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Weekly Q&A

Smith Center’s Paul Beard discusses the art of booking shows

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Paul Beard, vice president and COO of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, poses in Reynolds Hall at the center Monday, April 7, 2014.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Shakespeare’s The Tempest has become a hit collaboration at the Smith Center’s Symphony Park. Broadway has blown out of control inside Reynolds Hall, where Esperanza Spalding, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Willie Nelson, David Sedaris and Ira Glass have all taken the stage. But what about the likes of Tom Waits? We talk with the Smith Center’s vice president and COO Paul Beard about the delicate balance between populist crowd-pleasers, niche shows and varying tastes.

Have there been interesting surprises? None of us knew the extent to which there was demand for Broadway touring shows here. There had been some prior experience and we knew things anecdotally. But it was all pretty much a new adventure.

Broadway had been hit or miss in Vegas. Right. And famously so.

Characterize the local audience.It’s notable for its growth potential. As we introduce new things and the momentum picks up, it proliferates. There are a lot of things that are new to this market.

Is the Smith Center willing to schedule shows that are not a proven sellout? Yes. If it’s someone we feel has something artistically to offer that’s so worthwhile that we should step up and present it for the people who will respond, we’ll do it. I can give you some examples of shows that qualitatively I was thrilled to be able to get here that we wanted to introduce them to this market because they’re fabulous artists.

Such as? Bobby McFerrin—Bobby’s amazing, but relatively uncommon here. Audra McDonald—a spectacular artist. She didn’t sell out. Lyle Lovett—the night he played here in August he brought in his large band. It was magnificent, an off-the-scale wonderful show. It didn’t sell out. So sometimes you book great stuff, you offer it, you hope for the best and if it doesn’t sell out, at least you get the good buzz.

Other than Broadway, what has worked well? The artists who play in Reynolds Hall should be artists whose performances are enhanced by the quality of the room. We had Joshua Bell and Academy of St. Martin on a Tuesday night. The next night we did the Pink Floyd Experience. The next night we did Patti LuPone. The next night we did a jazz show with David Sanborn and Jonathan Butler. And then we brought in Alvin Ailey for the weekend. Moving into the next week we did Chris Botti, then a country show with John Anderson and Tracy Lawrence.

And then John Legend? Yes. For him that’s an underplay. He could have played a bigger room or a more commercial place on the Strip, and has. But it was the flavor of the show that brought him in. He wanted to do an unplugged show that was very intimate and very qualitative. That was his artistic concept for the show. So this was the right room for that.

So he pitched it? Through his agent. Kristin [Chenoweth’s] New Year’s Eve concert here was another that was artist driven. She wanted to play here and that came through an agent we were working with on some other shows. As we were walking out the door, he said, “Oh, by the way, Kristin wants to play your building.” We said, “Great, that’s wonderful. We love her.”

You're comfortable with artists approaching the Smith Center? We love it when they do…Teller and his good friend and colleague, Aaron Posner who is a genius, gifted theater director walked in about two years ago before we had even opened this place. Teller had an idea and he wondered, “Would this be possible?” Would this be possible? The answer was, “Not in any conventional way, We’re going to have to do something very different to respond to this vision of this production of The Tempest.” Hence What you see now is the big tent in our park

Can groups lease the spaces? We have all different ways that we work with people. We try to be completely adaptable. Sometimes they rent. Sometimes we present, sometimes there is someone who has a project that they want to do, but they want to use the Smith Center as a platform or venue. The idea, though, is to always maintain the quality.

Have you thought about pushing boundaries with more avant-garde stuff? Who else would have booked Kronos Quartet?

How did it do? It didn’t sell real well. Artistically, it was a home run.

What about someone like Laurie Anderson? Laurie Anderson tends to go out every so often with a big project. She was out with a show called [Songs and Stories From] Moby Dick. It was a main stage product designed for 2,000-seat theaters. We’d look at that. I don’t know how it would do here. We’ve done really great stuff in Cabaret Jazz that didn’t hit a huge audience. One of the best concerts we’ve done in there is Tierney Sutton.

Would you bring in Tom Waits?That’s a hard booking to get. I’d take a Tom Waits date in a millisecond if one were offered. He knows we’re here, I hope. This would have to be his initiative for him to want to come out and want to perform again onstage.

What about chamber orchestra in the smaller venues? We’re evolving. We’re opening up new possibilities. We’re offering things that haven’t traditionally been prevalent here. As we move forward there may be other opportunities to expand the artistic horizon, but when it comes to a chamber orchestra series, it hasn’t reached anywhere near the top of the agenda yet.

One thing that’s reaching the top of the agenda now is our resident companies. The Las Vegas Philharmonic is evolving in a wonderful ways. We’re at a point now where we can start feeding more energy into that. Give it more attention, more support. That’s a very important role for a performing arts center to play in a community and it’s just now starting to hit the front burner just because it took this long to get this place on an even keel.

Are you interested in more collaborations, or shows brought in, such as The Tempest? There’s nothing that makes us happier than successful projects that we can do with quality partners. Composers showcase, that’s a collaborative partnership with Keith Thompson. We’re thrilled that that talent wants to work here in Cabaret Jazz.

It sounds like the Smith Center is very approachable. In general terms, we seem to like these artist-driven initiatives where there is a very high-caliber artist who looks at the Smith Center and says, “I can use that tool to an amazing advantage. Can we work together?” The answer is yes we can.

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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