Stirring Up the Arts at the PAC
Looking for an arts audience in Springfield
February 2, 1984
In the 1960s, Springfield arts lovers pressed hard to add a performing arts center to a new convention center. When taxpayer resistance killed that project, they lobbied the General Assembly for funds to build one on the campus of the town’s new state university, Sangamon State. The school didn’t really need it, the larger public didn’t want it, and cities across Illinois were doing the same thing, splintering an already-small audience for the arts, but built it was. I reported on the first season.
I wrote about the hall itself here.
It is only a few miles from Springfield High School to Sangamon State University's Public Affairs Center on the southern outskirts of the city, but the cultural distance between the two is immense. Not too many years ago, a serious music lover who turned out to hear a benefit recital by, say, Isaac Stern would have idled away intermission surveying basketball trophies. The high-school auditorium was virtually the sole venue for performing arts in the capital. Today that same patron may amuse himself studying such oddities as a Peruvian weaving depicting the Inca demigod Naymlap from the university's art collection. Both historical artifacts of some cultural significance, true, but . . . .
"We feel good about what we've done," says John Dale Kennedy, who has been the manager of the university auditorium since it opened in 1981. "The response from the community has been overwhelming. We think our impact has been substantial. We've stirred a lot of interest in the arts."
Stirring anything in Springfield's often turgid waters is trick enough, and it would be especially hazardous to credit a new hall for the capital's recent arts renaissance. It is probably more accurate to say that the demand for the new hall was itself part of that renaissance. Still, it remains that having a first-class performing arts facility—not just for local stage, dance, and music productions but visiting Broadway shows, symphony orchestras, chamber groups, acting companies, rock, jazz, and country artists, folk dancers, and stand-up comics who have followed their muses into the .PAC's cornfield Carnegie Hall—has helped immensely to turn curiosity about the performing arts into commitment.
Because Springfield is only tardily a college town, and because until very recently its only indigenous art form was grand jury hearings, Springfield's experience with the arts at any level more ambitious than the amateur theatrical or men's club smoker has been limited. Much of the first two years of operation at the SSU auditorium therefore has been spent learning, both about the hall and about the size and tastes of local audiences. Manager Kennedy reports that the process makes up in interest what it has often lacked in serenity.
Take for instance the local habit of calling the auditorium by the name of the PAC of which it is a part. Kennedy sighs, "People confuse us with a 'performing arts center.' We don't even like to use the word 'center.' " People, it seems, also still mix up the auditorium with the Prairie Capital Convention Center in downtown Springfield, which opened not long before the PAC. "We often get phone calls from people asking for tickets to Kenny Rogers or the tractor pull."
Like any town, Springfield is home to several audiences. The public which showed last fall to hear comedian George Carlin did not likely include many of those, in attendance two years earlier, when the Romanian Maramuresul folk orchestra played.
"There's definitely a symphony audience here," Kennedy goes on to say. To those who follow the arts in Springfield, this is like saying that there is a football audience in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, when pressure began mounting for the construction of a performing arts facility in Springfield, the principal agitators were the patrons of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.
As in most small towns, the symphony crowd in Springfield was white, middle-aged, affluent, politically connected, insular, and resented by most of their fellow Springfieldians who weren't. Voters thumpingly rejected a 1971 plan to build a "Great Hall/Theater Complex" in downtown Springfield—in part because of a widespread suspicion that they were being asked to underwrite a playground for the elite.
In short, one cannot tell how many Springfieldians don't attend SSO concerts because they don't like symphonies, and how many stay home because they don't like symphony-goers. Partly as a result, Kennedy isn't even sure how large the arts audience might be in Springfield. "I was fearful at first that we'd get the same two or three thousand people going to every event in town," he says. "People told me that would happen. I didn't quite believe it then, and I certainly don't believe it now." A cross-check of subscribers between the Springfield symphony and the auditorium's own twice-yearly variety series revealed only 150 people who appeared on both lists. Even now, after more than two years of operation, Kennedy estimates that as many as 30 percent of the customers for variety events are making their first visit to the hall.
And what are they going to see? A performance of the road company of A Chorus Line sold out in four days, which confirmed the appetite for light, popular entertainment. In addition, Kennedy reports, "Opera is coming on. As more opera is done on public television, people are becoming familiar with the voice as instrument. There seems to be a strong theater-going audience here," he continues, "although I'm not sure we've found it yet."
Popular music has fared better, predictably, but even here Kennedy has had his surprises. "I hoped that country music would be bread and butter for us," he confesses, but the box office has been mostly crumbs. "Tammy Wynette probably would have done better at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. People expect country music in an arena." Kennedy also speculates that the auditorium's campus setting may be a deterrent to some local country fans. "We're new, so we still, don't know.
"Basically, we have an uneducated arts audience in this city," Kennedy concludes. "But even an educated audience has to be enticed." And enticing is getting more expensive all the time. Kennedy notes that the average ticket price for an auditorium event is now $11. But when A Chorus Line played Springfield in November, 1981, Kennedy bragged that even his $14 ticket price was cheaper than that available in either Bloomington or Champaign-Urbana.
