Setting the stage - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Setting the stage

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Posted: Sunday, August 8, 2004 8:33 am | Updated: 5:32 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

August 8, 2004

Randy Vogel’s office is much like his mind.

On his desk, arranged in scattered stacks, are suggestions. Promotional materials for ballet companies. A CD by folk rocker Richard Thompson. A letter listing symphony orchestras touring the country in 2005-06.

Reminders of his choices.

On a far wall, a framed picture of Miles Davis. On the wall behind his computer, large photographic prints of marine life — Vogel’s own underwater photography, his latest hobby. Wearing a blue denim House of Blues shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he punches a few keys on his notebook computer and a jazz song plays. He talks about his love of jazz and his own bass-playing.

Reminders of his passions.

On the floor, dirt-caked boots. In a glass cabinet, a hard hat. Reminders of his deadline.

Next year, the $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center — all 206,500 square feet of what will be the largest arts center in Arizona — will open in downtown Mesa, and it’s Vogel’s job as performing arts center administrator to turn $1.5 million into a year’s calendar of 40 to 50 noteworthy and diverse performing arts groups playing in the center’s four theaters.

Meshed in with those bigger-name acts will be not only Mesa-based arts groups such as Southwest Shakespeare Company, the Mesa Symphony Orchestra and Mesa Youtheatre, but performances by other Valleywide arts companies such as Arizona Theatre Company, Arizona Opera and the Phoenix Symphony, adding up to what the center’s promotional materials say will be an expected 600 to 800 performances annually.

Vogel will play perhaps the largest role in shaping the center’s early reputation — jewel of the Valley or city-sponsored money pit — and, in addition, Mesa says he also has to turn a profit on a city-approved halfcent sales tax investment, to the tune of $2 million to $2.5 million in ticket sales in the first year.

"What’s going on in my mind is 40 to 50,000 ideas," Vogel says, "and I’m trying to weed out the good ones."

He leans back in his office chair — deep back, deeper than an office chair should go (ironic, considering his family’s business was manufacturing office furniture), far enough it looks like he might at any moment tip backward and crash to the floor. He exhales. This is Vogel relaxed.

THINK GLOBALLY, BOOK LOCALLY

Trying to pry clues as to what kind of well-known groups the Mesa Arts Center will bring in for its 2005-06 season has become almost a pastime for those who anticipate the opening of the arts center and who know Vogel. But he and the rest of the Mesa Arts and Cultural Division seem to get pleasure in keeping their secrets.

Even former Vice Mayor Dennis Kavanaugh, who is vice chairman of the Friends of the Mesa Arts Center, on the board of the Arizona Commission on the Arts and integral to getting the arts center initiative up and running, has lightheartedly bemoaned the silence. "Even I don’t know what they’re planning," he says, laughing.

Here’s what we do know:

Vogel has studied the marketing research on Mesa residents’ appetites and those of people willing to drive from elsewhere in the Valley to see what the center can offer. He has an idea of what it would take to lure audiences weaned on the Scottsdale Center for the Arts and its more eclectic lineups, or the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. (Of competition with other arts centers, he says, "I think we’ll all have to play nicely.")

Initially, Vogel wants to book conservatively, aiming for the broad market of 25- to 55-year-olds willing to pay $25 to $65 for a ticket.

"I really want to stay middle-of-the-road, at least for the first few years," he says. "I want to build up trust. I’m not looking to bring in artists that will challenge our audience, but what that means, I don’t know yet."

Scottsdale Center for the Arts director Kathy Hotchner says it has taken her many years — 16 so far at her current post — to build trust between her audience and what she’s offering. Her niche, she says, is for arts like contemporary and foreign dance. But she’s also brought everything from Eve Ensler’s "The Vagina Monologues" to the long-running hit comedy shows "Menopause — The Musical" and "Late Nite Catechism" and its sequel.

"When I first started here there wasn’t that much adventurous art programming," she says. "But you have a responsibility to the citizens of your community to be forward-thinking."

Vogel learned a lesson in audience tastes at his last job, directing the arts programming for the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, from 1995 to 2002. Early on, that center booked an act of glottal Tuvan throat singers — an experiment in eclectic fare that confused many patrons. (Meanwhile, Vogel earned a reputation at the California center for attending most every performance he booked, often after already working a full office day.) Vogel laughs when he says there won’t be any throat singers in the Mesa Arts Center’s opening season. What he wants is smooth sailing.

Then again, he’s also hoping his instincts as an arts director will be respected. He points to the time he booked country superstar Faith Hill at Escondido, shortly before she became a household name. At $65 per ticket, it was a risky venture. But then tickets went on sale for the 1,500-seat theater and sold out within two hours.

"The stars were in the right spot for that," he says, beaming.

Already, the Tribune learned last week, the Mesa Arts Center is planning to bring the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with renowned conductor Kurt Masur at the conductor’s stand, to the center in March 2006.

"What it means is we have a facility that is capable of handling top-quality artists," Vogel said then.

RUMORS AND DREAMS

Vogel won’t say if he has spoken to agents for any of these artists (to do so might hinder any negotiating leverage he might have in booking the acts), but in conversation he mentions he’d like to bring to the center performers in the classical realm such as guitar quartet The Romeros, violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Renee Fleming.

To coincide with events like the annual Arizona Scottish Highland Games on the campus of Mesa Community College, Vogel could imagine booking The Black Watch Pipe Band or a similar group.

Blues guitarist Keb’ Mo’? Maybe. Pretty much anyone who’s appeared on the PBS show "Sessions at West 54th Street" earns a "maybe." The Alvin Ailey Dance Company? Perhaps.

