In the performing arts center business, it’s known as the “Build it and they will come” syndrome. After so much time, money and energy is spent on the monumental task of building a civic theater, it’s commonly found that relatively little resources and planning are devoted to the even more difficult job of successfully operating the center after its doors open.
This could account for the unorthodox direction the Byrnes Performing Arts Center has taken in its inaugural year. As I opined in my last column, a lack of a sound business plan and an operating budget, as well as the city’s contract of a part-time promotions coordinator rather than a full-time director has made for a somewhat underwhelming first “season” of non-school related events. Admittedly, any year of a civic theater’s operation makes restaurant ownership seem easy. However, as the Center begins its second year, perhaps a look at how a similar theater meets its challenges might be helpful.
The Northshore Performing Arts Center, located on the Bothell High School campus, seemed like a good model for comparison. Its architecture is similar to the Byrnes Center’s, though Northshore has 100 fewer seats; additionally, the communities each raised about $2.5 million towards construction. But the similarities between the two theaters seem to end there.
Rather than a partnership between the city and the school district, Northshore is essentially a co-operation between a non-profit, community-based operating group and the schools.
Created well before the theater’s completion, the Northshore Performing Arts Center Foundation has a conventional board of directors. The rest of the group’s structure and approach is also traditionally modeled, probably because tradition often works. Supporters can become foundation members with annual, tax-deductible donations, starting at $50; perks begin with first dibs on tickets.
Other funding sources include tax-deductible season, specific show, and marketing sponsorships by corporations and local businesses.
While the theater is available for rent, the NPAC books acts for its September-thru-May season — and around the schools’ performance schedules. Entertainment ranges from local to international performers, from touring dramas and pop groups to illusionists and comedians. The group has its own insurance, and if additional sound gear is needed for a performance, they rent it – at undoubtedly deeply discounted rates. They’ve made sure their programming fits their community by asking patrons at the door; while no such surveys have been made on the theater’s impact on local businesses, reportedly one in three ticket purchases are accompanied by the question, “Where is there a good place to eat in Bothell?”
Northshore has had two directors, neither of which proved to be a perfect match for the organization, one board member told me. The source – who preferred anonymity — said that the theater was getting by without a director while the search continued. That board member indicated that a “perfect fit” theater director could command a salary of $65,000, a figure they haven’t been able to afford in the past.
That may all change as they near the end of their third season. Reportedly “in the black” for the first time, The NPAC is currently considering expanding their next schedule into the summertime, as well as adding some paid staff.
Northshore’s success, my source explained, has ultimately been made possible by years of hard work by an all-volunteer “theatre guild,” which maintains a database of its members interests, experience, and availability — and puts it to use. Almost all aspects of the center’s operation are handled by volunteers from the guild and the foundation’s board, from ushering and ticket-taking to answering phones, fundraising, marketing and program brainstorming.
In proceeding forward, the Byrnes Center’s powers-that-be might want to adopt one or two aspects of Northshore’s successful approach. Creating an operating group with an all-important, grant-qualifying, sponsorship-attracting, non-profit status should be a start. And, while I applaud city hall’s wish to help subsidize non-school related events, a full-time director is clearly needed to make those performances possible.
Above all, it seems that the Center needs to embrace, promote and incorporate more involvement and ideas from the community. Everyone in the PAC business that I’ve spoken to stressed over and over again the importance of hands-on public support. In this community, volunteerism would promote a correct sense of self-ownership, and vice versa. Volunteers would also dramatically cut operating costs, making smaller and/or “local” performances possible. Additionally, area businesses should be a vital part of the PAC’s plan for success — at the very least, there should be a poster or flyer for this week’s event in every shop window.
And, between school functions and the PAC’s endeavors, there should be an event of some sort almost every week. We have one of the largest, most attractive performing arts centers north of Seattle, with a potential audience that extends beyond the county. The possibilities are mind-boggling, in terms of Arlington’s cultural history and future. And you can bet that there are actors, singers, comedians and illusionists who would want to appear here, if they knew we were here.
Let’s fill those 700 seats.
The PAC Advisory Commission will hold its next public meeting on May 21 at 5:30 PM at the Byrnes Performing Arts Center.