"Springfield will have to pay for it"
The arithmetic of the arts is adding up to some ominous sums these days. The total cost of running the auditorium is $850,000. That includes ticket sales, rental fees, and direct university funding of about $90,000 (which pays for staff salaries). In addition, the cost of running the ticket office is charged against the budget of another university division.
But Sangamon State, like most state institutions, is facing chronic budget shortages of its own. If SSU cuts its direct contributions to auditorium operations in the future, the difference will have to be made up either by still further increases in ticket prices or by subsidy from an endowment, which Kennedy hopes to raise as part of an ongoing fund drive. "The income from a $500,000 to $750,000 endowment would just about replace the university's $90,000," notes Kennedy.
"It is reasonable to ask whether a performing arts facility like this is affordable," he acknowledges. "In the face of declining revenues from other sources, we have to say that if Springfield wants it, it'll have to pay for it, directly or indirectly."
Indeed, in addition to covering operating expenses, Kennedy still confronts unmet capital costs. Under fiscal duress itself, the state in 1981 delivered an auditorium which included only the barest essentials. The stage is equipped with only half as much scenery handling equipment ("counterweight lines") as it was designed for, and the stage lighting system is temporary.
The immediate problem was providing an orchestra lift—an elevatorized front lip of the stage. At full elevation it extends the stage; lowered slightly, it provides space for additional, temporary seating; lowered farther, it creates an orchestra pit. Such a lift obviously adds versatility to the stage; without it, Kennedy could not have booked the popular Broadway show Evita for this March.
But versatility costs money, in this case $175,000. A fund drive was quickly organized through the university's foundation in 1982 to complete the auditorium and fund the endowment. Seats in the hall are being "sold" to donors, in return for which each donor receives a tax deduction and a plaque on that seat bearing his or her name. The appeal was direct—"If you can't share the stage, share the glory"—and apparently successful. Randall Peyser, a vice-president at the Springfield Marine Bank (which itself is a busy backer of the local arts) chaired the first phase of the fund drive.
"It was tremendously successful," says Peyser, who adds that a third of the eventual $1 million goal was raised in only seven months. The lift was installed, but Kennedy notes that another $300,000 to $400,000 in capital work remains to be done.
The auditorium was designed, as are most of its contemporaries, as a multipurpose hall. (A single edition of the auditorium's newsletter Onstage last spring advertised performances of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and the ballet Giselle, a reading by Norman Mailer, a variety show staged by local physicians, and a symphony concert.) Done carelessly, such facilities deserve their bad reputations; New York Times music critic Donal Henahan, for instance, described them as places in which "every sort of audience can be equally unhappy." The SSU auditorium is not properly a theater, nor is it a concert hall, but it does a passable job of both. Sightlines to the stage are admirably clear, and the acoustics are of a high standard.
The acoustic demands which such varied fare place on a hall are considerable. Cloth baffles on the sides of the hall, for instance, are typically extended during spoken word or dramatic performances to reduce the reverberation of sound from the hard cement block walls, and thus keep actors' voices from being muddied by their own echoes.
Symphonic music requires a different sound. Kenneth Kiesler, conductor of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, praises the SSO's new home as "very fine." The sound, he explains, is "very true. What you do on stage sounds exactly that way in the hall."
The hall itself can be changed if necessary. The baffles at the sides of the hall are typically adjusted to leave the walls exposed for symphonic performances, to add reverberation needed to blend sound. By shifting panels in the shell, Kiesler has been able to augment his string sound while taming the otherwise obstreperous brass.
The opening, within a relatively few years, of similar facilities in Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington, even Decatur, has meant fierce competition for the art lover's dollar. But the proliferation of halls has not been an unmixed curse. An organization of area managers (the Illinois Presenters Network) cooperates in bookings to shave fees. Minnesota's Guthrie Theater agreed to "slice up" a week of The Importance of Being Earnest, playing one night each in several downstate cities at a cost below that which the company would have had to charge any one of them for a single performance. And hall managers have agreed, as gentlemen sometimes will, not to advertise in each other's cities when they've booked the same act. (There's relatively little economic conflict with local convention centers, by the way. As Kennedy says of the manager of Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center, "We have a pact. I don't do Ice Capades and he doesn't do opera.")
And the future? While content with the beginning he's made, Kennedy doesn't think that he has begun to fully exploit the area audience for the arts. He also frankly insists that while he can cater to an audience, he can't really create one. "You can't expect to have an audience if you don't do anything to develop it at an early age," he insists. "Children in Springfield get no real art in the schools, for example."
The effect of the SSU auditorium on local arts audiences will be a while in showing itself. Its impact on local arts groups is more immediately evident. The new hall has infused its tenants with adrenalin. However, as audiences grow in sophistication, pressures mount for local arts groups to raise their own standards of performance. This is a process that began well before the SSU auditorium opened, to be sure; increased television and radio attention to the arts has had as much to do with it as anything. This is most vividly apparent with the symphony, which—while still a community orchestra in name, audience, and finance—now consists of full-time professionals, only a quarter of whom live in Springfield. But while ticket-buying Springfieldians may cultivate big-city tastes, Springfield still has only the artistic resources of a small city. Already the demands of mounting increasingly ambitious drama, music, and dance productions are straining the constitutions of their supporters. In time it may strain their commitment as well. ●