Vogel’s pet project, though, is building a jazz audience in Mesa, and the idea of booking saxophonist Wayne Shorter or pianist Herbie Hancock brings a smile to his face — as does the prospect of using the Western Jazz Presenters Network, which books jazz groups across several venues at a discount, to bring lesserknown jazz groups to the center’s smaller theaters — especially the 99-seat black box, which would make a dandy cabaret-style space.

"I need to be respectful of the tastes of the community," Vogel says. "My tastes can’t determine the nature of everything. But I can have pull."

The Mesa Arts Center’s promotional material suggests it will host "professional touring entertainment including Broadway-style theater," but Vogel says that attempting to book a season of touring musicals could easily eat up more than his $1.5 million budget, and is far too risky for the city; instead, he says a deal is possibly in the works to undergo a joint risk-sharing venture with an already established promoter in the Valley. He won’t say who, but Kansas Citybased Theater League, which brings mostly non-Equity tours and its own civic light opera-style revivals to downtown Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre, is looking to bring shows to the MAC, says Theater League president Mark Edelman.

"We’re missing patrons at our Orpheum series that I think would enjoy going to a theater closer by," Edelman says.

And what about pop music acts? It’s much too soon to speculate, Vogel warns. While MAC-watchers provide fodder for the rumor mill with names like Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, Vogel says that even though classical and other high-art performing groups try to book their schedules a year in advance, pop groups are more volatile, and usually aren’t booked until six or fewer months before a potential show date. But can we expect any heavy metal or hardcore rap? Probably not. He reiterates: "We’re looking for the right shows for the venue."

But Vogel says the arts center is poised to take advantage of the growing number of groups that consider making a tour stop in Arizona, to take advantage of the large population here in the Valley.

"There’s this phenomenon," he says. "(Artists) want to get from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to California, or California to Albuquerque or Dallas or Colorado. They can’t ignore it, they want to play here."

So, Vogel says, why not perform in Mesa, the third-largest city in the state, with its own brand-new, high-tech arts facility?

TAKING CARE OF THE LITTLE GUYS

Bringing popular acts to the Mesa Arts Center’s larger theaters could be a full-time job in itself, but Vogel is very aware of his responsibility to the bevy of local and regional performing arts groups that want to share the center.

Aside from the city’s Mesa Youtheatre, the arts center won’t have typical "resident" groups, but rather will extend opportunities to Mesa-based companies to be "affiliates" for whom special consideration will be given to booking into the center’s theaters, as well as financial breaks and behind-the-scenes assistance. (A centralized computer ticketing system will be available to arts groups across the Valley for a fee, Mesa Arts Center marketing director Julia DeHesus says.) Those groups are likely to include the Mesa Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Xicanindio Artes, Mesa Encore Theatre, Ballet Etudes, Sonoran Desert Chorale and Southwest Shakespeare Company.

"I see the thing with mixed emotions," says Jim Good, Southwest Shakespeare’s board president.

On one hand, his 10-yearold company is getting an upgrade from its current homes of the Mesa Amphitheatre and Westwood High School to perform in the 550-seat repertory theater. And though it costs the Shakespeare troupe 50 percent to 75 percent more to play at the Mesa Arts Center, it also means Southwest Shakespeare won’t have to rent lighting and sound equipment.

On the other hand, Good sees potential for a problem when some of the professional and semi-pro companies based in Phoenix want to put on productions for East Valley audiences at the center: "What happens," he says, "when one of them wants to do ‘Macbeth?’ I hope it won’t be a competitive thing."

Ultimately, Good says, he trusts Vogel’s judgement. "He sure seems to know

what he’s doing."

Vogel says all the local and Valleywide groups have submitted their 2005-06 seasons for scheduling, and he’ll release more information about the compiled calendar later this month or in September.

BACK TO THE OFFICE

For now, Vogel is busy in that office of his, weeding through ideas as much as he weeds through promotional information from agents and sometimes unfamiliar artists. ("You find out who you don’t know, in this business," he says, laughing.) He’s still working out how to process booking contracts through the city’s attorney’s office and giving thought to the other job of his we didn’t mention: Booking local groups to perform yearround in the arts center’s outdoor Shadow Walk.

With every calendar day of the inaugural season that gets filled in, Vogel gets closer to completing a picture of what the new Mesa Arts Center will look — and sound — like. There’s pressure, sure, but not enough to keep Vogel from leaning back in his chair, way back, and speculating optimistically:

"My gut feeling tells me the city is hungry for the center to open up," he says. "I expect a honeymoon for the first year. After that, people will expect high-quality customer service and a high quality of artists. But the city wants this to work."

Mesa Arts Center

Groundbreaking: May 20, 2002

Opening: Classes and art galleries in spring 2005, theaters in September 2005

Size: 205,600 on seven acres

Capital funding: $94.5 million ($90.8 million from Mesa, $3.7 million from Mesa Arts Alliance)

Structures: Three buildings incorporating four theaters (1,600-seat Ikeda Theater, 550-seat repertory theater, 200-seat playhouse and 99-seat black box theater), five art galleries, 14 visual and performing arts studios, plus various offices, meeting spaces and lecture halls

Design features: A 660-foot-long Shadow Walk with areas for performing arts year-round, a "flash flood" arroyo, sculpture garden, terraced rooftop gardens with performance spaces, glass pergolas, massive public art projects incorporating colored glass walls and mobile aluminium shutters

Parking: 2,000 free spaces within two blocks of center, plus 300-space lot behind center and another surface lot in front

Annual number of performances: 600 to 800

Annual number of classes: 700

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