In his first year as executive director of McCain Auditorium at Kansas State University, Todd R. Holmberg has engineered a performance schedule that embraces Americana as well as contemporary satire, sharp-tongued comedy along with razor-keen musical theater, Irish step dancing and urban opera.
"One of my over-arching goals for the coming year was to change the university's and the community's perception of the McCain Performance Series," Holmberg said. "There was a noticeable perception that the series needed a breath of fresh air."
To do that, Holmberg came up with "more ways to engage the community and the university."
The auditorium's 2008-09 Performance Series will include such high-profile national acts as Garrison Keillor and political satirists the Capitol Steps. Music genres range from the big-band sound of the Glenn Miller Orchestra to the 13-year-old prodigy Conrad Tao, who will play one of his own compositions from this year. New music doesn't get much newer than that.
"A lot of people have asked, 'Are you going to take the series in a different direction?' " Holmberg said. His answer is that it is going in many different directions, but with a common destination: engagement of diverse audiences.
"The goal is to attract new audiences but also to challenge your current audiences,"Holmberg said. "We're here to educate, expose, engage and inspire, not just entertain.
"Being program director in an educational setting, that mission is foremost in my mind," he said. If a popular show such as "Nunsense," starring Sally Struthers, fills every one of McCain's 1,650 seats, that's great, but "it's only one element in the bigger mission."
A string quartet playing contemporary music might draw far fewer people, Holmberg said, but the question should be, "Are these people being transformed in some way? If the answer is 'yes,' then we've succeeded."
Even so, the overall schedule is far from esoteric. "Hairspray" and "Sweeney Todd" are touring musicals spun off recent film successes, and the McCain season opener is the family-pleasing Golden Dragon Acrobats from China.
Most acts illustrate Holmberg's underlying theme for the season, "the spirit of America." Cherryholmes is a chart-topping family band that plays bluegrass, "a uniquely American art form," he said. Savion Glover is a wizard of tap, a dance form with slave roots. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will pay tribute to two great Jewish American composers, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Riders in the Sky will revive America's tradition of show-biz cowpokery in "Christmas the Cowboy Way." And the East Village Opera Company brings a thoroughly American rock 'n' roll attitude to the stage.
"I'm looking forward to the totality of the series," said Holmberg, who started booking acts for K-State even as he was packing to leave his previous post as executive director for the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra in Texas. "I really get to use the creative part of my brain, even though I sit behind a desk from 8 to 5 every day."
Already he's deep into planning the 2009-10 season and beyond.
"The auditorium also houses numerous K-State theater, music and dance performances," Holmberg said, "along with the Landon Lecture Series and various other activities, so we need to have our series in place earlier to be a resource for all the entities that need McCain."
The complete schedule is available at McCain's revamped Web site, http://www.k-state.edu/mccain/, which for the first time allows patrons to select their seats electronically and buy tickets in real time. But traditionalists still can order their tickets over the phone, 785-532-6428, or stop by McCain's box office. Discounts are available to faculty, staff and students.
Photos: The McCain Performance Series lineup for the 2008-2009 season includes Garrison Keillor (top, left), the Claremont Trio (Julia Bruskin, Donna Kwang and Emily Bruskin), and tap dancer Savion Glover (below, left).