Filling the Gaps

After almost going belly-up two years ago, UApresents finds its niche

After accumulating a $1 million deficit in 2006, campus impresario UApresents has finished its second consecutive positive fiscal year with more than a $90,000 surplus and a 12 percent uptick in advance-ticket sales.

Part of the turnaround can be attributed to shedding some staff members over the past couple of years, and part is linked to more aggressive fundraising within the community (ticket sales now are expected to cover only 55 percent of costs, as opposed to as much as 85 percent in the past).

The rest of the turnaround is due to refocused programming: more attractions with immediate name recognition that are relatively inexpensive to engage. Keep expenses down; maintain ticket prices and fundraising at a healthy level; add some state funding; and if all goes well, the result is a balanced budget.

That old deficit--hovering now at $850,000, and one that nearly caused the organization to shut down in 2006 before the UA came through with a $1.2 million "loan"--hasn't been retired. But according to UApresents executive director Natalie Bohnet, it's no longer a program-threatening sore spot with UA administrators, regents and state legislators.

"No more has been spoken about it," she says. "It has not been officially forgiven, but it seems to be dormant. I think (UA President Robert Shelton) is happy that we've had two years in the black, and as long as we keep operating in a fiscally responsible way, the support is there."

As an example of that support, Bohnet's program has been awarded $12 million in state funds (part of a $170 million UA construction/building rehab allocation granted last month, even in the face of an overall $19.6 million budget cut) to renovate its performance space, Centennial Hall. While UApresents settles into some temporary home, probably during the 2010-2011 season, Centennial's sight lines will be improved by increasing the slope and staggering of the seats (which themselves will be new for the first time since the auditorium was built in 1936). The plan also calls for more restrooms and tweaks to the hall's acoustics.

Meanwhile, it's the programming that matters most to the audience. Many of the coming season's 35 events (down from more than 40 in the past) feature proven favorites: Stomp, k.d. lang, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Etta James and so on. It's the four-event "Center Stage" series that best demonstrates how UApresents has changed during the past decade.

Until the 1990s, the presenting organization ran a modest six-event operation called the UA Artist Series, which was mainly classical music and dance with the occasional international dance-and-music pageant or jazz act. The offerings vastly expanded after Centennial underwent a major renovation in the late '80s. The initial musical-theater offerings were short runs of second-rank touring revivals: Marie Osmond in The Sound of Music, John Davidson in State Fair. Eventually, UApresents directors got up the gumption to book week-plus runs of megamusicals like Cats, but many of these attractions turned out to be expensive flops.

Besides, the Nederlander organization came to town with a "Broadway in Tucson" stop on its touring series (replacing another, less-polished tour presenter), and UApresents found itself in competition with the well-heeled private sector.

The musicals are largely what dug the organization's financial hole: In 2004, it lost $250,000 on a 16-performance run of Hairspray alone. This coming season, the attractions are much safer: small-scale, one-night performances of artists and works with immediate name recognition, all scheduled for next spring.

On March 14, Broadway legend Joel Grey (the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret) will appear with pianist-composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line). No backup band, no tour bus, no sound-and-light extravaganza, just a couple of famous guys doing a cabaret show in a very large hall.

March 26 will bring a single performance of Opera à la Carte's touring version of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, one of the team's most popular operettas. Arizona Opera and Arizona Theatre Company only rarely mount Gilbert and Sullivan productions, so this show has a good chance of filling Centennial with underserved Savoyards; a single performance last April of a touring production of The Mikado sold out.

Back on the small scale, on April 22, Patti Lupone (a Broadway icon, but less known off the Great White Way) and the ever-popular Mandy Patinkin, the original stars of Evita, will offer an evening of choreographed songs, probably with minimal instrumental accompaniment (Bohnet thinks it will be only a piano). Again, big stars, but hardly any other personnel, and limited stage machinery.

Finally, May 9 will bring public-radio personality Ira Glass doing a kind of Spalding Grey storytelling shtick. Whatever Glass may make per speaking engagement, it's certainly cheaper to set him up with a podium and a glass of water than to bring in a full stage show.

Bohnet asserts that she didn't engage Glass because of economics. She saw him at one of the two performing-arts trade shows she attends each year, "and I thought he was brilliant. We're looking for things that we really believe are world-class events, no matter what they are."

Indeed, Bohnet says that she cannot expect every show to have a profitable bottom line. "If that's what we wanted, we couldn't do any modern dance, which is very rarely profitable," she says. "We look at a portfolio of events, so some things are more commercial and will be profitable, and others will not."

Bohnet begins shopping for attractions a full year or more before each season begins (earlier for classical musicians), and along the way consults with a local programming committee that includes staff members, subscribers, major donors, and UA music and dance specialists. "I try to get a cross-section of people who'll stop me from getting too much into what I like," she says. Bohnet admits a preference for Latin and African music, and she relies on her committee to prevent too many of her pet projects from infiltrating the schedule.

Bohnet, formerly the UApresents director of finance and administration, took the financially struggling organization's top spot four years ago in a clumsily handled transition (see "Arts Nightmare," Nov. 25, 2004). Once she was no longer locked into attractions that had already been booked, she began shunning acts that duplicated efforts elsewhere in town.

"We decided we're not trying to compete in the community," she says. "As a university presenter, we have an opportunity to bring to Tucson what nobody else is doing. This city already has Broadway in Tucson and a wonderful chamber-music series, so we don't need to do those things. We fill the gaps."

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