July 18, 2005
an interview with
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Blumenthal Performing Arts Center president Tom Gabbard grew up in California and was in the second class at Pepperdine University, where he met his wife, Vickie. Early in his professional career, Tom was the founding Managing Director in developing Pepperdine’s performing and visual arts programs. He also has worked at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in metropolitan Denver, and the Weidner Center in Green Bay.|
Tom and Vickie live in the Elizabeth neighborhood, and have two college aged children who attend Yale and Pepperdine Universities.
Did you come from a family that was involved in the arts?
My undergrad degree is actually in music. I got a scholarship to go through college. My parents always placed a high value on the arts, but my dad never finished high school. He worked for NASA as a toolmaker. I figured out what the priorities were, when I played little league. My dad feels terribly guilty about this, but it’s true. I pitched the opening game for my team, and he didn’t come. But he never missed a band concert, never missed a choir concert. Those were the talents that were really nurtured.
Is your history as a performer mostly as a musician?
I was involved in musical theatre and opera. I also played the French horn, and taught guitar in college. I grew up in San Jose, and I’d take the bus to the central library because they had a section with records. I’d go and listen to original cast recordings. Then, we actually bought - this was a huge expenditure for my family - we bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder because there was a radio station in San Francisco that broadcast an entire cast album once a week. I had a great appreciation for the art form. I give my parents credit; they saw that in me and encouraged me.
What’s your favorite role?
I think probably Billy Bigelow in Carousel. I played that in high school, and later, in kind of a dream situation through my Pepperdine affiliation, became very good friends with John Raitt, who originated that role. I learned to love the role even more through him. He defined that role, and felt tremendous pride in being the model for a character in a great piece of musical literature. The soliloquy that Billy sings goes on for about six minutes, and it’s one of the greatest dramatic theatre pieces of all time.
You came to Charlotte two years ago from the Weidner Center in Green Bay.
Yes, I was there for almost eight years.
Can you talk a little bit about the Independent Presenters Network?
The Weidner and the Blumenthal have really been national leaders. Both institutions have become quite active in a new movement of independent performing arts centers putting together investment capital. The most prominent examples are Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bombay Dreams, The Full Monty, Starlight Express, Flower Drum Song, Big River, Man of La Mancha, and, most recently, Spamalot. Thoroughly Modern Millie, for example, has also had a very successful national tour, and represents a huge change in how a local community asserts itself to try to create new products for their own venues, places like the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. In the past, we’d wait to hear what shows were coming out of New York and which were headed our way. It was a passive thing. The whole notion that people are putting seed money out to encourage a creative team to come together is a new concept. I’d love to see more new work. There’s still a place for the warhorses like The King and I, but I think people increasingly want to see newer, fresher work.
Your emphasis seems to be on larger work.
Large facilities, like the Belk Theatre & Ovens Auditorium, have a limited amount of stuff that can be done in them, and it’s usually the most populist thing. Musical theatre is the niche that’s been most successful. I think if you talked to people that manage facilities like these, they’d all like to see more jazz, ballet, more symphony orchestras, but the economics are really challenging. Musical theatre is economically viable in big halls.
Do you think the trend is changing?
The public does go through phases, and we’re always trying to see where the public is moving. There’s no question that the musical theatre piece has peaked, in a way. We went through a mega-musical phase with Cats and Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, and from about 1989 to 1996 there was a craze for mega musicals that really went beyond New York. Phantom of the Opera played in Charlotte for eight weeks. That phenomenon doesn’t exist any longer. Within the microcosm of the musical theatre world, you can see a cycle that came & went. That being said, nothing else has really risen up to take its place. All of us in this business are constantly trying to figure it out - not, perhaps, what the next big thing is, but what our community wants us to do that can also be financially viable. This is not a hard business to lose money in. You can make a couple of poor choices that are very costly, so there’s not a lot of room for misstep.
City Stage is in its second summer, presenting four fringe theatre productions at Spirit Square. How did City Stage develop?
