Judy Simons - Chairman of the High Peak Theatre Trust
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 October 2018
David John King
The High Peak Theatre Trust runs Buxton Opera House
Outside it was grey and overcast.
Winter in the centre of Sheffield and people were moving quickly to keep warm. Inside, the theatre glowed with light as the audience settled back into the velvet embrace of the Playhouse. Finally the curtain went up and for five-year-old Judy Simons it was a sensation she’ll never forget.
‘I can still remember the colours, the costumes and the swirly skirts. It was like being taken into another world,’ said Judy. ‘In the 1950s there was no TV at home. It felt like a black and white world and this was so different, so colourful, so exciting.’
It was a Christmas show – The Goose Girl – and decades later Judy sparkles with the memory.
A lifelong passion for the theatre has brought her to this – Chairman of the High Peak Theatre Trust which runs Buxton Opera House. And Judy, now Professor Simons, can’t wait for curtain up all over again.
‘I’m always knocked out by how beautiful this theatre is,’ she says. ‘I’ve been coming for years and never cease to be struck by how this building captures the magic of theatre.’
Judy will lead a board of volunteer directors to support the professional staff who run the theatre under new Chief Executive Paul Kerryson MBE.
She was born in Sheffield and now lives in Bakewell with her husband David. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
Her grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and her grandmother couldn’t read or write. She’s especially proud of her heritage and the fact that within two generations she was able to become Professor and Head of English at Sheffield Hallam University.
‘My grandparents and parents were so hard working but above all they valued the importance of education and the arts,’ said Judy.
A graduate of the University of Manchester, Judy went on to become Pro Vice-Chancellor at De Montfort University in Leicester and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire. She has a wide range of non-executive experience which culminated in her appointment as Deputy Chair and Governor at Sheffield Hallam University. She has been a member of numerous arts bodies at a national level and was an advisor to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
But now she has a new challenge. To help take Buxton Opera House to its next stage of development.
With the multi-million pound Crescent development due to open in Buxton next year the Opera House is ready to take its place in a resurge of interest in the town’s arts and tourism potential.
‘There’s a big regeneration programme going ahead in Buxton and the theatre is at the heart of that,’ says Judy. ‘We have the most fantastic CEO in Paul Kerryson who is so well respected throughout the world of theatre. Our programme is in safe hands but the big challenge is backstage.’
The Matcham-designed opera house opened in 1903 and although the front of house has been extensively renovated, facilities backstage are still stuck in Edwardian times .
‘We want to bring things up to date so we can stage the best shows on offer from the West End and elsewhere,’ said Judy. ‘It will cost millions of pounds but I’m confident there is money out there from foundations and private investment. We’re working hard on developing a plan for the future which we should have in place by the beginning of next year.’
Judy is spending most days in Buxton at the moment and is already aware of how loved the Opera House and its sister venue the new Buxton Cinema are. She’s already busy talking to the local council and other partners about a way forward. It’s a mammoth project at a time of cut-backs but Judy’s enthusiasm is infectious.
‘I know it’s a big challenge but I’m confident that together we can do it,’ she smiled.