Arts Preview 2013-14: Central Ky.'s big four venues play to their strengths

rcopley@herald-leader.comSeptember 6, 2013 

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    CONTRIBUTORS

    Calendar team: Harriett Hendren, Camille Weber and Dorothea Wingo

    Writer: Rich Copley. Reach him at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217. Read his blog, Copious Notes, at LexGo.com.

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Each year, many of the major events on the Central Kentucky performing-arts calendar take place at one of four venues: the Lexington Opera House, the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington, Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, or the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond.

On paper, the four arts pillars of the Lexington area look similar: venues of 1,000 to 2,000 seats that present mixes of touring artists and local performers.

But scratch a little deeper and you see distinct performance halls with their own missions and constituencies.

"Each venue has its unique characteristics," says Opera House general manager Luanne Franklin. "A big part of ours would be our history, and that we're the smallest. We have been serving the community for many, many years."

To be exact, 126 years. The Opera House boasts 840 seats, one of the smallest venues in the country to present touring Broadway productions. Franklin describes it as "intimate."

In sharp contrast is the 2,100-seat EKU Center, which is entering its third season in operation.

"Our goal here is to develop our audience," says Joel Aalberts, the newly hired director at the EKU Center. "Some of the things we are doing are to reach out to new audiences. We want to see what our audience responds to best."

Taking over the post from interim director Jill Price, Aalberts inherits a 28-show season of touring productions, including Broadway hits Mama Mia and Flashdance, The Acting Company's production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, country star Dwight Yoakam, satire king Weird Al Yankovic and the classical Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Aalberts says that with more than 2,000 seats to fill, he must think in terms of broad appeal.

"You want to have events that look full and for shows to be successful," Aalberts says.

At the Norton Center, which has 22 events this season, director Steven A. Hoffman says he has his eye on developing audience trust that even if the names aren't familiar, the show will be great. The season includes big names Bobby McFerrin, John Malkovich and Tift Merritt, and more eclectic fare including a "live-action graphic novel" called The Intergalactic Nemesis and the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' take on H.M.S. Pinafore.

"We have a number of venues that will bring in musicals and do that very well, so we put our own spin on that with operetta," Hoffman says.

With all the shows he books, Hoffman says, he tries to keep the campus in mind by bringing in artists and events that can provide some educational value, even if the artist is recent American Idol winner Scotty McCreery.

"What a lot of people don't realize is the writer of his latest hit (See You Tonight) is Ashley Gorley, who's from right here in Danville," Hoffman says of the songwriter, who has written hits for Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley among others. "We're hoping when we have Scotty here, we can tell Ashley's story, too."

Overall, Hoffman says, he tries to find ways for artists to interact with students, including master classes, open rehearsals to residencies.

At the Singletary Center, director Michael Grice has made an annual event of having marquee artists performing with students. February's performance by piano superstar Lang Lang will be the latest in a long line of collaborations with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Nardolillo, including performances by Gil Shaham, Marvin Hamlisch and two performances by Itzhak Perlman.

"We figure if we are going to pay these artists all this money to come to campus, let's have them work with our ensembles," says Grice, who also booked trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval with the UK Wind Symphony.

The Singletary Center, though, presents several counterintuitive situations. It is based at the largest institution in the region but presents the fewest number of its own shows — only five this season. That is in large part because Singletary's 1,500-seat concert hall and 300-seat recital hall are the main venues for the extremely active UK School of Music and other student and campus organizations, and it's the main stage for the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and other community groups.

"We host more than 350 events a year," Grice says. "The only day we're never busy is New Year's Day. We've even had events here at Christmas."

It is similar at the Opera House. It is best known for its Broadway Live series, which brings five to six touring shows a year to Lexington for five performances each, but Franklin says nearly 70 percent of the venue's bookings are for local groups, including three Lexington-based ballet companies, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Central Kentucky Concert Band and the UK Opera Theatre.

With the Opera House set up for theater and the Singletary Center as a music hall, Grice and Franklin say, they have a complementary relationship, because they serve different needs.

None of the performing arts center directors say they are in competition with each other.

Another counterintuitive aspect of Singletary is that although it's at the biggest institution, Grice says he thinks he is casting the smallest net for audience, because "at heart, we feel like we're an urban venue."

Geographically, there is a lot of audience immediately around Singletary, whereas the centers in smaller towns must aim to attract audiences from farther away. Hoffman says 70 percent of the Norton Center audience is from Lexington, nearly 40 miles away.

But the real competition, they say, is with the lure for patrons to stay home.

They cite the growing popularity of gaming and video services as the primary competitors, and other events going on in the region.

"If we can get them to give up three to four hours of an evening for a concert, that's a big deal," Grice says. "Live performance is so unique that until we get them to come out, they don't know what they're missing."

That's what the arts center venues are selling.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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