The Show Goes On

By
From the May 2014 edition

It’s a Friday after sunset, but the stretch of State Street that runs along the Statehouse is lit up like it’s the middle of the day. A thousand light bulbs glow red and gold from the marquee of the historic Ohio Theatre, illuminating the sky and beckoning to the crowd below. Cars deliver theatergoers dressed to the nines to the building’s entrance, where a line of eager patrons forms in the lobby and spills onto the sidewalk. Some pose for pictures under the iconic sign while they wait their turn to enter the nearly 90-year-old theater.

Inside, the theater is alive with excitement, its sweeping staircases and rooms lavished with gilded railings and golden crown molding. A starry ceiling hovers above rows of plush, velvet seats, highlighting the ornate detail of the theater’s Spanish-baroque design. Consider the legends who have graced its stage since it opened in 1928—Jean Harlow, Jack Benny, Judy Garland—and the significance of the Ohio Theatre’s history is almost palpable. More recently, it has welcomed stars like Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews and is now home to Columbus’ ballet and symphony. It’s hard to imagine what Downtown Columbus would be like without the famed theater and easy to forget we were, at one time, very close to finding out.

It’s difficult to imagine the city, too, without the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), the nonprofit organization founded in 1969 by a group of preservationists determined to save the Ohio Theatre from the wrecking ball. They raised money to buy the theater and eventually two more, and now CAPA manages and runs the back office for a dozen other performance venues and organizations in town. For many of the concerts, plays, musicals and shows we see in Columbus each year, CAPA is behind the scenes—or the curtain, if you will—running businesses, scheduling performances and ever extending their reach around the performing arts.

With a thundering symphonic crescendo and the brilliant light of a costume chandelier, more than 2,700 theatergoers packed into the Ohio Theatre are entranced by Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” It’s the third show of a two-week run of the musical, brought here by Broadway Across America, and it is sold out. For years, the Broadway musical presenter rented theaters from CAPA, which also owns the Palace and Southern theaters, for its Columbus productions, while Columbus-based employees managed their marketing, event management, ticketing, sponsorship and public relations. That changed in 2009, when CAPA assumed those responsibilities.

It’s a more efficient way of doing things, says CAPA president Bill Conner. CAPA has the people and internal structure in place to manage performing arts organizations. Why should Broadway Across America pay to staff their own local office when there’s one here already, especially one with which they’re already doing business? Plus, CAPA’s buying power helps us see more Broadway shows sooner.

“We’re good about getting Broadway shows here very quickly,” Conner says. “The Columbus audience is very smart and very in tune with what’s happening in New York City. They want those shows here as soon as possible.” A two-week run of “The Book of Mormon,” the outrageous musical comedy from the creators of “South Park” that’s earned national notoriety and nine Tony awards, opens this month, following both “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Addams Family.” CAPA recently announced its 2014-2015 Broadway season, which includes productions of “Anything Goes” and Disney’s “The Lion King” and “Newsies.”

CAPA’s relationship with Broadway Across America is an example of what Conner calls shared services. Before he joined as president 12 years ago, the organization managed the state-owned Riffe Center theaters and established a Connecticut-based nonprofit to manage the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, a legendary Broadway tryout house.

Now, CAPA provides all management and administrative services for the historic Lincoln Theatre, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Opera Columbus, Friends of the Drexel and, as of last year, the McCoy Center for the Arts in New Albany. Aside from these relationships, CAPA also provides ticketing services for a bevy of performing arts organizations—21 in all—including BalletMet.

It’s an interesting model, one that connects CAPA to Columbus’ performing arts scene in an unconventional way. “It’s very unique to Columbus, and we’re very proud of that,” Conner says. CAPA is the only performing arts organization in the world that uses a shared-service model. The most comparable is the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which also operates the symphony and opera. “It’s based on these Midwestern and practical and positive values, and we’ve been able to see this unique model really grow up and be successful,” Conner says.

The growth hasn’t necessarily been intentional. Conner notes CAPA doesn’t promote its management arm. Rather, arts organizations seek out their services, typically when they’re independent and struggling. Take the symphony for example. A decade ago, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was known more for its history of financial ailments than its programming. “People were always talking about the symphony having a constant problem,” Conner says. For 10 straight years, they reported losses. Then, in 2010, they turned to CAPA.

“We’d been having more general discussions on the philosophy of sharing services,” says Martin Inglis, symphony board chair. “There appeared to be a major efficiency that could be generated if you could break the mold. It was something new.” CAPA assumed all management roles for the symphony. Since, their budget has balanced, and both revenue and attendance have increased. And if CAPA hadn’t stepped in? “We’d be out of business,” Inglis says. “We had enough money to last us through one month.”

