Meet Your Local FM: The Tivoli Group’s Naomi Gordon vows to leave a light on

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, strolling past your local PCYC or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

Live music is well and truly back with gusto post-lockdown. However, when Naomi Gordon, the chief operating officer of beloved Brisbane venues The Tivoli and Princess Theatre, speaks to Facility Management, she is reminded of how the acute sense of limbo in the events and entertainment industry during lockdowns prompted many to consider new career options. 

“The pandemic really gave the arts industry a whole new perspective on the world we work in, and what our careers mean,” she says. 

Gordon is certain that people are still yearning for the connection and intimacy immediately sought after post-lockdown. “They’re looking for it in every space possible,” she says. 

Live music plays host to connection and socialisation, and exposes attendees to ideas, concepts and examples of creativity perhaps not experienced before. Therefore a stall in operations caused by lockdowns was understandably fear-inducing.

“People missing from these venues was devastating,” says Gordon. 

Gordon is committed to delivering memorable and unmissable cultural experiences at the “Tiv” – as she calls it – and The Princess Theatre – two historic buildings brimming with life and vitality that provide a home for live music and art in Brisbane.

The Princess Theatre reopened in 2021.

Motivated by community spirit and the buzz of an event 

Gordon says she always had her heart set on a career in performing arts, and after graduating from Adelaide’s Flinders University with a Bachelor of Cultural Tourism, majoring in Events Management, she dove head-first into the festival circuit. 

Her experience was predictably varied and rich, working in festival backline supply, production management and coordination, site management, ground transport, artist liaisons and stage management for Adelaide Fringe, Woodford Folk Festival and Sydney Festival. 

The Princess Theatre has numerous heritage considerations.

Gordon is blessed to cite her full-time industry start as working in programming for Country Arts South Australia, which involved transporting shows that premiered in Adelaide to regional areas. She found the positive reception towards events in small and isolated communities motivating. 

“We know that a show looks great in a Spiegeltent in the Fringe, but it looks equally great in a memorial hall in the middle of a country town where there’s many people that need connection to the performing arts and music industry,” says Gordon.

Heritage-listed buildings offer balance of rewards and challenges

Following an overseas stint working in university campus event management in Vancouver, Gordon switched gears to working in production at the Brisbane Powerhouse – a theatre specialising in contemporary cultural and arts events – where she relished being afforded the opportunity to ponder the needs of current and future users.

“The Powerhouse is a gorgeous, multi-purpose flexible space,” says Gordon. She was inspired by how the theatre interacted symbiotically with neighbouring hospitality venues.

Gordon has embraced working at heritage-listed buildings. “I have a history of working in some great heritage places with…unique attributes,” she laughs, diplomatically referring to the thorny and complex challenges of working with heritage-listed buildings. 

“I’m sure you don’t have to go too far to find beautiful historic venues and ask the operation team how maintenance is going, and they’ll confirm that some days are better than others,” says Gordon. 

Such is the life of an operating officer of a heritage-listed building that wails out for attention. 

The Princess Theatre was originally opened in 1888.

Steps to avoid tarnishing heritage essence

The Princess Theatre has a colourful and eclectic history – it was constructed in 1888 as the original theatre of Brisbane and had many different lives before reopening as a venue in 2021. 

Gordon describes the perilous territory facilities managers are forced to navigate when attending to maintenance issues and leaving the historical integrity of the building untouched. 

“Heritage buildings don’t deal well with just being left to run their own race,” says Gordon. 

The maintenance team consistently extends meticulous care, and collaboration with heritage consultants is common practice to ensure the essence of the building is not lost. 

“You don’t want to change how these buildings look and feel to people, because these changes muddy the reason that people are drawn to the building in the first place,” says Gordon. 

Crowd shot of The Princess Theatre. Photography by Chris Love.

Bedrocks of successful venue management are people and gigs 

The only regular fixtures in Gordon’s days are early starts, a coffee in hand and excitement towards facilitating fusion between people and the live arts industry.

She labels pre-opening hours as ‘golden time’, as this window is the ideal time for Gordon to decompress from a jam-packed day across both theatres that involves the standard organisational team meetings, email and phone correspondence, project work and checking in with the teams before the gigs start. 

Gordon expresses appreciation towards the perceptiveness of front-line staff who have a keen eye. “We’ve had some of the greatest wins and improvements from people who work in the venues,” says Gordon.

The Princess Theatre crowd shot. Photography by Chris Love.

“They know it back to front – they see or notice things in their space that I won’t, or that don’t necessarily get reported, and this allows the spaces to continue to be a beautiful offering.”

