Claire Sampson, production director on the Millennium Dome, is a cool operator. Which is just as well, as she's co-ordinating the backstage elements for the whole shebang …
In her Paul Smith tailored suit and kitten-heeled boots, Claire Sampson doesn't look as though she works on a building site. In fact, with her graceful posture and slight frame, she looks more like a dancer – which, it turns out, she used to be. These days, however, she no longer takes to the stage. Instead she's managing her own theatre: the interior of the Millennium Dome; and working on one of the busiest building sites in the UK.

Sampson is director of production at the dome, reporting to New Millennium Experience Company chief Jennie Page, with whom she worked at the Millennium Commission before they were both asked to take on the dome in July 1995.

A job description from hell

It is Sampson's job to make sure that the press does not have a field day – which it will if all 14 zones are not ready for the big day. With a team of 250 people to co-ordinate, she has to ensure that everything going into the interior fits together, on time and in the right place.

This means not only dealing with the contractors working on the 14 controversial zones, and their sometimes temperamental designers, but also recruiting and supervising all the technicians and performers who will stage the aerial display on new year's eve, organising the lighting, the smaller exhibitions, health and safety, wheelchair access … the list goes on and on.

"Basically, I'm in charge of anything that's not 'front of house'; everything except catering and retail," says Sampson. "In organisational terms, I think of it as a theatre." She seems unfazed by the scale of the project – blasé even; and if she is at all concerned, then she is hiding it well. "I'm used to doing large projects with a lot of different elements," she says.

And she is not kidding. For the past four years, Sampson has been responsible for co-ordinating the Virgin 96, 97, 98 and 99 weekend-long rock festivals held in Chelmsford, which have seen crowds of 70 000, events that she describes as "mini-versions of what we're doing here".

Sampson describes her background as "theatre and live events". Born in England 35 years ago but educated in her teens in a US high school, Sampson went on to study English literature and theatre at Warwick University. A back injury forced her to give up a potential dancing career and take a backstage role in theatre production. But it is not something she regrets. Far from it: Sampson has what she calls a "can-do" attitude, which she attributes in part to her American education.

The approach certainly seems to be helping her keep her cool at the dome. Does she keep endless lists or use a high-tech hand-held organiser? The answer is no: "A lot of it is in your head. I spend a lot of my time talking to people, and we have regular progress meetings," she says.

These take place weekly and in whatever zone she's focusing on at the time. She gathers all the relevant people, including contractors and designers, and they thrash out problems standing up. She believes in involving the contractors at these meetings because she recognises that they often have practical suggestions that the designers need to hear.

Some exhibits proved more troublesome than others. The body in the Body Zone, designed by architect Nigel Coates, has given them some headaches. "The poor construction team were almost crying. It was a case of 'Oh my God, how are we going to build that?'," she jokes.

The structure has now taken shape, and a team of Australian workers is spraying its chicken wire-like frame with concrete. An escalator is already present, poking out from one of the body's legs. Zaha Hadid's Mind Zone also comes in the problem category, according to Sampson, but she refuses to elaborate.

Life outside the comfort zone

On the recent controversy over whether designs have been scaled down to save time and money, Sampson is defiant. "We've never been in a position where we couldn't do something on an exhibit because of finance," she says. She points out that the target for funding from sponsors has been exceeded: the NMEC has garnered £157m so far.

She is equally dismissive of criticism that sponsors are getting too much exposure for their contributions; the unsubtle naming of the BAA-sponsored "Intergalatwick" airport in the Home Planet Zone, for example. But this is not over-the-top corporate branding, she insists. "The sponsors will not thank us if we put their brand everywhere and the public don't particularly like it," she says.

With the public due to enter the dome on the opening night in less than 100 days, Sampson is working 12-hour-plus days, six or seven days a week. She does show the odd sign of strain. "It is all too easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of things," she finally admits. "Everybody is working well outside their comfort zone." After this high-pressure build-up, longer than anything she's experienced in the theatre world, you might think Sampson would be taking a well-earned rest after the show opens. Not so. She is contracted to work throughout 2000, during which the NMEC will stage a continual round of events and exhibitions.

"People will still keep running prams into bits of set," she says philosophically. It seems the project is so "all-consuming" that she hasn't had time to think about what she might do when it is all over. But with this high-profile job on her CV, you can't imagine her staying out of the limelight for long.

Personal effects

Where is home for you? I live about a mile from here. I can’t bear to waste time travelling to work. Who’s in your family? My mother, who lives in the USA, and two sisters. What are you reading? I haven’t got the time to read at the moment. What car do you drive? A Mazda MX5 convertible. What music are you into? Massive Attack.