Lessons from the Long Center's first six months
Theatre people have a saying: There's the show you rehearse, then there's the show you perform. Meaning, the folks putting on a play can learn a lot about it while they're putting it together, but they never really know what kind of show they have until the audience shows up. That's when the artists learn which jokes are really funny, which moments are truly moving, which characters are credible, which relationships genuine. It's the response of the public that teaches you what you've made.
The staff and supporters of the Long Center for the Performing Arts spent 16 years working out what kind of cultural facility they wanted for Austin, carefully crafting it through the design and construction and programming of the space. But until the center opened to the public in March, those people couldn't know if the facility they had "rehearsed" was the facility they would be running.
They've been getting a good sense of that over these past six months. While the learning curve for a new facility like the Long Center is properly measured over several seasons, the first six months have provided some valuable lessons for the center's keepers, lessons that have already led to changes in the way the Long Center operates. While many have been positive – certainly, the money spent on acoustics and the creation of the grand terrace with its expansive view of Downtown have paid off – but as often happens in life, it's the painful experiences from which the Long Center staff have been learning the most. Executive Director Cliff Redd and Director of Marketing and Development Jack Bunning discussed some of them with the Chronicle.
"The first 30 days of operations had things neither Jack nor I nor the most important soothsayer you could name could have foreseen," Redd notes. "We learned a lot about the public's reactions to things beyond our control, like parking."
No kidding. The business of motor-vehicle storage for the Long Center was a source of contentious debate during its construction (neighborhood groups fought for a smaller garage than center supporters wanted), but that turned out to be a tea party compared to the firestorm ignited by a massive traffic jam on April 20, when thousands converged on the area for Austin Lyric Opera's Carmen and Austin Community College and ProArts Collective's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil at the Long Center, the Gem and Jewelry Show at Palmer Events Center, and the Austin Reggae Festival at Auditorium Shores. The swarm of cars, far more than the 2,500 that the parking in the Long Center garage and lots in the area could accommodate, left Riverside Drive from South First to I-35 in gridlock for hours.
While staff for the Long Center and the city had anticipated some crowds and traffic snags after the new facility opened, the enormity of this tie-up shocked everyone. "We didn't know it could happen like that," says Redd.
As a result, however, "all the rules changed that day," he says. "Credit to the city, being responsive with an interim parking plan, and Jason Maurer, who books Auditorium Shores. We all talked. Now we have a completely different relationship. Every event, large and small, at the Long Center has a parking plan. Jason doesn't book an event on Auditorium Shores without talking to us first. What do we have? Can we do it? What would the parking plan have to look like?"
The traffic mess cast a dark cloud over the center just three weeks after its grand opening, though Redd sees a silver lining in the response of his staff: "I'm so glad I made the investment in customer-service training models that I did, because in those moments that are really dark, in terms of handling a public that is very unhappy, you have to know you have an A-plus team that's giving all the right answers, all the right responses, and making it right as fast as they possibly can. And that's pretty much what people experienced."
Unfortunately, the magnitude of the mess left many people skittish about a repeat or, worse, fearful that parking at the Long Center would be a chronic problem. Jack Bunning reports that for weeks after the jam, calls to the box office routinely included the question, "Can I park?" "The weeks that followed were about earning back the public trust," says Redd. And though the center has since seen numerous sold-out events in Dell Hall – ALO's The Bat, Video Games Live, Kathy Griffin, Lyle Lovett, the Verdi Requiem with Conspirare, Yo-Yo Ma with the Austin Symphony – and had no parking issues, he admits, "It's still very much on the lips of the people of Austin."
"We thought we would have a honeymoon, and this derailed that," Redd adds. "But you know, we got it over with. So I don't live in fear that it might happen and what would happen if it did. It happened, and it's over, and we got to learn. Painfully, but we got to learn."
Living With the City
Friday, July 25: The front page of the Austin American-Statesman announces "Long Center seeking $2 million in Austin help for upkeep." The story by reporter Tony Plohetski reports on an e-mail from Cliff Redd to City Manager Marc Ott in which the Long Center director suggests that the facility's costs for utilities, maintenance, security, traffic control, and services such as lawn care and landscaping be shared with the city. The $2 million corresponded to a deficit in the Long Center's annual budget. The article ignited a public outcry in the paper's online comments section and letters to the editor in which critics railed at the center for being a boondoggle and elitist and called for shutting it down.
Redd says he was blindsided by the reaction. "I learned what it feels like to be tried outside the courtroom before you ever see the judge or hire a lawyer," he says. "I was just asking the question that a good executive director should ask, which is: What are the partnerships that we can evolve for our city that can be cost-saving for us and mutually beneficial? That was the question. That's all the question ever was. It still is. And I'm going to keep asking it.
"I see us paying the top rate for our utilities when we could be paying a lot less. This is [the city's] building. Why not help us? Why not pay the [utility] rate that City Hall is paying? Is there a good reason we're not doing that? Does it really make sense for the security person to drive around the Palmer Events Center and stop at some imaginary line as opposed to driving another 10 feet and being our security person, too? Does that make sense to you as a taxpayer? Does it make sense to be spending money from a donor paying for that service? I want the money to go on stage. I want it to be spent on a play here. I want that money to go into the arts community. Two percent of our population are employed in the arts. I want them to have secure work here.
