The man behind the curtain

By
From the August 2010 edition

Bill Conner likes to listen.

And whether it’s a Broadway musical, classic symphony or cutting-edge drama, the president and CEO of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) wants to know what theatre goers are saying—and isn’t above spying to accomplish his goal.

“The best time to hear what people think is during intermission,” says Conner, who has eavesdropping down to a science. He can blend into the woodwork of a performance to hear without being seen and listen as the paying customers chatter and critique.

And there’s nothing Conner loves to hear more than good reviews. “It’s all

about the connection between the audience and the performers,” he says, adding that when the relationship clicks it sparks an emotional and memorable experience that feeds the soul.

“That’s why the stage experience is so immediate and powerful,” says Conner, who either produces, manages or is involved in some way with just about anything and everything that takes place on a Columbus stage. Despite all this power, Conner is unknown to the vast majority of people who attend these performances, and he would like it to remain this way.

“If you do it well, no one knows,” he says of his role as Columbus’s arts impresario. “People buy tickets and have an amazing experience and don’t know or care about what goes on behind the scenes. . . . As Shakespeare said, ‘The play’s the thing.’ ”

But as CAPA’s reach and influence continues to expand, pushed along by a recession that has forced performing arts organizations to look at new and novel ways to cut costs and remain afloat, it is becoming more difficult for Conner to remain behind the scenes.

CAPA owns and operates the Palace, Ohio and Southern theaters, and it operates the Lincoln Theatre, all four of the Riffe theaters, the Valentine Theatre in Toledo and the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut.

In March, with the Columbus Symphony in desperate financial shape and weeks away from going under, Conner and CAPA took over the organization’s back-office operations. “We’ll save about $750,000 this year in operating expenses,” says Martin Inglis, symphony board chair. “It’s already exceeded my expectations; Bill brings remarkable organizational skills and his staff is incredible. I have to conclude this doesn’t happen by accident.”

CAPA provides similar back-office services—finance, accounting, marketing, advertising, ticketing and IT—for the Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO), Phoenix Theatre for Children and the Franklin Park Conservatory. And it manages the city’s Festival Latino.

The organization also rents performance space at the theaters it owns or operates to 26 arts groups and handles the ticketing for about a dozen of that total, including Chamber Music Columbus and Opera Columbus. CAPA also partners with Broadway Across America, a national organization based in New York that sends touring companies of hit shows to more than 40 U.S. cities. Being a partner gives CAPA say in what shows come here and when.

Running this growing arts kingdom is Conner, a workaholic and philosopher with a mischievous sense of humor who believes it’s the mission of CAPA to promote and build the performing arts in Columbus. “Some would say Bill is building an empire; I say he’s creating the engine for the arts community that will stabilize it and help it move forward,” says Larry James, board chair of the Lincoln Theatre and the King Arts Complex.

Dynamo is the word Larry Fisher uses to describe Conner. “Bill is as influential in the arts community as anyone you could name and more important is that he wants to strengthen the arts community,” says Fisher, who helped create CAPA in 1969 and currently is vice chair of the board.

The nonprofit organization was formed to save the historic Ohio Theatre, and Fisher admits he and the other founders had no plans to turn it into a performing arts superpower. “It’s grown beyond what we thought,” he says, adding this has brought advantages—and better shows—to Columbus and the city’s arts organizations. “If you have these multiple theaters and you’re trying to get a production or a touring company you have a better chance to get what you want and get it on the dates you want it,” Fisher says.

The CAPA business model has become the envy of many other cities, and it was the subject of a recent profile on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” in a story about outsourcing.

Steven Anderson, artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre for Children, says, “I get asked about it all the time when I go to conferences or national auditions.” And what he tells people is that this business model, which has its roots in Europe, really works. Centralizing the ownership and management of Columbus’s theaters and providing professional back-office support for many of the area’s groups reduces costs and improves services—and allows the creative people more time to be creative.

“It was working so well with CATCO and one day I said to Bill I wish someone could take the business part off my hands,” Anderson says. “He said let’s talk . . . and now it’s been three years and it has been a really spectacular thing for us.”

In Conner, Anderson says he found a kindred spirit and partner. “He has an extraordinarily quick mind,” Anderson says. “He assesses a situation quickly and doesn’t have a lot of filter and says what’s on his mind and I have the same trait. I found a like spirit, and Bill has a great love of theater.”

The man running CAPA since 2002 grew up in California and eventually earned a master’s of divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1977. Not exactly the typical educational foundation for an arts administrator. “Yes, I have a weird background,” Conner says, adding he never intended to become a minister, but instead “just liked philosophy classes.”

He began his theater career as a field representative for Actor’s Equity in Chicago and then managed theaters in Chicago and Minneapolis from 1981 to 1995. Later, Conner was senior vice president of marketing, sales and touring for Livent, a Toronto-based company that produced touring shows of Broadway hits. Prior to coming to CAPA, he was president of Clear Channel Entertainment and ran its three Boston theaters. “I’ve just always liked the theater,” says Conner, who never had the desire to actually perform onstage. “I get a lot of satisfaction from the business side, from bringing together the artists and audiences.”

And that is exactly what he and his full-time staff of about 70, plus another 500 part-time workers (stage hands, ushers and musicians) do on a budget of $9.7 million (for the current fiscal year). Its Columbus theaters will host about 850 events during the current 2009-’10 season, which will attract 445,000 people. Total ticket revenue will be $16.6 million—$4.4 million from CAPA-produced shows, including Broadway Across America, and the remainder from the performances of other arts organizations and site rentals. The estimated economic impact for Columbus is $41.5 million.

The key to Conner’s success is creating trust, say many who work with CAPA. For instance, the Columbus Symphony had rented office and performance space in the Ohio Theatre for several years, which means Conner and CAPA were its landlords. “As part of this relationship, Bill and Mike [Petrecca, CAPA’s board chair] and I would dine regularly, and part of it was to make sure we were building relationships,” Inglis says. Skip ahead to earlier this year, when the symphony was in financial peril—and the familiarity between Conner and CAPA made the hastily arranged marriage a lot easier.

“We already liked him,” Inglis says. “We had a very good idea of CAPA’s capabilities and they had an understanding of the business elements of the symphony and there was a trust among the parties.”

The deal got done in a matter of weeks, after a series of Sunday morning meetings, and was announced on March 31. “I guess that comes from my theological training,” Conner says of his commitment to building relationships. “They have always been important to me, being part of the community is important to me and serving the community is important to me.”

Conner also knows how to tap into both sides of his brain, says Roland Valliere, who was the symphony’s president and CEO. After the merger with CAPA, Conner became the CEO, while Valliere continues as its president. “He’s good at business and good at the creative side,” he says. “And at the end of the day, he and his staff are delivering results. He hires good people, lets them do their job and holds them accountable, and these are the signs of a good administrator.”

All this managing of organizations and relationships takes time. Conner’s workweek hovers around 100 hours, including weekends spent writing reports to the board members of the various organizations CAPA deals with. And then there are frequent trips to London and New York to see new shows and decide which ones to bring to Columbus.

In late May, Conner traveled to New York and saw American Idiot, the new play based on the music of Green Day. “I completely loved it and was very moved,” he says. This means there’s a good chance it could come to town in the next few years. “I want to find art that speaks to the community,” he says.

Running is his stress reducer, and Conner, who’s 57 and married with two adult children, pounds the pavement from his German Village home to downtown and back most mornings before work. “I like to run by the Palace Theatre every morning and make sure the marquee is up to date,” Conner says. He’s joking, sort of.

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.