On with the show!

Collaboration between UGA and The Classic Center raises the bar for performing arts in Athens

On with the show!

Traditional Irish band the Chieftains played a show at Athens' Classic Center in February, part of their 50th anniversary tour. Formed in Dublin in 1962, the band has won six Grammy Awards plus an Academy Award for their work on the soundtrack to the 1975 film "Barry Lyndon."

Photo by: PauL Efland

Just days after The Chieftains released their 50th anniversary album last February, they packed the house at The Classic Center with their Grammy Award-winning brand of traditional Irish music. Band founder Paddy Moloney kept the chatty banter as fast as his uillean pipes, and Irish dancers—both long-time Chieftains dancer Cara Butler and a troupe of young, sprightly and slightly starstruck-looking local guest dancers—occasionally thundered across the stage in a sequined blur.

Athens residents Alan and Heather Dean were there on date night, a rare treat for the parents of a young child.

“It was great,” Heather Dean says. “I loved hearing (Moloney’s) stories, just hearing him talk, and that the band had such interesting stories themselves. It wasn’t just the music, it was the whole show that was entertaining… It was just really nice to see someone we admired on our home turf. We didn’t have to travel anywhere. If they were playing in Atlanta, we wouldn’t have gone. It was really exciting—a great night.”

In late April, Pascale Riley, an Athens preschool teacher, went to UGA’s Performing Arts Center’s Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall to see author, humorist and radio show host Garrison Keillor. It was a sentimental performance for Riley, who followed the show when she lived overseas.

“We once drove all around Ireland listening to ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’” Riley says. “We were thrilled when we heard he was coming to Athens… The show did not disappoint. He is an amazing storyteller. How he manages to keep track of all his story lines and wrap them all together in the end is amazing. He even told some stories that I was familiar with in a different way. It was just him and a microphone, but it never got boring.”

Those world-class evenings were possible due to a partnership between UGA’s Performing Arts Center and The Classic Center, which started working together to bring big-name acts to Athens with the 2010-11 season. That first Celebrity Evenings showcase featured performances from Tony Bennett, Doc Severinsen and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. The 2011-12 Celebrity Evenings welcomed The Chieftains and Keillor; this coming season, the UGA-Classic Center partnership is bringing Willie Nelson, The Boston Pops and Blue Man Group to Athens.

Audience member Carol Warnes, an instructor in UGA’s math department, joined the Cornell Gunters Coasters onstage during a February performance at Hugh Hodgson Hall. Photo by Peter Frey.

That’s in addition to existing stellar lineups from The Classic Center (including its Broadway Series of “West Side Story,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “The Midtown Men” and “Dreamgirls”) and UGA (with performances from Itzhak Perlman, Sir James Galway, Bela Fleck and the Tokyo String Quartet). And while Athens is already renowned as a music town, the UGA-Classic Center partnership is something special.

Kathryn Lookofsky has been executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority for six years. She’s noticed a difference in just the few years the UGA-Classic Center partnership has been active: “There’s definitely more buzz and excitement” about going downtown to see a show, she says.

In April, Garrison Keillor brought his one-man show to UGA’s Hodgson Hall. “An Evening of Story Telling” featured anecdotes about growing up in the American Midwest, the people of Lake Wobegon and late-life fatherhood. Keillor is a best-selling author, host of the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” and winner of a Grammy, a Peabody and two Cable ACE Awards. Photo by Paul Efland.

The idea for such a collaboration was already taking root when musicologist and conductor George Foreman became director of the UGA Performing Arts Center in 2009.

“When I hired George Foreman, I told him that I did not believe that we were maximizing the arts community in Athens or on campus,” says UGA President Michael Adams. “I wanted him to be a catalyst in that area, and I believe he has done so. The Classic Center had done its thing and we had done ours, but we are all stronger when we work together to serve the greater community.”

Musicologist and conductor George Foreman took over as director of UGA’s Performing Arts Center in 2009. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

Foreman was on board from the start.

“I definitely wanted the Performing Arts Center to have more exposure in the community,” he says. “Developing collaboration was a real priority with me. One of the first things I did when I got here was get together with Paul Cramer to explore the possibilities… it worked out beautifully.”

Cramer, executive director of The Classic Center, has been pleased to share the financial risk in order to bring more high-profile shows to Athens.

“Rather than two similar entities competing with each other, we have found a way to create a true collaboration that dramatically benefits this community,” Cramer says. “Tony Bennett, the Boston Pops and Blue Man Group would all be impossible without sharing the risk.”

Paul Cramer, director of Athens’ Classic Center, and Foreman forged a partnership that allows them to bring big-ticket acts to the community. Photo by Peter Frey.

The biggest expense of an event is the performer’s fee, which leaves venues vulnerable to losing money if enough tickets aren’t sold, explains Philip Verrastro, assistant executive director and booker at The Classic Center. And “high quality acts tend to be expensive,” he says.

When it’s time to plan the Celebrity Evenings shows, “We sit down and talk about wish lists, groups that either one of us would love to have but are a little risky,” Verrastro says. He and Foreman come up with a list of 10-20 acts and try to acquire three or four of them for a season, sometimes planning years in advance. They’ll test ideas, gauging interest and getting feedback from UGA student unions or the 400-member-strong Classic Center Cultural Foundation.

“It’s driven us to see what is that town-gown act that’s going to appeal to a wide segment of the population,” Cramer says.

The experience of creating those wish lists—of just tossing world-class names out there for consideration—is both heady and practical.