Attending at least two shows a week is non-negotiable for Gordon, whether it be an incredible Destroy All Lines hardcore gig, a Live Nation Indy show or a locally produced cabaret show. 

“At the core of operations management, for me, are gigs,” says Gordon. 

A sprawling and interconnected neighbourhood 

Gordon describes how a show day morning atmosphere of stillness and calmness is quickly upended by scenes of almost theatrical and organised chaos, when crowds of up to 1000 people flood the space. Efficiency, speed and safety are paramount. 

She loves the hive of activity around The Princess Theatre and The Tivoli on show days that enables constant meeting, greeting and socialising. “We’ve got really good relationships with the hotel and local business operators in the complex next door and the member for The Greens Party that has an office down the road,” says Gordon. 

The Princess’ interpersonal relationships with neighbouring venues illustrates that the purpose of a public gathering space is to draw attendees and businesses from far and wide and create an interconnected and vibrant ecosystem.

The Princess Theatre crowd shot. Photography by Chris Love.

“The hotel next door to The Princess is the busiest it has ever been because of the venue’s re-emergence onto the scene,” says Gordon. Additionally, Boo’s Kitchen, a treasured Thai restaurant, is almost “impossible” to get into on gig nights. 

Gordon recalls initial anxiety towards the Brisbane Brewing Co. being located next door to the theatre, as the team would never wish to steal trade from industry counterparts. However, the team has forged close relationships with the brewhouse, a reality that Gordon labels as a necessity. 

“If you don’t invest in and understand the community that surrounds you, you don’t have a foundation to start from,” she says.

A venue must be contributory

The daytime Princess theatre staff witness a wholesome cyclical routine of workers from the Mater Hospital and local businesses procuring a morning coffee from Fables Cafe and Bar – the theatre’s very own cafe and bar – and returning in the evenings for a gig.

Gordon reports on the nourishing feeling of becoming the neighbourhood’s main cafe, cocktail bar and event space, all in one. 

Fables Cafe and Bar exudes an energetic tone during the day for the morning hustle, then transforms into a warm and intimate bar in the evenings, servicing theatre attendees as well as the local community. Gordon comments on how this transformation demonstrates the value of a multi-purpose space.

‘It’s not just about what we do with the venue, but what we are to people who use it,” she confirms. 

And this is achieved through cross-department collaboration – ensuring that maintenance, production and hospitality are all committed to the same objectives.

A week in the life

Like many operations managers, Gordon admits it is difficult to summarise her roles and responsibilities. 

Amongst the lead role she plays in delivering major CAPEX and maintenance projects across the two venues, she plays a key role in communications to all operational parts of the business – venue management, hospitality, production, maintenance and is in regular communication with the group’s CEO Simon Wade, who heads up the management of marketing, finance, corporate events, creative development and booking teams. 

The Tivoli crowd shot. Photography by Lachlan Douglas.

Gordon’s goal is for the team to have faith in the organisational overarching visions, whatever department they call home. “It’s one thing to sell the dream, but it’s another thing to ask people to follow you into the fire,” says Gordon.

There is a constant routine of signposting goals, communicating future plans, considering the needs and demands of users and agreeing on what business relationships to nurture. 

Live music should be a pleasure for everyone 

The Tivoli Group has recently started working with Brisbane-based disability access provider ‘Let’s Go’ – an NDIS supported service that escorts people with access needs to venues so they can see a concert at The Princess Theatre, attending an AFL game at the Gabba, joining in on a pub crawl or surfing lessons and attending music festivals such as Splendour in the Grass. 

Since the group started working closely with Let’s Go, Gordon has had the pleasure of seeing familiar faces around both the Princess Theatre and Tivoli. 

“Everyone should have the opportunity to see live music – it’s amazing to work with people who want to help the greater community,” says Gordon.

The Princess and Tivoli staff have taken the responsibility in full stride and are committed to identifying the barriers that inhibit people who have access needs from coming to the venue, in addition to addressing misunderstandings.  

Gordon is proud to play a part in making a venue inclusive, welcoming and hospitable to people with complex needs. “Venue operators in particular have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can experience the live industry”, she says. 

The Thundamentals playing at The Tivoli.

Preparing, preparing and then preparing some more

Gordon debunks the assumption that an operations manager at a theatre is huddled in the wings, poised to stage dive with the band post-show, and routinely rubbing elbows with big name artists.

“People often say to me that it must be so amazing to be on stage, and my response to that is that if I’m ever on stage, something has gone extremely wrong,” she says. People don’t chase a career in facilities or operational management to become a recognised face in the industry, Gordon tells Facility Management. 

“It’s our job to support the people that need to be both on and in, and around the stage wings – if it’s seamless, then we go home happy and move quickly onto the next show,” she says. While not glamorous or star-crusted, operations management is immensely rewarding for Gordon. 