In addition to the tangible management services, CAPA also has a reputation that gives peace of mind to patrons considering membership or donations. “Part of joining up with CAPA means you could attract people who were concerned about joining your organization before,” Inglis says. “If you were joining an organization and you were concerned they were going out of business next week, it might make you think twice.”

Though the relationship between CAPA and CSO is technically a management services agreement, Inglis doesn’t care for that nomenclature. He refers to it as a cooperative partnership because the former “sounds fairly cold. It’s much more activity and passion. It’s like the day-to-day battles of how do you run a symphony orchestra.”

Inglis also has a seat on the CAPA board, which is “intended for total transparency, so there wasn’t something going on on one side to the detriment of the other side.” CAPA has no creative pull on the symphony’s programming, he says. The symphony handles the art, while CAPA handles the business.

Conner compares CAPA’s relationship with the performing arts organizations they manage to the separation of church and state, but with management and art. “The model is really based on back-office management,” he says. “That frees the artistic team to focus just on the art.”

It’s still a business, though, and these organizations do need to make money to survive. Larry James of the CAPA-managed Lincoln Theatre says striking the balance between making money and staying true to the theater’s mission is a combined effort.

In 2007, the city hired CAPA to lead a $13.5 million renovation of the Egyptian Revival-style theater, and CAPA has managed it since it reopened in 2009. The theater has become an epicenter for revitalization in the historically struggling King-Lincoln District. It’s now a multi-use performing arts venue that promotes art education and accessibility. James, board chair of the Lincoln Theatre Association, says there has been a learning curve to working with CAPA. “We are in a unique situation serving a unique population with a certain mission,” he says. “We have a different approach, different messaging, and we go deeper than CAPA might go in some of the programming.”

The “Backstage at the Lincoln” concert series, an opportunity for local artists to perform, is not about dollars and cents. “When you’re trying to provide programming targeting the community, it may be labor intensive and costly,” he says. “You know you’re not going to make any money.” James says CAPA helps determine when it’s feasible for the theater to host events that might break even or lose money. They also bring booking perks—the theater might decide on the acts, but it’s CAPA that has the leverage to negotiate contracts with artists.

“There really is a true economy of scale that allows us to do very well when we’re out there (booking acts), and we share that with each organization,” Conner says. “We get things we want to come here pretty competitively and do really well with dating and pricing for those artists.”

While each organization receives 100 percent of their ticket sales, they do pay CAPA an annual fee for services. Ideally, it’s less than they’d spend doing it on their own. Inglis wanted to save the symphony $500,000 a year by working with CAPA; they’ve saved about $800,000.

CATCO’s producing director Steven Anderson sees it as an investment in experienced, quality employees. CAPA provides marketing, finance, ticketing and development services for the resident professional theater company, which in 2010 merged with Anderson’s Phoenix Theatre for Children, now called CATCO is Kids.

“If I were to go out and find the people to do all those services, I would be getting entry-level people that I’d have to train and then they’d leave me for better jobs,” Anderson says. “What I have in CAPA is a bunch of people who are good at what they do, and I have a piece of them.” CATCO’s annual operating budget is $1.4 million; they pay CAPA an annual fee of about $180,000.

As other CAPA-managed organizations, CATCO has full artistic freedom. “Do I ask for advice? Sure.” Anderson says. “But they don’t have veto power.” There’s a common perception that CAPA prevents programming they might deem too risky. “None of that goes on,” he says.

But as the demand for CAPA’s management grows, so too does the number of organizations that fall under their umbrella. Anderson admits there’s an adjustment period that follows.

“It can be a little rocky for everybody. In acquisition and mergers, there’s always a little rough time,” Anderson says. “What is the culture of this organization? How will that mold with the big picture? If you can’t be adaptable, it’s not going to work.”

CAPA’s shared services model is efficient, but it’s not for everyone.

Since the days of performing in the basement of a hair salon in the mid-’90s, MadLab Theatre and Gallery has come a long way. The independent, ensemble-based theater produces original, unpublished plays in its own space Downtown on Third Street. For years, they rented a spot on Grant Avenue until the owner decided to sell it. With no backup plan, the volunteer staff turned to CAPA. MadLab board chair Jenn Barlup says they had several conversations with CAPA about renting one of their smaller studio spaces but decided against it. “We’re built around this notion of independence, originality, accessibility,” Barlup says. “Thank goodness they were there to help us, but we knew it wasn’t the right direction. It wouldn’t have felt right. When you go from a homegrown splatter-painted box office to a marble one, it’s tough.”

