The House That PAC Built
Looking at the University of Texas' Performing Arts Center (PAC), that sprawling complex of theatres and recital halls scattered across the 40 Acres, a similar chain of connections suggests itself. There is the structure itself -- encompassing Bass Concert Hall, Bates Recital Hall, the McCullough and B. Iden Payne Theatres, and Jessen and Hogg Auditoriums -- then there are all these characters: the Broadway extravaganzas and marquee artists linked to it through their appearances in its season of shows. Most of us probably follow the chain only as far as the acts that interest us, but if you go far enough there is a figure who sets its all in motion.
This is the guy making seasons complete,
That booked the Kodo that pounded the beat,
That rocked the Puente all Latin and heat,
That countered the Glass all patterned and neat,
That danced the Taylor off its feet,
That jazzed the Wynton with trumpet fleet,
That paid the Rent,
That followed the Cats,
That filled the seats,
That face the stars
That play in the house that PAC built.
Neil Barclay is the man at the top of this chain at the PAC. As the center's associate director for programming, marketing, and development, his responsibilities include, he says, "basically everything that the public sees: marketing, advertising, front of house, the box office. Then all the programming is done by either me or people that report to me." This is the PAC's point man when it comes to looking at who's out there to book on the performing arts circuit and figuring out which of them Austin wants to see. Considering that ours is a city that prides itself on its eclectic tastes and go-its-own-way individuality, that shouldn't be dismissed as a simple task, especially when the fact that the call may necessitate filling, oh, say 3,000 seats.
"It ends up being huge," Barclay says, "when you factor in the complexities of certain economics of scale that we work with in a facility our size. That has to do with the rental income and the Broadway shows or the pop shows that we do that oftentimes make it possible for us to do the rest of it. Most presenting organizations [around the country] are just doing what we call art programming; they're doing the ballet and the symphony. They're not also doing Broadway or pop shows. So that's hugely challenging."
Translation: Sure, there's money in booking a theatrical behemoth like Phantom of the Opera, but with that income comes massive influxes of people on both sides of the curtain and the attendant physical demands on the facility and its personnel. It provides all the usual headaches -- from marketing to front of house -- magnified many times. And at the end of the day (or run), you still have to worry over the other, less sensational programming and your facility's overall philosophy and cultural niche in the community.
Armchair critics who see only the PAC's long run of Phantom and perennial booking of Philip Glass Philip Glass Philip Glass (in what seems a loop not unlike one of his minimalist melodies) may find it hard to believe that the facility is guided by any sort of philosophy, but it takes just a few minutes of conversation with Barclay to learn otherwise. No matter what part of the PAC he's discussing, Barclay finds a way to circle back to the facility's mission and who it serves. And in his voice is a conviction that is convincing.
"How do we distinguish our programming from programming done elsewhere in town?" he asks. "There was an interesting article that Jerry Young wrote [in the Austin American-Statesman] about our programming. Why aren't we doing more classical programming? Well, the fact of the matter is that there are a number of groups in town that do classical programming. But nobody really does world music the way that we do. So do we really need to do more classical music, or do we begin to develop other areas of the cultural landscape that will make more things available here than are available now? We actually have the resources to do that, so it's also a question of: What is the role of an organization like ours in a community like this? We started out by being all things to all people -- I think we'll always do a certain amount of that because our educational mission is to expose students and people here to as much as possible -- but increasingly, I think, Do we need to be that? How do we fit into what's already here? That's what we have to deal with. There's also philosophical stuff, like What does classicism mean? What are we really talking about when we say 'classic'? Oh, you mean Western European classic! Again, our definitions are broadening as this becomes a global community, and we have to look at that."
Barclay has only been on the job here for a couple of years -- he's a California transplant -- but in that short time he's immersed himself thoroughly in the city and its cultural sensibilities. He explained some of what he's learned about Austin, about the PAC, and what goes into programming it in an interview September 24.
Austin Chronicle:How did you go about learning what works with audiences here?
Neil Barclay: Well, you have to pay attention to a lot of different things. I went to a lot of Frontera@Hyde Park and Salvage Vanguard and Dance Umbrella -- kind of the artists' community work -- to see what those folks are about. You look at what is done elsewhere in town, at the ballet and the opera, what the Paramount is programming. And you look at our own history. A lot of what I did was pulling attendance figures on what worked, or what we continue to bring back. Everybody says there are certain people [we bring back again and again], why is that? Well, you look at the numbers and it's fairly obvious. Interesting artists doing interesting work, and people come to see it.
