DECATUR — By the time a traveling musical group walks on stage at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center, its appearance has become a project likely pored over by dozens of Millikin University employees, opinionated students and community members.
Each show averages almost a year in the making, the result of countless decisions and random factors that must align perfectly. For director Jan Traughber, it’s a task akin to assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle, with each piece representing a potential act to fill one small part of the overall season. The director’s trick is to make all of those pieces fit into a compelling whole.
“For the 2013-2014 season I’m currently receiving a massive amount of emails, mailings and phone calls from agents in order to determine what is going to be on tour and available,” said Traughber, who is now hard at work on the next year’s season despite the fact that this upcoming school year’s slate of shows has yet to begin. “My goal is always to hopefully have everything pulled together and tentatively set by February. But as ever, the greatest challenge is just trying to appeal to every group of people we want to see at Kirkland, so not only the Millikin students but faculty, staff and the community as well.”
The process begins with the hunt for appropriate and ex-citing acts. In addition to soliciting submissions from agents and artists, a large portion of the fine arts center’s eventual entertainment calendar is scouted at a pair of conferences for industry professionals, the Midwest Arts Conference in the fall and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in the winter. Over four days at the Midwest conference, Traughber is presented with hundreds of possible choices for the Kirkland stage.
“Seeing that a group is unique is really the thing that makes it stand out to me,” she said. “I don’t want to present the same thing that we have before. I think one of the best examples of this was Rhythmic Circus, the percussive tap group that performed here last spring. You tell people ‘percussive tap’ and you see the disbelief on their face, but this was a group you had to see to believe. The reaction of the patrons who did come to it was great. I think I got more positive feedback about that show than probably anything else I’ve seen in the 13 years that I’ve been here.”
In the past, the opinions the Kirkland’s director formed at these conferences would be taken back to Millikin and run past a group called PAC, the Program Advisory Committee, to gather feedback and opinions. However, in the past few years this group has all but disbanded, leaving a less formal system where Traughber brings her findings to other Kirkland staff and Millikin faculty.
“The PAC committee is pretty much defunct now because people began to lose interest or were just too busy,” she said. “Currently, I bring CDs and DVDs about prospective acts to members of the Kirkland staff, and I seek opinions from faculty and professors of theater, music and dance. But I’ll talk about prospective acts with pretty much anyone who wants to stop and talk to me about it. I really need to hear what the community wants to see at Kirkland, what they think would be popular.”
Paige Gray, Kirkland’s box office manager, works in the role that Traughber occupied from 1999 to 2010 and is one of the people whose opinion is often consulted on incoming acts. A Millikin alumna with studies in political science, international studies and music, it’s become her job to expand the fine arts center’s social media presence to gather more community and student opinions.
“We are trying to make our social media platforms a more important forum for gathering opinions,” she said. “Overall in crafting a season, I think the most important thing is having a variety of shows that are balanced in their appeal to the community and to the students. Kirkland is there as a resource for the students, but ultimately, with their ticket prices subsidized by the university as much as they are, we have to appeal to the community and put them in the seats.”
Gray also acknowledges that although Traughber is proactive in seeking others’ opinions, the final decision on an act typically rests with the fine arts center’s director.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to her, so her intuition needs to be good,” she said. “We can know a general fact, like saying that tribute bands are huge right now, but she has to figure out ‘which one will appeal to our community?’ That’s an ability I’m not sure can be taught.”
Still, Traughber feels that a more formalized process of collecting opinions is probably the fine arts center’s best option in the long run, so she’s in the process of re-forming the PAC committee, seeking input from a number of sources, including non-Millikin employees.
“It will be made up of community members, approximately three Millikin students with different majors, one Millikin faculty and one Millikin staff member. I’m also trying to get someone from outside of the immediate community, outside Macon County. Anyone interested in applying to serve on this committee should contact me now.”
Traughber’s personal taste is ultimately a very small part of the overall reasoning behind bringing a group to Kirkland. Factors of availability during different points in the year, and whether tour dates can be worked into empty spots in the upcoming schedule matter much more, especially considering that Kirkland is working around Millikin University activities and the schedules of other organizations that use the same space, such as the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s challenging, because I don’t necessarily want a Celtic group in October, but at the same time everyone else is trying to get them in March,” she said. “Kirkland works with the five-year calendar on campus, so we know dates that aren’t available in advance for events like graduation, Vespers and certain school of music and theater events that happen every year. With the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra, we have to give them some wiggle room. So when the dates and the acts and community interest all finally come together at the same time, it feels like magic.”
Once groups finally are scheduled, an entirely new challenge begins on the technical side of things for Kirkland staff members such as Bryan Diver, the fine arts center’s tech director. It’s his job to make sure that the tech needs of every incoming group are met, even if that requires the acquisition of new equipment or creative solutions to unique problems.
“Some years, we may have something like this year’s dance troupe from Chicago that has very different requirements from any other group we hosted last year,” Diver said. “Their needs are more specific and challenging. With some shows like the ABBA tribute band from last year, you can look up online how things like the sound and lights have been done in the past and be prepared, but with others you’re just creating your own cues. A show like ‘Stomp’ here, shows like that are very complicated and demanding.”
Traughber describes some aspects of her task, such as trying to appeal to the tastes of every student at the same time, as next to impossible, but ultimately she enjoys the challenge of trying to come as close as possible to the theoretical “perfect season.” Although she’s never likely to see it, the prospect of a show that appeals to almost everyone is a good motivator to keep researching new and exciting acts.
“This year’s homecoming show, ‘Broadway’s Next H!T Musical’ is something that we imagine as the type of show with the widest appeal, because it’s got comedic and Broadway music elements,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible to bring in any one thing that everyone wants to see, but we’re going to continue doing the best job we can to make Kirkland a destination for everyone in our community.”