide no more leg-room after the revamp than they do at present, which is not enough.

The "events" she prized most at Warwick sound good, if not earthshakingly new. A Beethoven sonata cycle by Peter Donohoe, with pre-concert talks; a series of special commissions combining music-theatre, visual theatre, and jazz, with shows tailored for audiences of different ages; and an exhibition of contemporary British silverware presented as installation art. She describes this latter with such lyrical nostalgia that I am prompted to wonder whether she shouldn't be taking over the Hayward instead. And yes, she does have plans to put dancers in there. Conversely, she's planning to house some of Claes Oldenburg's theatrical props in the Festival Hall foyer, to echo his imminent show in the Hayward.

Her eyes light up at the mere mention of that foyer. "It's a wonderful space. We have to see what it can do that other exhibition spaces can't do, and how we can animate it. With a limited budget, we have to be imaginative." Her favourite animation to date was the IOU Theatre project which clad the pillars in foliage, out of which trailed speaking tubes, which told the listener fairy stories. "Ballroom Blitz", the summer dance-fest now in its 11th year, is the kind of local happening she wants to encourage.

By nature an entrepreneur, she is forging new links with the promoters who furnish the bulk of her programme, and she's re-evaluating her resident companies. "Nothing should be set in stone," is her guarded reply when I ask whether Opera Factory is still a fixture. On the other hand, the English National Ballet - on whose Christmas residency the South Bank coffers rely, and whose announced departure has caused Nicholas Snowman much grief - may still be in the frame. "There are ongoing conversations." Ah, these bureaucrats.

Eventually we get round to the South Bank's raison d'etre. The audience for classical music is declining: what's her view of this problem? "I hate using the word problem. I prefer to speak of opportunities. But I'm a passionate advocate for some degree of change in concert presentation. Not with laser shows - but with the players engaging with the audience, making eye-contact with them, and perhaps dressing less formally. And with conductors giving introductory talks - those who can do it, that is. But we have to accept that part of the audience just wants a well established format, with the performers in Victorian evening dress, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another part of the audience, of course, is bored rigid with that. Which part of this strife-torn audience matters more to her? An anguished pause. "Being realistic, we mustn't alienate the traditionalists." With opportunities like this, who needs problems?

There is still the vexed question of the Festival Hall acoustics: at present, not even the performers can hear themselves properly. The building is listed, so opening up the whole of the roof - to let the sound breathe as it should - is not an option. "The acoustics," she says firmly, "will be very, very significantly improved." We'll see.

To my surprise, Myers seems totally relaxed about any idea of competition from the Barbican. Her main rivals, she says, are West End theatres and restaurants. But she accepts that the Wigmore Hall offers a shining example of how to win, and keep, a loyal classical audience. And I think it's a good sign that, while Snowman emulates things Parisian, Myers should cite, as her fount of inspiration, Sydney Opera House.

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