"We're learning what it means to develop what was a completely undeveloped or underdeveloped relationship with the city government. I talk about living in the Long Center like it's your dream home, but the driveway and the garage are your neighbors'. And to get in and out of your dream house every day, you have to navigate with your neighbor. And they have 12 cars. And they don't go to work when you do. Was it sobering? Sure. But out of that was forged the beginnings of a workable relationship with the city."
The Programming Challenge
Obviously, you build a center for the performing arts to have performances in, but no one really knew whether Austinites would come to the Long Center to see them. The good news for Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin, and the Austin Symphony – the founding resident companies of the Long Center – has been that their performances in their new home have frequently sold out. Other local companies such as Conspirare have done equally well in the 2,400-seat Dell Hall, and a number of the local arts groups that have performed in the 200-seat Rollins Studio Theatre – the Rude Mechs, Teatro Vivo, and Austin Shakespeare, to name a few – have sold out shows there, too.
The events that the center has programmed itself under the Long Center Presents banner have not always fared as well. For every Kathy Griffin, Lyle Lovett, or Video Games Live that sold out, there has been a Kathleen Battle or 3 Redneck Tenors that filled only half or three-quarters of Dell Hall. Under different circumstances, Long Center staff might have been able to discern which underperforming shows just weren't popular, but fallout from the parking issue has made it hard to determine whether people stayed away because they didn't like the show or were anxious about parking. Probably a mixture, thinks Bunning.
In some instances, scheduling played a role in the low turnout, Redd believes. The concert by opera diva Kathleen Battle was on a Monday. "Had it been on a Saturday," he suggests, "we would have had a line around the door." But that isn't always possible with Long Center Presents, since the center gives local companies top priority in scheduling dates. "We step completely out of the way, because that is our promise," Redd says. "The best dates we methodically give away. That's not a complaint. That's why we built the center." But it does leave Long Center Presents with what Redd calls "this weird jigsaw puzzle": "You've got a Tuesday night in the season, and you have to find something that somebody will come to on a Tuesday night that you can make money at, or you don't want to do it. As we learn, we'll get smarter at that."
"The strategy is we're working much further out," says Bunning. "We're starting to look at '09-'10, '10-'11, '11-'12 already."
That comment prompts Redd to add: "If I could have seen everything the way it worked out, I would have started programming the first year the day the foundation cracked on the old Palmer. We would have had the run time to lay in an opening season. But we didn't know that. Two years ago, we weren't sure we were going to start the blasted thing."
The Broadway Conundrum
"Dell Hall is wonderful for the symphony, opera, and ballet, but it loves the theatre," says Redd. "Every time we put something theatrical in it, I'm reminded how much it loves it. So, of course, I want to feed that."
But bringing Broadway to Dell Hall requires that precious commodity, time. Most touring productions need at least a full week of the schedule, and "a week is really precious here," Redd notes. They can juggle a few dates on the schedule to get something really important. "Unfortunately, we can't pull a week out of the schedule so a Broadway show can sit down. What is defining us is the calendar."
And carving out a week for a theatrical production doesn't mean it will sell, as the center learned with The Drowsy Chaperone. The touring version of the acclaimed Broadway musical had been scheduled for the Long Center in August, but weeks before its arrival, the center canceled the booking. Redd was a fan of the show and still is – "catchy plot, great music, I think it's going to be a sensation when it hits the region" – but he learned that the tour wasn't an easy sell across the country. The places where it had the most success were theatres with large season subscription bases that booked it for two weeks. "It tended to be a little fragile on single-ticket sales," Redd explains, "but on a two-week run, the season people came to see it, and they'd go, 'I had the best time,' and the next week, single-ticket sales went way up. I didn't have any more than one week. We don't have season tickets. I didn't want them to be sitting in a nearly empty house. I didn't want Austin to be the spot that the tour company made that was a bummer. So we did what was heretical" and canceled. It taught Redd that the Austin audience for musical theatre is still evolving and that the center has to pay even more attention to the road shows it books.
That doesn't necessarily bode well for Redd's desire to feed Dell Hall's love for theatre, but the Long Center director is nothing if not tenacious, not to mention adept at finding ways to get things done in less than ideal circumstances. That's how he got the Long Center finished and open to begin with. And he's recently acquired a valuable ally in his mission, someone with a deep background in theatre and programming performing-arts events for Austin audiences. That would be Paul Beutel, who spent 18 years at the Paramount Theatre, much of it as its executive director. His presence as the center moves into its second six months gives the facility someone skilled at building on the kinds of lessons being learned about the Long Center's operations.
"What worked? What's broken? I think we're going to be able to tell you that more in about a year," Redd says. In the meantime, he will be enjoying his favorite lesson of the Long Center's first six months: If you build it, they will come – all of them. "You'd be amazed at who you see [walk through here] in a week. It's not who you think. The most delicious, diverse cross section of humans. It's really, truly Austin. We get to meet Austin every day.