Still, a number of independent performing arts organizations including Available Light Theatre, Evolution Theatre Columbus, Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus and Jazz Arts Group regularly use CAPA-owned or managed venues. They’re among CAPA’s resident arts groups, and they get a break on rent. Michael Garrett Herring of Red Herring Productions says there just aren’t enough affordable performing spaces to go around, but “CAPA does everything they can to make spaces available at what I consider a reasonable rate.” The independent theater company produced a show last year out of the Riffe Center’s Studio One space.

Although the two are unaffiliated, Barlup doesn’t consider CAPA to be MadLab’s competition in any regard. There is some audience crossover, she says, but generally they’re doing completely different things.

Shadowbox Live, by far Columbus’ largest resident theater company with a staff of more than 50 full-time professional artists, doesn’t have a relationship with CAPA either and produces more than 500 shows annually out of their Brewery District venue. If CAPA brings any competition, it’s healthy.

“When the theater community is vibrant, it raises awareness around the community in general,” says Shadowbox executive producer and CEO Stev Guyer. “In Columbus, theater has become a thing to do.” Individual theaters work hard to produce shows that no one else is doing, he says, but overlap isn’t uncommon. Shadowbox Live recently mounted a production of “Spamalot,” a show CAPA brought to Columbus several years ago.

“At best, even if CAPA is going to do a two-week run of something, they’re still only going to serve 20,000 people,” Guyer says. “And that might seem like a lot, but in a region that draws 1.5 million, it really isn’t.”

Besides, their audiences are different. Guyer says CAPA tailors to a gateway audience of nontraditional theatergoers who might see a popular show and become interested in the idea of going to the theater. For example, Shadowbox Live can’t afford to produce a show like “The Book of Mormon.” But CAPA can.

“Their willingness to spend money on shows that otherwise wouldn’t come to Columbus is a fantastic way to invigorate the theater community and encourage our audience to see new work,” he says.

A strong theater community can have a strong economic impact on a city. During the recession, Conner says CAPA was motivated to prevent any loss of Columbus’ performing arts infrastructure. While it has become much more than a landlord of historic theaters, CAPA’s mission to preserve performing arts was solidified long ago.

Loew’s and United Artists Ohio Theatre opened its doors for the first time in 1928 with “The Divine Woman,” a silent film starring Gretta Garbo. For decades, the Ohio Theatre attracted the nation’s most renowned artists and featured the most sought-after shows, including music, theater, magic, vaudeville and movies, and patrons flocked to see them nightly. But the ’60s brought more movie theaters, drive-ins, TVs and—more importantly—urban sprawl. Columbus lost interest in Downtown’s theaters, which at one point numbered 13.

The owners of the Ohio sold and abandoned the theater. In 1969, it was scheduled to be demolished and replaced by an office building. Aware of the imminent demise of the historic theater and determined to prevent it, a group of about 30 people formed an informal committee to save the Ohio. They met sporadically but had no real plan and, in May 1969, called one last meeting to disband.

On that same evening, Larry Fisher, then a 28-year-old lawyer, bumped into a coworker who was on his way to the final meeting. He joined the cause on a whim for one simple reason: “It didn’t make any sense to tear down that theater,” says Fisher, now retired. “It just made no sense.” They headed to the theater to make one last stand.

At the meeting, leaders spoke about failed efforts to raise money and announced their dissolution. Defeated and disheartened, everyone left. But Fisher, his coworker, an architect and the wife of the orchestra’s conductor weren’t ready to give up. They stood in the empty theater, dark but for the ghost light on the stage, and they all had the same feeling: “Why would you ever tear this building down? We saw potential uses for it.”

So they stayed. Over the next 10 days, they formed CAPA and established it as a charitable nonprofit. They sold bonds to raise enough money to purchase the theater and the adjacent building from its current owner, who agreed to sell it for the full price they paid for it. All the theater’s fixtures were still intact, except for the seats, which had been sold to three people who were going to auction them off. They raised money to buy those, too.

All told, it cost them about $1.8 million to save the Ohio Theatre, says Fisher, now CAPA board president and a full-time volunteer for the organization. He sometimes recalls that night in the theater 45 years ago and reflects on how different things would be today if it had gone another way.

“If we do nothing, we don’t have the Ohio Theatre. We don’t have CAPA,” he says. “Many times people point out to me what this city would be like today if we had no CAPA. If you don’t have this facility, what’s going to happen to the performing arts? It’s hard to picture how we can get to where we are a different way. It’s possible, but it’s hard to picture.”