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McCain performance series enriches the lives of Kansans

By Michelle Hall


The McCain Performance Series at Kansas State University doesn't begin with the opening curtain of the first play, opera or concert of the season. It begins more than a year before and involves the skills and sweat of the director, the technical workers, the marketing director, the patrons, and many others.

The first step in putting together a successful season of the series involves putting together the schedule of performances.

"The mix is very important," said Thom Jackson, marketing and development officer. "It's a big gamble. We look at past box office sales and we always try to have a high standard of quality."

The first thing they look at is what productions are touring in the coming year. Beginning in the fall, McCain director Richard Martin attends conferences put on by regional arts and performers organizations where he can meet with artists and artists' managers. By that time, the current season is already under way and Martin has already booked three or four of the acts for the next season.

A preview of the 2004-2005 McCain Performance Series

Jackson said to expect to see the a cappella group "Naturally Seven" at McCain next season, in addition to "Romeo and Juliet" by the St. Petersburg Ballet. "Latraviata," an opera by the Stanislavsky Opera Company, is also in the works, as are performances by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the political satire group "The Capitol Steps," and "Dallas Brass," which will have a finale including the Manhattan High School marching band.

They are also looking at bringing in "Fosse," "Crazy for You," "The Full Monty," "Contact," "Fiddler on the Roof," or "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"; all of these musicals are touring in the coming year.

Martin also looks through stacks of mailings with tapes, brochures and photos of possible McCain performers, and reads many reviews. After a preliminary "weeding process," he shares some of the possibilities with the Board of Directors of the Friends of McCain, and, depending on the time frame, might also get the input of the McCain Ambassadors. Martin might call McCain subscribers and K-State faculty members who know a little more about a certain type of performance to get their input, if necessary. But what exactly is he looking for when he wades through the thousands of possibilities of acts and assembles the schedule for a season?

Martin considers many things when planning a McCain Performance Series season. He tries to find performers who will work in conjunction with an academic program -- dancers from the recent production of CATS led warm up classes in the dance department while here, for example. He has to think about the budget and the number of attractions he can pull in for the money they receive from the K-State Fine Arts Fee, ticket sales, arts funding and grants and patrons (McCain receives no money from the university). Martin has to gauge whether the event will draw a crowd and whether the performer might be interested in speaking to various groups while in Manhattan -- including outreach to local schools. He has to think about scheduling -- football game days are not ideal for a performance because hotel accommodations for the performers are hard to come by. However, Martin notes, he can't think of everything.

"If one took into consideration all the possible conflicts, we'd never have any programs," he said.

Martin said it is sometimes a hard decision to bring in a unique group from a culture many know little about -- for example, the Throat Singers of Tuva. What he tries to do is bring in "outstanding examples of these cultures" and have introductions or pre-performance lectures that try to explain, or put into context these performances.

"You want to present it so the audience have some understanding with what it is that the audience in the native country of that art form is getting out of it," Martin said. "We try to help understand where it came from, and what to look for in watching this art form."

Jackson said another main consideration is making ticket prices affordable.

"The highest ticket price we'll do is $40," he said. "We're basically a non-profit. We try to keep tickets as low as we can." In addition, students receive half off of ticket prices for McCain Performance Series events and faculty and staff receive a 15 percent discount.

"Asking for the moon"

Martin said they work at McCain to make their performers as comfortable as possible. This might include tuning a piano for a concert pianist, making sure the temperature in the theater is right for a troupe of dancers, or making sure the lights are all working in the shell for an orchestra.

Although Martin's examples seem like understandable requests, some of the famous performers they deal with don't necessarily stick to reasonable requirements.

"In their contracts some of these performers ask for the moon," Jackson said. Some things he and his colleagues try to negotiate out, other things they try to come up with, and other things are just downright impossible. For example, some ask to have alcohol waiting backstage. In these cases, Jackson has to remind them that McCain is smack in the middle of a dry campus.

"We had one ask for a certain action figure," Jackson said. "They just put some of these in to see if you're reading. We just have to work together as a team to get it all done."

Jackson said after the season is set, he gets to work on promotions such as the season brochure, handbills and posters. He has a group of student interns who aid with these items. They try to stick with a "unified idea" for the whole season in all of their promotional materials, Jackson said. But they do tailor the message for different markets. In addition, Jackson designed and maintains McCain's Web site and writes grant proposals for underwriting shows. He also oversees membership drives, fundraising events and audience surveys.

Deciding the mix of advertising for each production is tricky, Jackson said. Print ads are very important to this area, he said, and, if they have good video, television ads are also very useful.