Shortly after I came to Charlotte in 2003, I came to a Metrolina Theatre Association meeting as an introductory thing. Anne Lambert raised her hand and asked, "What are you going to do to make Spirit Square more affordable and accessible? A lot of smaller companies used it in the past." I put my business card out and invited anyone with ideas to contact me. And Anne was the one who did. She came with some genuine ideas. We talked about what the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta had done under the aegis of the Woodruff Arts Center, where they had a slot in the Alliance’s season that was devoted to a local company. We looked at that closely, and from that created our own concept that became City Stage. We had modest expectations in our first year, and they were far exceeded. The audience numbers were, frankly, twice what we thought the first year venture would be. It was so successful that it seems a better choice for us than having one resident company as in the past.
It’s a great service to these shows to offer them a bigger, more high profile venue.
One of the things that became clear in talking with some of these companies is that they do such a variety of work that, in some cases, their work can’t be presented in publicly funded facilities. We don’t want to change who they are. If we were a company’s sole home, it might change the work that they do. That would be a travesty. This way, they come in for a single production and it stands out uniquely. We hope to offer an environment where these companies can be seen and be nurtured.
What’s different about City Stage from last year to this?
The biggest difference is that each show is playing two weekends, so we’ve gone from four performances to eight.
There’s one original production this year.
Yes. Matt and Ben. The idea of these being revivals was not a clear prerequisite. It was a way to do this in an economical way, to minimize rehearsal and production costs. Most of all, what we want to do is showcase Charlotte talent, and if we can do that with a brand new production, as is the case with Matt and Ben, that’s fine too.
Are there other new projects at Spirit Square?
We do anticipate some more showcases of independent theatres. The Body Chronicles is something that we look forward to seeing at Spirit Square, in that case in the McGlohon Theatre. It had such a great success in Charlotte last year that it really does exemplify the spirit of taking a show into a larger venue, putting more promotion behind it, so that it can be brought before a larger audience and given more recognition.
Let’s go back to the Independent Presenters Network and Spamalot.
We’ve had phenomenal success with Spamalot. It is actually setting historic records in New York, and we’re in active plans for the national tour, and for London. We’re very fortunate.
Does the Independent Presenters Network receive financial benefits up to the point when the play is licensed?
In the case of an original production like this, our interests go on for thirty-five years, so it continues on into the licensing. So, once it’s licensed to colleges, community theatres... if it’s ever licensed for television, and when it’s licensed for London (and there are a number of international productions), we get a piece of that. The Independent Presenters essentially own ten per cent of Spamalot, so some of those royalties come back to us. It represents an annuity of sorts. That’s one of the good things about being involved in an original production. When you’re involved with a national tour of a production that’s already been created, you don’t have that same interest. This is pretty typical. The philosophy is that, as originating producers, you helped the authors to have that success. Therefore, you’re entitled to a portion of the royalties for all those years.
Are there new projects in development for the Independent Presenters Network that you can talk about?
We have taken on a role as co-producers of The Color Purple, which will open on Broadway on December 1. We also have a position in a production of Edward Scissorhands that choreographer Matthew Bourne is creating in London. We provided some seed money to him for that production and are enthusiastic about that. We have also responded specifically to the problems created by Charlotte Rep’s demise. We will be presenting some theatrical productions that will offer fare that’s similar to what the Rep used to offer. One is Eve Ensler. She created The Vagina Monologues. She created a new show that played on Broadway last year called The Good Body. We’ll be bringing that here, with Eve, for a week at Spirit Square’s McGlohan Theatre. Also, in the Booth Playhouse, we’ll be presenting a show called Cookin’ at the Cookery. It’s the story of Alberta Hunter, a very famous blues singer with a remarkable story. You know, she had a great career into her fifties, then she retired from music and became a nurse. She was a nurse for over twenty years until she reached retirement age. Because she’d lied on her application, she was actually twelve years older than everyone thought. She wound up performing at the Cookery in Greenwich Village, and had a great career in the last decade of her life. Cookin’ at the Cookery was written and directed by Marion Caffey, who is perhaps best known for creating Three Mo’ Tenors, which broke a lot of box office records across the country, including at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last summer. We’re co-producing Cookin' with Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, as well as Queens Theatre in the Park. The production will play in all three venues. It’ll be here for two weeks.