AC: How tough was that to get an angle on?
NB: I'm still learning. On top of it being a complex institution in itself, the PAC is also inside a very complex institution, the University of Texas. Being one of the largest public universities in America, it also has a degree of complexity in the system, and I have to continually learn more about different kinds of contracts, different kinds of negotiation, how the university wants to deal with certain kinds of issues. How our whole budget and money works is a whole huge ... A certain amount of it comes from state dollars that can only be used for x, a certain amount of it comes from our earned income and can be used a little bit more flexibly, we have some endowment money ... Plus, we're working two or three years in advance, so that learning process, thinking about what's going to be interesting two or three years down the road, your mind just melts sometimes. "What do you mean, what are we going to do two years from now? I'm trying to market a show now!"
AC: Does the rapid growth of the city help or hinder you in that?
NB: Well, both. It helps us in the sense that it's a very dynamic environment, and almost anything that we try is going to find some kind of audience, assuming that the quality of the work is of a certain level. And so many different people are coming in, there are so many influences on this town now, there's so much interesting stuff everywhere, that there's a great deal of interest in coming here. The improvement in our "Broadway" series is largely attributable to peoples' sense that Austin is coming of age and that it no longer should have the "B" bus-and-truck shows; it should get Chicago and Rent, the first engagements. So that's helped us.
What hinders us is trying to get a handle on what all those people are interested in. And trying to pull those executives and families out of northeast, northwest Austin into the central city core to see something is really quite a feat sometimes. Although I think increasingly we're becoming that kind of urban core with the sense of "Let's go downtown." And frankly, regardless of what people think our agenda is on the Palmer issue, the fact that more people are thinking of this part of town as a destination for certain kinds of entertainment we think will help.
What's interesting to us is that people say, "Well, you may not want a new performing arts center because it will pull from your audience." Well, not really, because we feel that our future is in doing more things like global culture and new forms. We're glad there will be a place for all that other kind of thing to happen, in that fully professional way that the city deserves. It's almost the opposite; we would love for them to be able to cover that in a really great way, because then we could go and do, I don't know, dancers and musicians of Bali.
AC: Can you point to an example where you pulled some of that outlying audience in?
NB: I'm not sure that I can point to one example. Certainly, Phantom drew a huge number of people who had never been even near our hall. And regardless of what people think of that show, that was why we wanted it there; we know that's the kind of attraction that all over the world people will go out of their way to see. It did 100,000-plus people, so it was very successful. What we see is our audience growing significantly and the ZIP codes they are coming from are getting increasingly more diverse. That's true in general for all of our programming.
Also, our thing isn't just diversification by geography but age. We've deliberately begun to program to bring in the twentysomethings, the Gen Xers, as well as the people who are just out of that range, the young professionals. We have an older demographic that's attended since we opened in '81; we don't have the younger people. That's why things like world music are good for us, because younger people are interested in what the whole world has to offer. The "Global Pop" series is now almost sold out for us.
AC: You started working on this season ...
NB: Two years ago. Almost when I first came. The big stuff in this season was done two years ago.
AC: Walk me through the season and explain how the projects came about.
NB: In terms of how it actually works, "Broadway" is the easiest. Basically, how "Broadway" is done is that we give them -- Pace Theatrical -- a list of avails, usually four to six weeks that the hall is going to be available, then they send us a list of all the product that's going to be available for that cycle. We then prioritize what we would be interested in.
AC: Is this product that you have seen?
NB: If we have not been to see it, it's usually not ranked very high. After we rank the product according to what we would like to see, Pace attempts to route those in the availables, and they come back with a series of scenarios. "So, okay, based on what you said you wanted, here's what we can actually make work. And this many of them are your first choices, this many of them are your second choices." Or, as often happens, they'll say, "All of your first choices are the most expensive shows on the road, and you can do that if you want, right, but the tickets will be so high ... So we're gonna put in X show or Y show, which may not have been rated as highly, but it's been doing good business elsewhere in similar markets, and we think your audience will like it based on what they've bought before," and we'll do that. The timing of those are geared totally on avails, so a lot of times we may not be able to get a show because we can't route it in the times we have available. Sometimes they can't make anything work on the week that we give them and it becomes available for something else in the season.
I think the next most difficult thing is a series that we call "Legends." These people have extremely limited availability, they have to be legends -- in somebody's mind ... [Laughs]
AC: Other than their own.
