As the exterior glass walls go up around the four-story atrium of Durham's $46 million performing arts center, excitement is growing among city leaders who are eager to see the curtain rise on the city's major downtown investment. With construction ahead of schedule thanks to the drought, the management of the Durham Performing Arts Center announced last week an abbreviated first season lineup of nationally touring Broadway shows to begin in January 2009. While the rest of the season's lineup is still up in the air, one thing's for sure: The DPAC is a reality.
While the City of Durham owns the 2,800-seat venue, it will be co-managed by two major players on Broadway, Nederlander and Professional Facilities Management (PFM). Under the operating agreement, the operator, not the city, will absorb any financial losses. PFM/ Nederlander's operating agreement with the city runs to 2013. The city council will soon appoint a citizen committee to oversee the agreement (see "Who will watch over this new venue?" below).
PFM President Lynn Singleton was on stage for the announcement at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting at the Durham Civic Center Feb. 28, where he addressed hundreds of business executives, elected officials and other city boosters. Singleton boasted DPAC will be the largest theater in North or South Carolina and promised the new performance series, called Broadway Carolina, will bring in only the freshest touring productions.
"The shows that will come here will come in the first three to six months of the national tour," he said.
In a subsequent interview with reporters, however, Singleton conceded that such fresh programming would be a goal, not a guarantee.
A "10th-anniversary" production of Rent will begin the season in January, followed by Fiddler on the Roof in March, Legally Blonde The Musical in April and The Color Purple—which closed on Broadway Feb. 24, after 910 performances—in May. (That means Oprah might be coming to Durham after all—or at least her production will.)
Meanwhile, the long-running smash Wicked, which opened on Broadway in late 2003 and has been touring the continent since 2005, has been confirmed as the main attraction for the 2009-10 series. Season ticket prices range from $81 to $292—or $20.25 to $73 per show.
The announcement culminated with a performance by singers from the Nederlander touring production of 3 Mo' Divas, who sang numbers from all five of the announced shows. "Defying Gravity," a song from Wicked, could have been a message to skeptics of the theater's potential. "It's time to trust my instincts/ Close my eyes, and leap! ... I think I'll try defying gravity/ And you can't pull me down!"
DPAC's managers say they plan to keep the stage lit about 100 nights each year. Broadway Carolina, Singleton says, will make up 40 percent of those nights (a typical season will include six shows, playing six nights each). Another 40 percent will include national commercial touring acts—music concerts and family shows—booked through PFM's national headquarters in Providence, R.I. (As an example of such an act, Singleton invoked the name Josh Groban several times, to the audience and to journalists afterward.) Singleton says some holiday-themed performances are penciled in for December.
The other 20 percent, Singleton says, will come from the local market. DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus, the former general manager of Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, will take the lead on booking those shows.
Klaus and Singleton say they have reached out to performing arts programmers at Duke University and North Carolina Central University, discussing everything from making student rush tickets available to possibly collaborating on productions.
"We don't have any of those announcements yet," Klaus says, "but we're in very positive discussion with a wide variety of major regional arts presenters and hope to have some exciting announcements this spring."
Duke Performances Director Aaron Greenwald says he has toured the construction site and spoken with Klaus and Singleton about possible collaborations.
"The challenge is figuring out projects that they will agree to do and that fulfill our educational mission. We operate on a subsidized model, and they are purely a for-profit model. They're making their money off of ticket sales; that's how they support what they put in the hall, how they pay their bills and their crew," Greenwald says. "That's not how we run, that's not how any not-for-profit performing arts group runs."
Duke and DPAC might co-sponsor an event, Greenwald says, or Duke could just rent the hall, though the details and costs are still uncertain. "And I have to say, we have trouble filling the 1,200-seat venue that we have," Greenwald says. The university plans to renovate its main performance venue, Page Auditorium, sometime in the next five to 10 years, and it might build a 350- to 400-seat theater on its campus to serve its dance and theater departments, Greenwald says.
