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By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ
For someone who wasn’t even certain two years ago “where” Ohio was, let alone Cleveland, Australian-born Craig Hassall now happily calls it “home,” already leaving his indelible mark on our city in his debut year as Playhouse Square’s President/CEO.
During that debut year Craig was involved in a host of projects, including the unveiling of the spectacular new Playhouse Square marquees, the Mummies of the World exhibit and the expansion of the organization’s Sensory-Friendly inclusive performances for individuals on the autism spectrum or with other cognitive sensitivities. Most recently, was his announcement of the synergistic agreement that Karamu House, the country’s oldest Black theater company,was to become the first “affiliate company” with Playhouse Square.
In keeping with the Karamu announcement, Craig says to look for more such local theater “affiliations” as an adjunct to Playhouse Square’s own seven resident companies. And, now that he has the lay of the land, Craig shares that his long-term goals for Playhouse Square include updating the buildings’ façades while increasing the footprint of the complex, not only with added restaurants and bars, but additional performance venues.
If Craig has set “Olympian” goals for Playhouse Square, it’s not without credible experience (two of his impressive roles included working as a consultant on cultural aspects for the ceremonies of the 2000 and 2012 Olympic Games in Australia and England).For his “particular service” in both Australia and England, Craig received the esteemed appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Named one of 2023’s “Most Interesting People” by Cleveland Magazine, Craig’s pantheon of accomplishments qualifies him as any year’s Most Interesting. Reared on a vast farm in New South Wales, Australia, Craig eschewed a life of wrangling sheep or planting wheat to instead plant seeds of artistic culture on three continents. His resume reads like a dream list for anyone in arts and venue management, with his high-profile career journey first launched as CEO of Australia’s largest performing arts organization, Opera Australia (which included more than 600 opera performances annually including: two seasons in Sydney and Melbourne; Opera on Sydney Harbour; musical theatre; concerts and national touring).
Europe beckons
Craig’s move to London, first as Managing Dir.of the English National Ballet, then as COO of a prominent UK event promoter, led to being tapped in 2017 as CEO for one of the globe’s most prestigious venues, London’s Royal Albert Hall. He recalls that his first two days as Royal Albert’s CEO began memorably with Ed Sheeran in concert the first night, followed the next evening by The Who performing their rock opera “TOMMY” live in its entirety for the first time in their long career.
Being CEO also meant rubbing shoulders with the Royal Family as they attended events in the Royal Box or socialized in the Royal Retiring Room. Craig shares the story that whenever Queen Elizabeth II attended, she would always shun the elevator in favor of the stairs…even into her nineties. An aide explained that Her Majesty was always cognizant that if the “lift” would malfunction with her in it, she would be inconveniencing other patrons due to the rule that a performance could not start until the Queen had been seated.
So as Craig continued happily on with his Royal Albert duties, not looking to leave, it was a head-scratcher for him when a recruiter arrived proselytizing a certain Midwest performing arts complex needing a CEO/President to replace the retiring Gina Vernaci. Was he interested? Not particularly…that is until he saw the magnificent Playhouse Square venues.
An aficionado of historic building preservation, Craig was awed by Playhouse Square’s 11 performance spaces, specifically the five 1921 elegant, historic theaters (narrowly saved from the wrecking ball qualifying it as the “the world’s largest theater restoration project”).“I’d never seen such a concentration of quality venues in one place in the world,” he remarked, “as well as Playhouse Square’s unique business model that includes the duality of real estate income and property portfolio management alongside the performing arts. I don’t know any other example of that worldwide. That clinched it for me.”
Known as a visionary and innovator, on the business side Craig brings to Playhouse Square an unmatched operations ability teamed with his global experience and notable relationships across the performing arts industry. (And on Craig’s lighter side, you’d be hard pressed to find another area CEO who can also play the bagpipes and owns a kilt for authenticity!)
Living transitions;
Cleveland discoveries
This affable Australian’s globe-hopping career has naturally required some living transitions…like getting used to the Northern Hemisphere calendar where Christmas falls in winter not summer compared to Down Under where Australians can celebrate at the beach. Relocating to the U.S., where the transition meant driving on the right side of the road (as opposed to Australia’s and England’s left) was not as much of a challenge as he’d expected. “While living in London, I often took my car across the channel to France. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with your steering also on the right was more difficult than driving here on the right side with the car’s steering on the left.”
Admittedly, while Craig’s Playhouse Square introductory year has been demanding, he has managed to find some time to discover Cleveland’s vibrant restaurant scene, where he says, thus far, his favorite restaurants/watering holes respectively include Amba and Alley Cat Oyster Bar. Speaking of “favorites,” Craig admits that of Playhouse Square’s 11 performance spaces his favorite is the Connor Palace because of its rich history. And, while Playhouse Square boasts the largest touring Broadway season ticket base in North America, bringing a variety of musicals to the Center, the one musical Craig could watch over and over is “Hadestown.”
Looking retrospectively on his career, Craig recounts two of his accomplishments that have been the most memorable. In Australia it was creating the first Arts Festival of Indigenous Peoples in 1997 to celebrate the magnificent cultural aspects of the 200-plus factions (many nomadic). Then, as Managing Director of the English National Ballet, it was the company’s unique Paris performance of “Swan Lake” against the magnificent backdrop of the Palace of Versailles.
Under his leadership, Craig wants Playhouse Square to be accessible to every person who comes here or might wish to come. He also noted that while Playhouse Square’s scale and diversity of programming was already very impressive, his data shows plenty of room to grow the usage of the various spaces.
Craig has already discovered what Clevelanders are slow to admit…that we are our own worst detractors. When asked what he thinks residents don’t appreciate about Cleveland, Craig answered simply, “Cleveland itself! … as well as the number of cultural institutions available to Clevelanders. You really must have a little more faith in what Cleveland has to offer.” A high compliment to our city from this world traveler.
Craig added, “Playhouse Square is a dynamic, visionary organization with a great history of accomplishment and leadership in the performing arts industry. It’s poised to play an even bigger role, and I am honored and excited to have the opportunity to partner with the Board of Trustees and this talented staff to take Playhouse Square to the next level.”