NB: Exactly. The Martha Graham Company was booked for that series this year and right after we went to press, they decided that they were not going to tour. That was a nightmare because they were in both the "Dance" and "Legends" series, so [to fill that spot] we had to find a dance legend. Just a few people fit both those categories: Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey ... Fortunately for us, Paul Taylor, who has not been to town a lot, was available.
AC: Are these also the most difficult because they're booked so heavily in advance?
NB: Exactly. They're booked very far in advance. They anchor a number of different people's seasons throughout the country and the world. Back to that criticism that we continue to bring back the same people. Sometimes that's because they will accommodate the availabilities that we have in the hall. In other words, because we have a relationship with Wynton Marsalis, he may say, "I love Austin. I want to go back to Austin. Switch out that date with blah blah blah, who is more flexible. Because I want to play there."
AC: I think that perhaps people don't always appreciate that the development of a relationship with an artist is extremely valuable to an institution.
NB: That's exactly right. It is not only a relationship with the institution, it's a relationship with this town. We think it is really important for a community of artists and our students to see certain artists in our town and see the way they are developing their own work. It's an important part of the process for them. We do a lot of Philip Glass stuff because he's always doing something fairly interesting and that has a value to us as an educational institution. The Belle et Bete series ... We did all three of those -- one's a film, one's more an opera, and one's an opera directed by choreographers -- and all had totally different looks and feels within this same composer's music.
AC: And Belle et Bete is not 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof is not the score to Koyannisqatsi.
NB: Those kinds of things become important to us. What people forget about UT is that first and foremost it's an educational institution. Unlike other freestanding arts organizations in town, our primary directive is education. That's the reason the university puts the resources that they put into the center. It really adds to the ability to attract students, to animate our beliefs about diversity and the global world that the students will live in. It's a good way to address those humanizing factors that we hope students coming out of UT will have.
I went to a small college in Los Angeles, one of the Loyola campuses, and they required religion and philosophy courses as part of the curriculum because that is the way that they address the humanization of the students who go there. And indeed it becomes a quality in the minds of Loyola grads that they have a certain interest in ethical issues and philosophical issues. So, perhaps UT can address those kinds of issues with the Performing Arts Center, that has a very global view and a very diverse view of what art and culture are and gives students and faculty and staff a totally different perspective and outlook on differences between cultures.
We get a lot of criticism from people who really want us to be Carnegie Hall or an institution that does Western European classical work. We have the money, we should be bringing in the great symphonies of the world, the New York City Ballet. All that work is tremendous -- it's not that we won't do that. But we think it's more useful for our educational mission to present a broader palette of what art and culture are. Because that's the world we're going to live in, whether we like it or not. [Laughs] I know people are kicking and screaming, but we're going there. The world we will be in 10 years from now is going to be very different. Look at Blade Runner. I don't have to tell you; it told you. [Laughs]
It's more than just a joke, though. There is no way that that is not gonna be the world of the future. And we would be doing a disservice to the students if they didn't somewhere get a sense of what that was gonna be like.
"Global Pop" is new. It is a tribute, if you will, to being the "Live Music Capital of the World," ha-ha. We have the ability to attract pop artists from around the world and bring them into the center, and it's a contribution that we can make to the city that doesn't happen a lot elsewhere.
"World Music and Dance" -- again, classical forms from four different countries.
"Trailblazers" is always a difficult series to program because, by definition, it's stuff that is kind of non-mainstream. It's also primarily about new forms. What hybrid forms are out there that point the way to what's going to be happening in our town 15 years down the road? I think we have a great collection of stuff this year, but we kind of got lucky in a lot of ways. We have film with music -- a 3-D film is really what Robert Wilson's piece is -- but when we programmed it, they had not started note one. A little disconcerting. But it sounded really interesting. The same is true of the Margaret Jenkins-Olympia Dukakis piece. Cirque Ingenieu is a totally mainstream piece, but it is essentially Cirque du Soleil for proscenium. A visual voyage, with all of the traditional circus acts, a weird lead character ... it's really a lot of fun.
AC: The "Jazz" series?
