Jerry Van Leeuwen, California Center for the Arts, Escondido, executive director, has a custom of attending all of the shows that the center hosts, and then gauging the reactions of people as they come out of the show.
If people say, “That show was great! Bring them back! Bring them back!” he will make a note of it and make sure to look into engaging the artists the following season. “As we put the season together we look at how previous performers did,” he says.
Van Leeuwen, who is beginning his fourth season as executive director at the Center, tries to craft a season that will have something for every taste. Obviously every artist won’t appeal to everyone but he has a goal of providing at least some shows that each potential member of his audience would say, “I would go to that!” And perhaps more important, spend money to attend. “We look at a big perspective with multiple genres.”
When Van Leeuwen first took over he would have people tell him “There’s nothing I want to see,” and that is always on his mind as he works on a season.
A city the size of Escondido is fortunate to have such an artistic gem as the Center, a facility of such quality that when performing artists step onto its stage they exclaim to themselves, “I have arrived!”
The Center isn’t rich enough to engage people like Eric Clapton, who commands fees in the millions and insists on audiences in the thousands, or shows such as “Hamilton,” but it is capable of booking artists who are on the upward arc of their careers, who are just beginning to achieve national or international fame. “We try to catch rising stars. People you won’t be able to see here in the future because they will be playing in huge arenas.”
One such group is the Villalobos Brothers who hail from Veracruz, Mexico, where they are considered to be one of the leading ensembles in the country, combining guitar and violin virtuosity.
Another such group is the Ten Tenors, an Australian sensation. “They were here for the holidays and sold out,” observes Van Leeuwen. “They are very high energy.” The Tenors is one of the groups that he recalls multiple audience members coming up to him and demanding their return.
On the other hand the two-time Emmy and Grammy Award-winning comedian Kathy Griffin, who will perform at the Center’s Concert Hall on September 10, is “definitely an A- list performer,” says Van Leeuwen. “We’re glad to have her.”
Pink Martini is an ensemble group of over a dozen musicians led by vocalist China Forbes, known for reaching into the audience and bringing literally hundreds onto the stage with them. “They play crossover Latin Jazz and Pop and are real crowd pleasers,” says Van Leeuwen.”
The dance group Shaping Sound, was at the beginning of the 2015-2016 season and asked to come back this year. That wasn’t a hard request to grant since they sold out. “They have a huge following among girls in the 15-17 age group,” said Van Leeuwen
They will end the new season with a performance on June 21, 2017. Their claim to fame, observes Van Leeuwen, is that they rose to prominence on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
To find these gems that haven’t quite made it yet to Hope Diamond status among performers is the job of a consultant the Center works with named Bruce Labadie of Labadie Productions, one of the premier event producers in California. Labadie runs the San Jose Jazz Festival and has contacts galore.
He suggests what genres the Center should have and offers a range of different priced options to fill those genres. Gone are the days when the Center goes over budget. It must live within its budget, although it does take some risks in the acts that it brings. So far those risks have paid off.
The Center is also part of a consortium of concert venues in the state called “California Presenters” which includes nonprofit, university and municipal presenters who work together to bring the arts to communities of all sizes. They save costs and by working cooperatively don’t step on each other’s toes in booking acts that they all might want.
According to Van Leeuwen, Labadie does demographic studies on each community that he does consultant work for. He closely studies how a particular artist does in a particular community. Did the artist fill up the venue? Did they expect to fill it up and instead only sold half of the seats? You might be surprised (or even appalled) to know that demographically speaking that Escondido is very similar to Bakersfield and Modesto, two cities in the Central Valley.
The season is a mix of shows that the Center hires and takes a chance on, and “rentals,” where a group pays the Center and the Center wins no matter how many people show up.
An example of a rental is “Ain’t Misbehavin,” which will play several times in August. This is a musical play based on the music of Fats Waller performed by the North Coast Repertory Theatre, a theatrical group on the coast with an excellent reputation but a small venue. In this show audiences will be thrust back in time to the days of the Harlem Renaissance and a cast that “struts, strums and sings.” This show will begin at Solana Beach and then come here.
“Daniel Tiger” is a family friendly show that the Center is both taking a risk on and co-producing. Most theatrical productions you will see at the Center are produced by organizations such as the Local Classical Academy.
“When it comes to shows like that, which are of such high quality, why would we look outside of the community?” asks Van Leeuwen rhetorically.
Although the California Center board has some input in picking artists, “You can’t pick a season by committee,” he says. Of course, the ultimate irony is that the biggest committee of all—the buying public—ultimately decides whether a season is successful or not.