"We use radio ads for sound-oriented performances," Jackson said. "We use television for spectacle shows such as big musicals or ice ballets." They've also had good success with e-mail advertisements sent out to various listserv subscribers. And while television advertising, for example, can get very expensive, e-mail, on the other hand, costs then next to nothing. The recent addition of online ticket purchasing has also been a boost for McCain, as well as a "major convenience" for their audience.

Jackson said some of the shows can be hard to sell. A recent example is the play, "Victoria," about a woman with Alzheimer's. Jackson wondered how they could draw an audience to a drama on such a heavy topic. But when he looked into the production more, he found out it was more about relationships than her condition. After a successful show, the promoters of the show asked for Jackson's materials to market it in the future.

"You just have to get the right information out there," he said. "Our audience is well read and interested in what they're seeing. And they have to trust what we do."

For Kyle McGuffin, the technical director at McCain, work might also begin a year before a production, especially with a big Broadway show. That's when the production company sends McGuffin a technical writer, which is essentially a blueprint of what needs to be done. This includes the needs for sound, lighting and how many workers McGuffin will hire to help unload when the production arrives in Manhattan. Then a couple months ahead of time, McGuffin receives the group's lighting plot, which indicates the color and direction of the lights they will need. However, it's becoming more and more common for the larger shows to only need hands to help them unload -- they come more and more with all of their equipment.

McGuffin said he hasn't quite decided what's easier -- when the group brings all their own equipment and sets up and tears down in a single day, or when they have awhile to set up, but McCain must provide most of the equipment.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "The day's more hectic when they bring all of their own equipment, but when the day's over with, it's all gone."

If a smaller production comes to McCain, usually McGuffin's regular crew sets up gradually throughout the week before. McGuffin has a crew of about 10 to 12 students for day-to-day set ups and work. But if a large production, such as a big Broadway musical, comes in, they go to a local stagehand union to secure more hands.

Although all shows at McCain are different, each one has the same focus from the technical side: safety.

"Safety is our biggest concern," McGuffin said. "We work quickly, but safely."

All in all, McGuffin said he enjoys his job very much.

"I like the fact that I don't sit in an office all day," he said. "I get a charge out of working with the students -- they're great. We get to do things that bring people joy -- it's fun to be a part of that."

Jackson agreed that working in an atmosphere like McCain is terrific.

"It's an exiting, fun job," he said. "It takes a special team of people to work in the arts. These people are very passionate and you have to have very thick skin. Tempers might flair, but no one takes it personally. It keeps things exciting. Everyone's job here relies on each other."

Martin said bringing enriching productions to the community is a rewarding job.

"We try to provide a service to the university community: to the students as an adjunct to their classroom and laboratory education; to the faculty and staff as something that can enrich their life in the community," Martin said. "And also especially at an institution like Kansas State, which is a land-grant institution, to enrich the lives of the citizens around us.

"Even if the productions don't work as well as we would like, I try to get very good people here -- but people have off nights -- even the Yankees don't win every World Series," Martin said. "The main thing that I'm hoping people will take away is the value of the experience … It's not like a CD that can be edited in -- I'd rather have a live performance any day."

For more information on the McCain Performance Series at Kansas State University, go to http://www.k-state.edu/mccain/

How do they do that?

Perhaps the most difficult type of show they put on at McCain -- from the technical side -- is an ice show.

"That's a three-day process," McGuffin said. "The crew is here the day before the show -- that's when eight tons of crushed ice is delivered." From there they set up a portable ice rink that's 40 feet by 40 feet and 4 inches high. Coolant tubes are run underneath and the ice is spread over. Workers stay all night to spray the ice with water to freeze and smooth it.

"On Day 2, we put up the scenery, let the skaters practice and by early evening, have the show," McGuffin said. "After the show we tear down the scenery and then take metal spiked poles and smash and shovel the ice." The workers then put the crushed ice into wheelbarrows, load it on trucks and take it to the parking lot of Bramlage Coliseum to dump. McGuffin said this is to ensure none of the coolant gets into the ground, in case the tubes have leaked.

"This takes until about 3 a.m.," McGuffin said. "The crowds really like these shows, but they're the most labor-intensive ones we do."

Another performance wasn't quite as labor intensive before and after, but sure was during the production. About four years ago, McGuffin said they featured a ballet, "Tribute to Diagalev," which is three short ballets in one. Between each ballet, the technical team had to do a complete scene change in 20-minute intermissions.

"For one of the scene changes, we had to completely flip the dance floor from a white side to a black side," McGuffin said.

For the 2002-2003 series, workers covered the stage with sand for a production of "Hamlet" and then, two weeks later, covered it in ice for an ice ballet.

"We're still finding sand," McGuffin said. "You see some crazy things. It's awesome for the student workers because they get to see so much. No one realizes the time and effort that go into prepping for the shows."

Spring 2004