Who will play Alberta Hunter?
The way this play works is that there are two actresses, one that acts as a narrator and plays Alberta when she’s very young, and the main performer plays her late in life. The actress we’ll have in the main role is Gretha Boston.
She was here with the Rep.
Right. Gretha was in Let Me Sing and Jar the Floor, both in 2003. She won a Tony Award in 1995 for Showboat. Cookin’ opens here on January 18, and will play two weeks for a total of twelve performances.
Following on the success we had with Forever Plaid, we’re mounting a production, just for Charlotte, of Shear Madness. This play holds the record as America’s longest running play. It’s been in Boston for over twenty-five years, been playing the Kennedy Center for over eighteen years, and we’ll be mounting an Equity production in the Booth Playhouse. Part of what we’re doing is creating something that keeps the flag planted for professional theatre here at the Booth. We’ll be announcing these three productions as a theatre subscription series. It represents the kind of work audiences could have seen at the Rep. We do anticipate that we’ll audition locally for Shear Madness, but it will be under an Equity contract.
Let’s talk about Charlotte audiences. We live in a kind of boom town, with lots of growth and a fairly transient middle class. As a younger city, there’s not much sentimentality here. How does this affect your programming choices?
That transient community makes it a tougher thing to figure out what people’s preferences are. I like to use the example of rear view mirror driving. Sometimes in the arts, that’s what happens. People look back at what’s succeeded, and plan the future based on the past. In a very dynamic town like this, that rear view driving will lead us to a wreck. We have to look at how our town is changing, and how the trends may differ from what’s going on elsewhere. There are examples that encourage us that Charlotte is ready for things for which other cities may be too conservative. Author David Sedaris sold out well in advance, with some folks hanging out in the lobby for more than two hours afterwards. Another example is The Full Monty. I was an investor in that show and saw the financials every week, and I can tell you that in most other cities that show did not sell many tickets. Def Poetry Jam is also show that did not succeed in most cities but had very strong engagements here. We see indications that a younger demographic and a more inquisitive audience is growing to a point where it starts to matter.
Please talk about the cultural facilities master plan, as things stand today.
The plan has continued to change and, I think, improve over time. In particular, as Wachovia became more and more excited about the opportunity it represents, we went from a plan for a twelve hundred seat theatre that was their only part of the project to one in which the Beckler Museum and the Mint, as well as the Mint Museum of Craft and Design were invited to join in on their development. They’ve created something absolutely fantastic. We were going to be on a half-block site, but now they’ve acquired the next block, so we have a block and a half of dirt to do all this. The value of just the commercial piece grew from one hundred million dollars to what’s expected to be at least three hundred million. The only reason that Wachovia is ready to build a much, much bigger project is because of these cultural facilities. That demonstrates the power of museums and theatres to help create a more vibrant commercial scene there.
Where is this location?
It’s on Tryon, along First and Second Streets. As envisioned now, the project would have a million square feet of office space in a tower largely filled with Wachovia employees. The Mint’s Craft and Design Museum would move down there, and exhibits from the Mint on Randolph Road would have an uptown space. They’d also build approximately six hundred condominiums, and fifty-five thousand feet of retail space. Across First Street would be the twelve hundred seat theatre and the Beckler Art Museum. The hope is that First Street would become an avenue of the arts, and that some of the retail business there would have an arts bent to it. Wachovia sees it as creating a wonderful gateway to the city for people coming into town from that direction. If you’re coming in from that direction now, it’s pretty dismal. The plan includes six floors of underground parking, so there will be plenty of parking but the focus will be on great buildings. It’ll connect nicely to the green. They’ve hired an urban planner to envision this campus. The Beckler and the theatre would be two distinct buildings, and the hope is that the Beckler would bring in an architect to create something dazzling - a piece of art in and of itself. There would be a park and a sculpture garden that would connect the museum to the theatre.
What’s the main thrust of the Beckler Museum?
The reason for building that museum is that Charlotte has been offered one of the preeminent European contemporary art collections in the world. It’s from the Beckler family, and represents a lot of the most notable European contemporary artists of the last fifty years.
