College performing arts centers earn high marks for variety
In planning acts for College of Lake County's Lumber Center for the Performing Arts, executive director Gwethalyn Bronner is open to suggestions. Some, however, make her laugh out loud.
"Why don't you get U2 here?" Bronner remembers being asked once. Her response: "If you've seen them in an arena, I probably can't afford to bring them here."
"Here," in CLC's case, is Grayslake. But many suburban colleges have performing arts centers that draw a variety of popular acts -- even if they lack the budget and space of venues like Rosemont's Allstate Arena.
Still, college performing arts centers have a number of advantages that make them great places to enjoy a concert.
Ticket prices vary, but parking is often plentiful -- and free. Some have multiple theaters of different sizes that provide a welcome intimacy over massive arenas.
And then there is the variety factor. Shows run the gamut from family-friendly acrobatic spectacles to nostalgic rock bands to tribute shows.
In just the next couple of weeks, "The Official Blues Brothers Revue" plays at North Central College in Naperville at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5; comedians Larry Miller and Jake Johhannsen entertain audiences at Elgin Community College at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12; and the Elton John tribute show "Remember When Rock Was Young" hits the stage at College of Lake County at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13.
"I try to find artists who I think will be affordable to our audience, will be appealing to the audience and who will still generate excellent ticket sales," said Brian Lynch, the fine arts director who oversees North Central College venues like the 1,057-seat Pfeiffer Hall and the 617-seat Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville.
Lynch looks for well-known acts like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Amy Grant and The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band -- all at North Central College this month -- instead of booking artists who might not have the same name recognition in Naperville. Having empty seats for phenomenal but lesser-known acts is "the bane of my existence," he said.
To book popular acts, directors like Lynch have to work more than a year in advance.
"The first thing I do is consult internally with the music and theater departments. They always get the first crack at facilities," Lynch said.
Once student shows are slotted into place, arts directors typically then check with local resident performing ensembles, like Ballet Folklorico Huehuecoyotl in Elgin or the New Philharmonic in Glen Ellyn. Whatever openings are left can be filled with visiting acts.
One way for colleges to save money while hosting bigger-name acts is to participate in "block booking," packages put together by agents and presenters that schedule artists at a number of nearby venues. For example, the Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor John Lithgow is bringing his one-man show "Stories By Heart" to both Elgin Community College at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, and to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3.
"(Lithgow's show) was something our director of performing arts, Steve Duchrow, had been looking at for a number of years and we were really hoping that we could get it out to Elgin," said Susanne Kepley, ECC's manager of marketing and patron services. "So Duchrow looked for some other local partners ... and we're really happy to partner with the North Shore Center in bringing the show to the area."
College presenters also keep in touch with other performance venues by participating in the Illinois Presenters Network, an association of theaters. Many members attend national and regional conferences to see potential touring acts perform snippets of their work.
At one of these showcases, Bronner discovered "Remember When Rock Was Young" with Craig A. Meyer as Almost Elton John. "His connection with the audience was just incredible," Bronner said. "People could not stop talking about this artist and his act."
The acts themselves serve to generate money for the colleges as well as enrich the cultural offerings on campus and in the surrounding community.
Sometimes, a visiting artist will do master classes or other projects on campus or in the community. For instance, Tony Award-winner Ben Vereen's upcoming North Central College appearance in April has master class sessions built into his contract, while Oakton Community College's presentation of puppeteer Blair Thomas' "Hard Headed Heart" at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, grew out of a special teaching session between the artist and Oakton students.
In the case of College of DuPage, which recently closed its McAninch Arts Center for renovation, its presenters office used the less-than-ideal circumstances to reach out to other area venues like the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove or Fermilab in Batavia to continue presenting artists and shows.
"We are here to enrich the cultural vitality of the community," said College of DuPage Marketing Coordinator Roland Raffel. "Together, we were able to cull our resources with different venues to put on these shows for the community."
Find out moreWhat suburban colleges have in store for the 2013-14 season:
• College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn: (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org
• College of Lake County in Grayslake: (847) 543-2300 or clcillinois.edu/tickets
• Elgin Community College in Elgin: (847) 622-0300 or elgin.edu/arts
• Harper College in Palatine: (847) 925-6100 or goforward.harpercollege.edu
• McHenry County College in Crystal Lake: (815) 455-3700 or mchenry.edu
• North Central College in Naperville: (630) 637-7469 or finearts.northcentralcollege.edu
• Oakton Community College in Des Plaines: (847) 635-1900 or oakton.edu