“It is very exciting and stimulating,” Foreman says. “At the same time, the whole thing is filtered through what we realize is potentially achievable and what is not. We’re always interested in raising the bar and striving to do better things. It does get filtered through a reality check. (There’s) the glamorous view of the business… what you don’t see is all the spreadsheet and financial projections.”

There’s also the altruistic part of the business: knowing what your audience wants and delivering it.

“With everything we’re doing we have to think about the university,” Cramer says. “It’s such a huge part of the population of Athens that I don’t think we ever do a show where we don’t think about the university.”

Of course, it’s not only the university community attending these shows. At the B-52s 35th anniversary concert in February at The Classic Center, the crowd ranged from young to old, from folks sitting down in khakis and button-downs to those raucously dancing in candy-colored beehive wigs, feather boas and the odd assemblage of Christmas lights and glow-sticks.

“That was a super concert,” says Don Nelson, communications coordinator at Athens Technical College and frequent patron of The Classic Center and UGA shows. “The sound was so good. Keith’s guitar was so nice, and the rhythm section—man! It was a lot of fun, and it was nice seeing folks older than we are and younger than we are all standing up, dancing to the music.”

Nelson and the thousands of people who attend shows at The Classic Center and UGA aren’t just having a great time—they’re stimulating the economy and, indirectly, the cultural atmosphere of Athens.

The Classic Center sells about 700-800 season tickets a year, “and those people will buy an entire season,” Cramer says.

And all of those people come downtown to see a show. Many of them will eat and shop downtown and get hotel rooms. (When Widespread Panic plays at The Classic Center, as they do fairly often, almost every hotel room in Athens is filled, Cramer says.) It’s estimated that every Classic Center guest spends an average of $200 in hotels, restaurants and shops for every night they stay in Athens, based on data from both the state and the Selig Center in the Terry College of Business. The Classic Center has generated $10 million a year to the downtown area in direct visitor spending, says Cramer—and that’s before the Center’s current $24 million expansion, due to be completed in March.

The UGA-Classic Center partnership is not only an economic stimulus for Athens. It offers another, less tangible but still vital benefit: an improved quality of life.

“The quality of life is major for business recruitment—Caterpillar is a great example,” Lookofsky says, referring to Caterpillar Inc. recently selecting Athens as the site of a new manufacturing plant. “You can pretty much operate a business anywhere these days because of modern technology… One of the things that makes people relocate to Athens is the great quality of life, and part of that is because of the partnership between The Classic Center and UGA.”

“For the community at large, it adds immensely to the wonderful quality of life here,” Foreman says. “There aren’t so many places the size of Athens that have the cultural opportunities, the wonderful resources the university makes available to the community… People who live here may not wake up every day and think of the wonderful opportunities that are here. But if you visit some place of comparable size that doesn’t have a university or a Classic Center, and ask people what opportunities are available to them, you’d see a difference.”

And of course, the partnership bolsters Athens’ reputation as a thriving creative community.

UGA’s Wind Symphony, conducted by Gregg Gausline in April 2011, performs throughout the Southeast and includes undergraduate music majors, music minors and gifted non-majors who are preparing for careers in performance, music education or a life-long involvement with music. Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski.

“It’s nice not to have to go to Atlanta or New York City or the larger cities to see these shows,” Nelson says. “We are the cultural center of Northeast Georgia. I think that people from all around our area come here for that… It’s nice to have this small-town feel and yet have this collection of fine arts.”

Heather Dean says she hopes the collaboration will encourage more big acts to include Athens on tours.

“Big-name bands will start to look at Athens more as a place to go,” she says. “I think a lot of bands might say, ‘Well, we did Atlanta, we’re done with the South’ and be on their way. Maybe they’ll be more likely to stop in Athens too, if they know other big-name acts are playing here.”

In the end, a partnership that brings those top acts to Athens will only continue to encourage the thriving homegrown music scene.

“Many of the most successful young performers in the music scene have either come out of UGA or have come here because of the reputation of the community—the open, expressive university culture that nurtures and supports creativity,” Adams says. “I am reminded of Richard Florida’s work on the role of the arts in elevating society. On any given week in Athens, we have access to everything from rock to classical to Broadway to gospel—all influenced by the diversity and plurality in the overall musical and cultural scene. People feel largely unfettered to produce what they want to produce; that’s the kind of environment that lends itself to creativity. There is broad awareness of Athens as an artistic community, and that is good for all of us.”

In March, internationally acclaimed piano duo—and twin sisters—Christina and Michelle Naughton performed at Hodgson Hall for about 500 second- and third-grade Clarke County school students. Photo by Paul Efland.








Focus on arts

UGA will spotlight arts on campus over a nine-day period in November featuring concerts, theater and dance, art exhibits, book readings, lectures, author panels and book signings. Highlights include the opening of an exhibition of works by artist Jack Davis, concerts by the Atlanta Symphony and the UGA Symphony, a theater production of Rita Dove’s play “The Darker Face of the Earth” and performances by Blue Man Group, Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio. Assembled by the UGA Arts Council, which was created by the Office of the Provost earlier this year, the arts festival, which will run Nov. 3-11, is intended to showcase the wealth of performing and visual arts available to the UGA and Athens communities. For dates, times and ticket information, go to http://pac.uga.edu.

Blue Man Group will perform at the Classic Center Nov. 6-7.

Get More

Learn more about the performing arts at UGA at http://pac.uga.edu. For information about events at The Classic Center, go to http://www.classiccenter.com.