Are the Becklers in Charlotte?
Yes. One of the sons, Andreas Beckler, has lived in Charlotte for a little over twenty years. He’s from Switzerland and has at least one sister who still lives there. His parents created the collection over their lives. He inherited part of the collection, and his sister inherited part of it. The hope is that, once the museum is here, some of the pieces in his sister’s collection will make their way over here. The premise was that the collection being offered was worth at least twenty million dollars. When Sotheby’s looked at just a few pieces, they stopped. The pieces were so immensely valuable that it was unnecessary to look at more to validate that there was more than twenty million dollars worth of art in the collection.
What’s the timeline for this project?
Wachovia is really in a crunch to get office space, and so they’ve been quietly working with us for over a year now. We’ve been on hold because of the cultural facilities plan, but they finally threw down the gauntlet, and told the city, "Look, we need to know by August 1 if you’re committed to this project in some way - not figuring it out in final detail, but committed to moving forward. If you’re not committed, tell us, because then we’ll go ahead and build office space."
One of the criticisms raised against the Arts and Science Council is that the decisions about the grand plan for the city’s arts, as well as the decisions about who gets grant money, are made by bankers and not artists.
As someone who makes presentations to those panels, I will admit that sometimes the questions asked are not especially well informed. But the reality is that most of that money comes from workplace giving by those very bankers. The grant process is an accounting – I’m reporting to those people. Ultimately, I see a lot more discretion than I saw when I was in Denver. Denver has a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which distributes about thirty million dollars. There, it’s generated from a one tenth of one percent sales tax that’s levied in the seven county Denver metro area. About forty per cent of that money is distributed by a formula to the four big exhibiting institutions. No questions asked. Performing arts groups receive money, some of which is based on our paid attendance for the year, and some was which is based in the change in our earned income. It was a great incentive to grow and do more, but with very little oversight of the particulars. The money was given through a totally formulaic process. Here, an effort is made to delve into how these organizations are serving the community.
The Blumenthal got a bit more money from the ASC this year. What will that money be used for?
We have three ways of being funded. We received a performance bonus for having done a good job in the last year. That was about ten thousand dollars. We got an inflationary increase in our base award. The lion’s share of what we got was about seventy thousand dollars to support some of these initiatives in theatre. We put forward a list of constructive things we could do to help stabilize professional theatre here. With that seventy thousand, we’ll be supporting an expansion of the City Stage initiative that will include The Body Chronicles, as well as help to produce Charlotte Squawks. Charlotte Squawks is funny, and it’s a good showcase of Charlotte talent. And we’ll be presenting the series that includes Eve Ensler, Cookin’ at the Cookery, and Shear Madness.
What was it like to be at the Tony Awards this year when Spamalot won for best musical?
For a kid who grew up watching the Tony Awards at home, it was a real thrill to be onstage. Part of that thrill was that my mom, wife, and daughter were in the audience at Radio City. It was really exciting, and a bit of an earthquake in the theatre business to see our Independent Presenters group onstage winning a Tony. That’s opening up the business in a remarkable way. The theatre business in New York can be a pretty closed club.
Will the Blumenthal actually get a Tony?
We will. It will live at the Belk Theatre. We don’t know exactly when it will be delivered, but it should be sometime in the late fall. We’ll have to fun with it to let everybody know it’s here, but it will be permanently on display at the Belk. You know, we hosted our first ever Tony party here at the Blumenthal. One hundred and fifty people came to the Booth that night. Douglas Young was the master of ceremonies. We had prizes and food. The Plaids came by and sang. They had a great party. I thought about that group when I was standing onstage.
You had a cheering section.
Absolutely. I could hear them all the way to Radio City.
What are the chances that Spamalot will come to Charlotte in the next year or so?
The chances are very good. We anticipate making an announcement about the national tours late next week, so I’m pleased to say we have two different blocks of time held on our calendar. We anticipate launching the tour in March of 2006 in Boston, and people can look forward to seeing it here within the next six or seven months.
So Spamalot will be here in 2006.
Wonderful. Thank you for the interview.
~ Lydia Arnold