NB: A lot of the people who have been on our list for a number of years have not been available. For example, Geri Allen was supposed to perform last season, but two weeks before the gig, she had a baby. We were able to substitute with DeeDee Bridgewater, who happened to be in the area and was fabulous. So Geri is back in an evening that really shows -- again, our educational mission -- two totally different styles of jazz piano playing: hers and Randy Weston's, who is probably one of the leading players in the field. With Don Byron ... Bug Music is the music from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, which is jazz. He's been doing this series at BAM awhile now, introducing kids and audiences to jazz music by using that music. We're gonna do a show for kids with the cartoons and the whole bit, so it's gonna be really cool. Wynton Marsalis is in this series as well, which kind of rounds that out.
Don and Geri in particular are also tremendous educators, so they will be working in the department, teaching some classes. Don Byron is someone who's done so many different styles of jazz, and he's a classically trained musician, who then got interested in jazz. So that provides us with the ideal opportunity to talk to students in our department about the value of classical training and it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to end up in classical, you can also do jazz music. That training gave Don the versatility to pick among a number of different styles and find his own voice.
"Chamber Music" is interesting this year because -- for lack of a better word -- we had a lot of promises that we had not kept. [Laughs] Corky Siegel was supposed to perform two years ago; couldn't get him in that season, for some reason. Couldn't fit him in the schedule last season, either. We love his work, he has a great following here, we're glad to have him back, glad that worked out. Brentano String Quartet won one of the major quartet competitions, and we were part of a group of presenters that agreed to present the winners of that competition. And again, I've just been able to route them for this season. Colorado String Quartet is a group we've wanted for a long time, but we also have been interested for some time in a classical guitar series. ... It's something that we thought we could really give some momentum to by bringing in some really stellar artists. So when [classical guitarist] Manuel Barrueco was offered to us with this quartet, we decided to add it.
AC: What about venue placement? I would imagine that all Bass events are not created equal. I can imagine events in the "Broadway" and "Legends" series filling Bass, but it's such a huge place that it seems a big gamble for certain other events. How do you determine that Bass is the venue of choice?
NB: Certainly, before Hogg we didn't have a choice. If we were going to present a certain event at all, we had to go into Bass, and we knew that that was not the perfect venue. But in terms of what we're doing now with Hogg, we're really putting attractions in a space that's more appropriate for both the experience of the work and what we think the audience will be for it. You know, Bass is not great for a lot of things. It's really great for some things, but really when you're talking about world music and a lot of contemporary dance, it's not the same experience for the audience. You really need a more intimate facility. Hopefully, we're going to be able to use Bass for what it was designed to be, which is a road house. Any time you talk about those kind of seats, that's really what they have in mind for it regardless of what they thought at the time. [Laughs] That's the thing that it's really good for. But when you talk about Bill T. Jones or Elizabeth Streb, they would be so much more powerful in an intimate theatre where the people are close and you get the heat of the room.
We try pretty much not to program things in Bass that aren't going to sell over 2,000 tickets.
AC: Will Tito Puente sell that much?
NB: Yeah, we think that he will. Everything that we have heard about what he's been doing at jazz festivals and the new music he's doing, he's been hugely successful. He'll be beyond that. He's already sold quite well.
This whole season -- I wish I knew exactly why, although I suspect that it's the Phantom Factor -- has sold extremely well. We expect 70% of our shows across the board to be sold out.
AC: You're currently working on 1999-2000?
NB: Yes. The season following this is a Texas season, a celebration of Texas arts and culture, with all of the artists having been born in Texas or the organization or presenting event being based in Texas or having some really strong Texas connection. It's gonna be amazing. It has a lot of really well-known names in it, all of which are tentative at this point because we haven't issued the contracts, but you got your Carol Burnett and your Alvin Ailey, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett. Working on some projects with the Alley Theatre featuring Texas playwrights. Working on a new commisssion for Robert Wilson. A Tejano music festival, with the grandfathers of that tradition and the young people now who are taking up those forms and how are they using them; Texas Folklife is helping us with that.
We will have Pina Bausch back -- primarily because she's touring again, but we had made a commitment to that before we decided on the Texas season. You talk about developing relationships with artists ... Actually, the company's favorite place on the tour was Austin. They really felt that of all the cities that they visited -- and they hadn't really visited anyplace outside of New York before -- Austin was really their favorite. If they were going to come back [to the U.S.], they were going to come to Austin.
That's what's important about that and continuing to present those artists. Because they develop a really strong feeling about this place that they then communicate to other artists. So you have other people saying, "I really want to go to Austin. Get them on the tour."
The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs October 9 & 10, Friday & Saturday, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 471-1444 for information.