Last month, the Topeka Performing Arts Center announced their Fall Season. For the Topekans who follow this sort of thing, the lineup elicited both excitement and indifference. With only one TPAC performance under my belt, “Sesame Street Live,” I am not one to judge the theater’s programming. But I will say, my two-year-old went gaga for it. I wanted to find out: Is the booking of Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas Program, Ron White’s comedy and Glen Campbell live what Topekans want from their 2,000+ capacity theater? Well, yes. And no. It’s complicated.

I approached a chatty group of ladies at my mother-in-law’s place of work, the St. Francis Mission Woods Clinic, where I had heard nurses and transcriptionists gabbing about the performances they’d seen while re-upping my insurance info. I corralled them into the break room over coffee and asked them, “Are you fans of TPAC?”

“Yes!” was the cacophonous answer from the five middle-aged women (they’re going to kill me for calling them middle-aged). They carried on about the various shows they had seen. Seinfeld, Simon and Garfunkel, Jesus Christ Superstar, Kansas, Mannheim Steamroller, the Oak Ridge Boys, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow. That’s just a few from the annals of TPAC history. The most recent success was Willie Nelson, who played this past April. These are big names and big shows. LeeAnn Woltkamp loves attending the shows at TPAC. She says it’s a refined place to take in a performance.

Self-professed fans of TPAC, the ladies of St. Francis Mission Woods Clinic

“With Mannheim Steamroller, it’s the kind of music that you sit there and you say, ‘ooh,’ and you’re in awe, and you’re sitting in comfortable chairs, you’re supposed to do that,” LeeAnn says.

“In other words, you’re saying, it’s not the place for a rock n’ roll show,” answers Terri Geiken, fellow employee. “But I wish it could be a place for rock n’ roll shows.”
“Well, the ushers are there in their suits. You’re not necessarily encouraged to get up on your feet. It typically is an older audience,” LeeAnn replies.

“It gives it the vibe,” says Terri. “It’s the unwritten rules. Don’t stand up, God forbid.”

So, yes, the ladies are fans, but there is a lot they’d like to see at TPAC that it’s currently not offering.

The programming is heavy on the country and those sit down and be awed-types of shows. Terri thinks they should expand their horizons, and although she is a country fan herself, she’s not into the “old country” that TPAC routinely offers. She goes to Sprint Center in Kansas City four or five times a year for the younger, top 40 country performers and the rock shows. She loves concerts, and says that she’d stick around town if the theater offered younger acts and some rock shows once in awhile. She, like all the others in the break room at Mission Woods, only attends one or two TPAC performances a year.

“I’d like to see up-and-coming performers,” she admits.

Terri and the others, and anyone who has bought an eTicket for a TPAC show or signs up, gets a newsletter with the performances and schedule for the season. Terri reiterates that she’s usually not impressed.

The group named off some of the performers they’d like to see in Topeka: Sting, Tom Petty, Donny Osmond (that was my mother-in-law’s pick, of course, uttered with a sigh and a batting of the eyelashes), the Zac Brown Band (“I would DIE to see them at TPAC,” says Terri), and a busy doctor even poked her head in the break room to chime in with “Pat Benetar” before clutching her clipboard to her chest and bustling out again.

So, why are these kinds of performers not making it to the TPAC stage? The majority of its performers tend to be country legends. The younger rock bands that Terri pines for aren’t there. There must be something intentional along the lines of TPAC’s booking procedure that informs the decision to book the performers that it does.

Barbara Wiggins, executive director at TPAC and Erin Aldridge, marketing manager, were happy to answer my questions under the expansive, acoustically outfitted ceiling of the Georgia Neese Gray Theatre.

“We’d love to have a rock n’ roll band in here that’s hip and new, but we don’t have a mosh pit, and people like to mosh at those kinds of things,” states Erin.

Barbara Wiggins and Erin Aldridge

The vibe that LeeAnn got from the theater wasn’t just from the impeccably dressed ushers. The management is booking away from the heavy rock stuff. Their booking decisions are based on in-house market research and the shows that are offered by up to seven regional and national promoters. But most importantly, the music performances are chosen based on cost. TPAC can’t afford to bring the huge performers that the ladies mentioned because of their performance fees, and the ticket sales would have to at least cover the cost of bringing the event to the theater. Sting would cost a hefty $125,000. Tom Petty: at least 75. They are out of the theater’s range. Willie Nelson was booked in at roughly $50G. In Willie’s case, Barbara was able to get a deal.

“I’ve worked in this industry for 15 1/2 years and a lot of the things we’re able to do is because I am able to reach back into my past experiences with past companies, promoters and agents and work deals based on those relationships,” she says.

Barbara does the booking at TPAC along with “a lot of support” from her event services manager, who is also in charge of the budgets.

“The reason it’s constrained by the budget is because of the market that we are in. This isn’t a market where regardless of what you put on sale people are going to come and support it,” she says. “This is a market that you have to bring in things specific in nature that people will support.”

And what do Topekans want, based on TPAC’s market research?

“People are responding to country,” Barbara says.

“We have found our niche in the older country genre. It’s proven itself over and over again, regardless of the artist,” Erin says.

Sometimes, Barbara takes a risk by booking an act like the rock band Staind in 2006. She saw that they were touring in the region, called an old friend and got a three-band act with Staind headlining to play at TPAC. The show bombed.

“I think we sold 1,300 tickets,” Barbara remembers. “People wouldn’t support it.”

“Right now the baby boomers are spending their discretionary dollars,” says Erin.

And baby boomers in Topeka and the surrounding area, according to TPAC’s research, are country lovers. They’re coming out in droves for names like the Oak Ridge Boys, Merle Haggard and Kenny Rogers. They’re attending in numbers that make a show pay for itself.

“If the event is able to cover its costs, then it’s successful as far as I’m concerned,” says Barbara.

Me and the photographer on assignment, EJ Drake, asked about our top genres. Could I see someone like jazz great Sonny Rollins, who toured a few years back, on the TPAC stage?

“Not jazz,” says Barbara. “Regardless of what people tell you, this isn’t a jazz market. People won’t support large-scale jazz performances.”

EJ wanted to know about Hip-Hop and R&B.

“There really isn’t a way to market them to this community,” Barbara says.

With the Fall season at TPAC about to commence with the comedy stylings of Ron “Tater Salad” White on August 20, there will be thousands of Topekans who feel that TPAC has their interests in mind. They’ll head downtown for a performance, sit in the comfortable chairs, perhaps assisted by a well-dressed usher, and be blown away by the acts that Barbara Wiggins and Erin Aldridge have worked so hard, and under so many constraints, to bring to fruition.

But for those Topekans who look at the season’s offerings and don’t find something that piques their interest, the entertainment will have to be found at one of the small local venues, the occasional concert at the Expocentre or at the big amphitheaters in Wichita or KC. Not everyone fits into the TPAC market. TPAC has its niche, and it’s ultimately up to every Topeka music-lover to find that place where they fit in, too.

[ seveneightfive June 15 – July 31 | Leah Sewell | EJ Drake ]

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