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Curtain call: Planning NWA’s theater programs

story by Jamie Smith
jsmith@thecitywire.com

When the final curtain call brings audiences to their feet for a standing ovation, the applause is for the music, the acting, the scenery—and how all of those elements came together to provide an enchanting theatrical experience.

Northwest Arkansas is rich with opportunities for high quality theater performances at venues throughout the region. Season ticket holders and single-show patrons alike know that the level of talent is exceptional but they probably don’t spend much time thinking about how the shows arrive on the stage.

Coordinators for two of Northwest Arkansas’ most popular fine arts organizations agree that countless hours of planning goes into each season. The shows are meticulously chosen and scheduled in an effort to best meet each organization’s mission.

PRESENTING THE ARTS
At the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, work is already underway for the fiscal year 2014 season. The center is what is known as an arts presenter that hosts shows for event producers.

“We look at what programming we want to bring into the arts center,” said Jenni Taylor-Swain, vice president of programming. “My job is to balance between genre, style, content, audience impact and what that costs. It’s a real balancing act of a lot of different factors. We are constantly searching around the world for programs that (might fit the center’s interests) that people here may have not seen. We want to bring awareness of it to Northwest Arkansas. Once we discover something, we start having conversations with the tour to see if they are interested and what it would take to bring them here.”

If a show’s artistic quality and talent is a right match for the center, then the budget gets examined. What would it take to bring the show to Northwest Arkansas?

“We do projections for cost estimates on each show. It’s the same as a business. We’re projecting what we think we think we can sell and at what price and put together what we think is an estimate of expenses.”

As a non-profit, the center does not look at the bottom line for each show as a deciding factor. In fact, they sometimes end up booking shows that they know will be a revenue loss because the show in some way fits the mission. That’s when sponsors and other underwriters are considered to make shows possible. For example, the recent productions of Letters Home, a production based on a compilation of letters from war veterans, was important to offer to area high school students, Taylor-Swain said.

“We felt like there is a lack of current event theater for high school students (and) this was a starting point for them to have serious discussions about major events.”

The entire fiscal year is taken into consideration when planning and each puzzle piece is laid carefully so that the center is still sustainable. That’s where blockbusters like the upcoming Billy Elliott come in. Not only do shows like that and others in the Broadway series provide excellent cultural experiences, but they provide revenue that helps make up the losses from other shows.

“It gives me the flexibility and the creativity to then balance out shows that might bring in money versus shows that might cost us,” she said.

SHOW SELECTION
When choosing what shows to offer, coordinators try to have a good variety. Within the Broadway series, they try to have a blockbuster (like Billy Elliott), a popular revival, a presentation of a show that found recent success on Broadway in New York and a couple of family shows, like Shrek and Mary Poppins.

The 10x10 Arts Series is a series of 10 shows that are smaller in scale. Often the shows are international in flavor.

“We’re near the University (of Arkansas) and so people like to feel connected with the world,” she said. “(The 10x10 series) lets us be more innovative and creative on the stage.”

An example of an upcoming show is “Circa,” which is an Australian circus ensemble that uses acrobatic circus vocabulary but putting it in a modern dance format.

“I think our community will be very curious about it,” Taylor-Swain said. “We have a very curious community.”

As the Walton Arts Center grows, so does the programming. It is currently the only “one-week” market in Arkansas, meaning it usually can book shows for a week. They are experimenting with two-week long shows to determine how much demand is here for more performances. That will eventually translate into geographic growth as the existing center is expanded and a new building is constructed in Benton County.

NOTHING LITTLE ABOUT RLT
There’s already a strong theatrical presence in Benton County with the long-time favorite Rogers Little Theater.

Unlike the Walton Arts Center, the RLT is a group, not a place — a fact that often confuses people. The Rogers Little Theater is volunteer community theater organization that uses Victory Theater in downtown Rogers as its venue. Victory Theater is often mistakenly referred to as Rogers Little Theater, RLT director Ed McClure said.

How the organization chooses its show line-up went through a major overhaul last season. For several years, the RLT would offer five “Main Stage” season shows, four “Second Stage” season shows and two Kid Works season shows. Main Stage shows were the popular, well-known shows, Second Stage were usually newer shows that introduced diversity and the Kid Works shows were either shows that involved a large child cast or would attract children and families.

“We decided to combine all of those into one season and dedicate those resources into eight main stage shows. There are elements of each of those seasons that goes into how we think about our overall season,” McClure said.

There were initial concerns from some members about the idea of going from five to eight shows, but so far it has been very successful, McClure said.

“Our patrons are very excited about the combination,” he said.

As coordinators develop each season, they look to balance the different types of shows that were represented in the previous programming format. They try to have a show with more contemporary language and staging, at least two shows that have an emphasis on children and three musicals. Within the three musicals, one is usually traditional (like King & I), another is more modern (9 to 5) and a third is usually involving children (Oliver!). The final show is usually a light comedy that is highly popular for dinner theater.

GETTING THE 'HOT SCRIPTS'
Finding the right mix of shows could be compared to cooking in that there is a basic recipe, but a lot is by instinct and experience, McClure said.

“You have to have a hunch of what will be successful, of what people will want to see,” he said.

Frequent visits to New York City to see family always includes seeing new shows, some which he then shows interest in performing at RLT when the licensing rights become available.

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“We try to be cognizant of what has been successful in the past,” he said. “Clearly we want to do things that people want to see.”

Two upcoming shows are hot finds for the theater. In May, “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron will light up the stage. In June, “Lombardi,” by Eric Simonson will be the main feature. Both have found recent success on Broadway.

“I was shocked we could get (those),” McClure said. “They are two really hot scripts and I was surprised we got both of them. They’ve not been done in Arkansas at all as far as I know.”

McClure said he also finds that as the theater has developed a reputation for having excellent shows, audiences have been more willing to try something new.

“If you can build a reputation for doing things well, they will be more willing to take a risk,” he said. “Even if they don’t like a script, they will find something they like about the performance. That’s really what we’re working towards is the total theater experience.”

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