30 Days of Tips for Attending and Enjoying Live Performing Arts

Day 2: Presenters and Producers

Opera houses used to occupy many small towns…they functioned as civic centers, but did hosting touring opera and Shakespeare.

In the arts management biz, there is a distinction that might be helpful in figuring out the arts offerings in your community, namely the difference (and common ground) between presenters and producers.

To get started, ponder for a moment the difference between your local movie theaters and a studio that creates films. Although they are both in the movie business, their capacity, function, financial structure, etc. are very different. Your local theater is at the ‘retail’ end of things, selling seats (inventory) and working with films (product) from any number of the producers who make the movies.

Live performing arts are similar. Producers are originators who create the work and finance it, and the different venues that sell tickets are presenters. The producers want to create something great–or at least something that finds an audience, and the presenters want “butts in seats” in the unlovely but ubiquitous locution used by arts presenters.

In Washington, DC the Kennedy Center provides an example of both: there are a number of producing organizations (the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera among them) that have their home there. These groups have control over what they make (artists, repertoire, etc.) This is their artistic home base, just as the Metropolitan Opera’s home base is Lincoln Center in NYC.

The Kennedy Center also presents the work of other producers. (For instance, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and also SF Ballet’s Cinderella which have been up recently). These  originated elsewhere (the play by England’s National Theatre, and the ballet in SF of course).  These shows were on tour, a mode that requires the venues and services around the country–and thus depend on presenters.

So what difference does it make? Not a great deal. It does give you some background knowledge about what is available in any community and at any given time. A large city has both types of things going on all the time. Typically, Broadway hits (meaning Tony winners) spawn touring productions that travel and are presented around the country. (In Boston, On The Town is up for instance). The tours seldom boast the New York casts (although it happens), but can still be great.

Symphony orchestras (particularly the elite tier of the big 5 plus a few others) tour regularly. Individual artists tour (think the famed Sunday afternoon recitals of Vladimir Horowitz) and artists like that depend on presenters to provide gigs that make for a career. Opera companies rarely tour these days (although they once did much more regularly, creating some wild stories.)

This isn’t the whole picture though, small acts do travel, so “presents” doesn’t have to mean big prices and big names. But smaller producers create theater, music, and dance in your community, and sometimes lose out in the hunt for audiences. Yet they can be w0nderful. The best Cyrano de Bergerac I ever saw was in a converted church in Somerville, MA, with a cast of total unknowns. I was more engrossed (and genuinely frightened) by a performance of The Crucible at Catholic U in D.C. than by several professional productions I’ve encountered over the year.

While local groups may not routinely have extraordinary talent they do have surprises:  Great stars start somewhere. If you went to Nevada Opera in the 80s you got to hear Dolora Zajick (among the great operatic mezzos of the last 30 years) hone her craft. Equally important: these producers are in and part of your community–reflecting the people, concerns, places of your world. Small producers also represent jobs and civic effort, something worth rooting for.

So the end of the lecture. Now you know what presenters and producers are, and got nudged to consider both when you are thinking about going to see something live.


Tomorrow: How can I figure out what I might enjoy?




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