Time limitations take the cake as the biggest challenge in Gordon’s role as operations manager, therefore she advocates for preparing, communicating and then preparing some more.

“I am a big believer in fleshing out details and having all the options on the table before you make a decision,” says Gordon. 

She avoids reliance on unsustainable band-aid solutions as there are only “so many band-aids in the box”.

Redefining venue operations management  

A resume to normal following lockdowns for events and entertainment appeared like a blurry mirage on the horizon for Gordon. Despite the havoc it wrought on the industry, she says navigating closures and creating a new norm was a didactic experience. 

It is business as usual again, with a few adjustments to continue to keep people safe and healthy. The industry reconciled with the fact that some processes had to be left behind in the pre-pandemic world.

Staff physical and mental capacities have altered, alongside endurance and tolerance for certain roles and responsibilities. Across many industries, people are more aware of their limits. 

The Thundamentals at The Tivoli.

“What you could ask of people previously is maybe 70 percent of what you can now, and that’s good, because we all need limits. It’s about how we as operators work within these limits that is critical in helping to reduce the expectations and stress on the people we work with” says Gordon. 

Gordon realised how much she had missed touring and live music, and was immensely grateful for its return. She underscores that the energy and ambience of a facility is dependent on “human connection”, which is why live music’s return was so gratifying.

Leaving the light on 

A charming theatre superstition nestled its way into people’s hearts during the 2021 lockdowns.

Traditionally, one theatre light is always left on, to either ward off darkness – war, destruction and sickness – or even as a sign of respect for the resident theatre ghost. 

During lockdowns, many theatres – including the Brisbane Powerhouse where Gordon worked for four and a half years – started leaving the light on as a symbol of hope and a promise to return.

Participating theatres included the Sydney Theatre Company’s Roslyn Packer Theatre in Walsh Bay, the Seymour Centre in Chippendale and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank stage. 

Collar headlining the reopening of The Princess Theatre in 2021.

Gordon perceived leaving the light on as emblematic of eternal devotion and service – a facility’s work is never complete. It would only be a brief hiatus, and then these spaces would once again explode with people and a full spectrum of emotions. 

“It’s almost like you can’t kill us. We were communicating that will be back again, and maybe not in the form that everyone has come to know or expect, but it’s not the end,” says Gordon. 

Leaving the light on confirmed that the joy, delight and wonder attached to these venues are not extinguishable, and upon return, they will return stronger than ever. 

The reopening of a new cultural space

Gordon jumped at the chance to play a role in the reopening of The Princess Theatre. “You don’t often get an opportunity to be a part of the opening of a new cultural space and contribute to the art and music world in the state that you love,” she says. 

Snap lockdowns meant the opening night was rescheduled three times, including full production load in, sound checks and load out of the headline act Collar  – the final dash earned the moniker of “housewarming 3.0” by staff.

Opening The Princess was a surreal moment for Gordon after all her years working behind the scenes in project management, logistics and production. 

“It was a highlight – kicking open the heritage front doors of The Princess Theatre to see the Brisbane community streaming into the auditorium” she says, yet not without a hefty amount of blood, sweat and tears in the background.

An ode to Brisbane’s history 

The Princess has a colourful historical tapestry – first a picture theatre, then a rag merchant, a secondhand dealer, a paper wholesaler, an engineering firm, and most recently, a church. 

Decor colours inside the venue have been tweaked into modern palettes, yet still mirror the hues and shades that would have appeared during its initial operation as a theatre in the late 1880s.

“The grates in the middle of the venue are the actual old caste grates that used to sit above the lighting,” says Gordon. Construction efforts were able to repurpose 80 percent of the grates, and although some had to be recast in a new material, it is unnoticeable. 

Collar at The Princess Theatre’s reopening in 2021.

If these walls could talk

Gordon says the reopening of The Princess involved serendipitous and heartwarming discoveries, such as finding scribbled notes in the old electrical boxes and walls from technicians and a message confirming that someone had proposed to their fiancé. 

A handwritten scrawl with a connection to Gordon herself reiterates how small the world truly is, particularly in the arts world. “One of the operators who had his name written on one of the walls upstairs at The Princess is the grandfather of a friend of mine,” she says. 

From her crucial post as chief operations officer, Gordon loves indulging in idyllic daydreaming about the big and small moments that public gathering spaces like The Princess Theatre and Tivoli have witnessed – it is overwhelming and wondrous to speculate what could be revealed if walls talked.

“I love to think about the spaces that we occupy every day and consider what kind of life they’ve had before,” says Gordon.

Photography supplied by The Tivoli Group.

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