In years past, the Overture Center and its predecessor, the Madison Civic Center, didn't work very often with outside promoters. The center usually took on all the risk in hopes of reaping greater rewards.
The 2008-09 season indicates that Overture's approach has changed. It's the first season booked by center president Tom Carto since he came to Madison from Mansfield, Ohio's Renaissance Performing Arts Association in early 2007, and it reflects a very different booking philosophy.
A number of events, including Art Garfunkel, Bill Cosby, David Sedaris, Bobby McFerrin and a joint appearance by country-bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs and pop pianist Bruce Hornsby, are co-promoted with established pros like Frank Productions. Carto is actively seeking other partnerships of this kind, and he's also open to having more events put on entirely by outside promoters.
Carto wants to bring more popular acts into Overture, and this, he says, is the best way to do it.
"We've been asking, what are some nontraditional ways to optimize the use of the building and our venues?" says Carto. "This is one of them."
Carto and his staff haven't waited around for promoters to call. They've pursued them, and that aggressive approach is reaping dividends, even though Overture's rental fees are higher than those charged by many other local theaters and halls.
"We've been friendlier with promoters, and they've been friendlier to us," says Carto. "When we can fill in dates with acts that are appropriate for Overture Hall, we'll do that. We're also trying to have more acts in the summer, and I think the promoter route is helpful there, too."
For 2008-09, Carto is breaking with past booking practices in other ways. He's made a point of scaling back on tired repeat appearances by acts that have dominated a big chunk of Overture's schedule year after year. He's also kept winter holiday bookings to a minimum. "There's so much going on in this town already with holiday programming that it gets a little bit full," he says.
Jazz hasn't done well in recent years, and while Carto says he hasn't abandoned America's greatest art form, he and his staff have pulled back from it this season.
But classical music and cabaret-style singers are better represented in 2008-09, with the latter performing in a three-event dinner-and-a-show series that will seat audiences directly on the stage of the Capitol Theater. Classical bookings like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Interpreti Veneziani are really a response to the "grumblings" of classical lovers who felt that Overture had pared that portion of its schedule to the bone.
On the other hand, the cabaret series is a conscious innovation that's meant to make interesting use of an underutilized venue and cast a wider net for new audiences in the process.
"The Sharon Wilson Center [in Brookfield, Wis.] has been doing this for a while, and there's an audience for it," says Carto. "So we partnered with them to amortize the costs of the artists and block-booked these artists between them and ourselves. The venue I ran in Ohio, we did a lot of events [with audiences on] the stage, from a Valentine's event to jazz events to catered events."
With the orchestra and balcony of the Capitol Theater serving as an attractive backdrop to cabaret performers like Sally Mayes and David Burnham, Carto thinks audiences will be charmed by this very different perspective on Overture's facilities. And he believes the unique experience will convince them to return for other ticketed events.
With the country's economy going downhill fast, Carto knows that booking innovations and a willingness to cater to popular tastes can do just so much. In the first half of the 2007-08 season, 62% of capacity sold, which met budget expectations. When all is said and done, Carto expects to have sold 73% of the available seats for the second half of the season - slightly less than budget projections. But selling that many tickets in 2008-09 could be a struggle. Carto is adamant that his team is up to the task, but he admits that he's not expecting a record-setting year at the box office.
"With the economy the way it is and the presidential election, it will make for a potentially soft year," he says. "We know we'll have to be very smart in our marketing and our approach - and have things that people are going to be willing to pay for."