As for the American Dance Festival, Singleton says negotiations on a booking arrangement are "on the 2-yard line. We're excited. We want them here." ADF Director Charles L. Reinhart was not available for comment.
As long as plans for the DPAC have circulated, local arts supporters have worried it might cannibalize popular acts and audiences from the area's other venues. Two Broadway series run in the 2,277-seat Memorial Auditorium in downtown Raleigh. Then there are the nationally touring concerts and family shows at the Carolina Theatre, home of 1,015-seat Fletcher Hall. The Carolina Theatre is also owned by the City of Durham.
Connie Campanaro, director of the Carolina Theatre, says that concern is overblown. "Nobody stole The Color Purple or Legally Blonde from me. We don't do that here; we don't have the deep pockets or the deep stage," she says.
Frequent conference calls with PFM executives and face-to-face meetings with Klaus keep the lines of communication open about which acts each programmer is seeking, she adds.
"We're trying to find ways to complement each other," she says. "We have the same parents."
The DPAC and the Carolina are close to announcing collaboration on a two-night run of an off-Broadway show at the Carolina in November, just before the DPAC's grand opening. The collaboration means both parties will share either profits or losses.
Singleton says because of their size and clout in the industry, PFM and Nederlander are able to absorb financial risks, which enables them to bring in high-profile shows and performers, something small, local nonprofit and not-for-profit arts groups just can't do. PFM manages eight other theaters in the United States; Nederlander manages 22 others.
"That's absolutely true," Campanaro says. "The advantage that they have that is quite impressive is that when it comes to Nederlander product, it's as though they're both the wholesaler and the retailer, and it's a great situation that the city was able to secure that added advantage."
For PFM and Nederlander, however, the risk is limited. Five years from now, when the current operating agreement expires, they could turn the keys back over to the City of Durham.
All parties are banking on the expectation that ticket sales, naming rights and other sources of revenue will exceed the costs of construction and operation. The city has borrowed $33.7 million to pay for the building. DPAC's operators are working to sell naming rights to various parts of the theater to generate an additional $800,000 annually. The city recently announced the Mildred and Dillard Teer family had purchased naming rights to the stage for $1.2 million over 10 years. Naming rights to the building as a whole, however, are still unclaimed.
"I hope it's really successful," Greenwald says. "But it's a really big theater. It's really a lot of seats." That said, he believes PFM and Nederlander know how to make a profit off live performance. "These people are really smart. My biggest question is how they overcome the Cary and North Raleigh stigma around Durham. I think that's the big question mark, you know? You're talking about several hundred thousand of the million [audience members] that they're looking for."
The question of overcoming Durham's stigma gets to the heart of why so many of the city's political and business leaders supported the DPAC's creation in the first place. The beaming pride on the faces of so many members of the Durham Chamber of Commerce last week illustrated a widespread excitement and hope that the city's investment will be a smash hit.
A version of this story was published at indyweek.com on Feb. 29. Read our Nov. 14, 2007, cover story on DPAC, "That empty feeling: The Durham Performing Arts Center," including a timeline and cost details. More information and season tickets are available at www.DPACnc.com.
This week, the Durham City Council is scheduled to appoint citizens to the Durham Performing Arts Center oversight committee. The five-member group will meet every six months to consider whether PFM/ Nederlander is meeting the provisions of its operating agreement with the city.
The committee may also report on ways to improve the operation of the DPAC or to improve coordination with other cultural groups in Durham, including the Carolina Theatre, Durham Arts Council and St. Joseph's Historic Foundation.
Of the 14 applicants, one is a shoo-in: Durham Arts Council Executive Director Sherry DeVries, who serves on the Durham Cultural Master Plan advisory board, which must have one representative on the committee.
"I hope to see all boats rise with the tide with DPAC arriving on the scene," DeVries says. "We want to be sure that the entire arts and cultural community benefits and is strengthened from this new addition to our cultural landscape."
Other applicants include:
Niemann Capital developer Josh Parker and Alliance Architecture Operations Manager Alice Sharpe withdrew applications they filed last year.