Cover Story: Spanking New Space

Reopened theater at Carnegie Center promises diverse programming

Sep 13, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Eric Vosmeier is stepping up efforts to fill the Carnegie Center's renovated theater with diverse programming.

It's a fall Friday night in Covington, and a couple hundred curious onlookers watch as a man clad in black leather invites a somewhat shy woman and then a very shy man on stage to dance with him. The crowd is decidedly mixed: young and old, some media types, some community leaders, some nondescript theatergoers. In short, all walks.

But all are clearly entranced by the goings-on in front of them. Especially the spanking at the end of the dance. Yes, spanking.

Call it just another night of programming at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center.

And that, says Theatre Director Eric Vosmeier, is the goal. It's all about event nights. That's theater-speak for reasons to get people in the space.

The Carnegie is as bustling an arts center as you'll find in the area. It's long been a hub for educational programming, community events and visual art exhibitions. But the attention in 2006 turned squarely to the Carnegie's crown jewel: a spectacular 450-seat theatrical auditorium now called the Otto M. Budig Theatre.

Re-opened in grand style in March, the performance space underwent a $2.5 million facelift. The result is, to use the parlance of this week's issue, one of Greater Cincinnati's truly cool performance spaces.

And what has time and again proven true, if you do good work in a cool space, people in this town will almost always come out.

To wit, those aforementioned curious onlookers, leather-man and the spankers were there for the latest reason to go to the Center: Jersey Productions' opening night performance of Cabaret. It's the third full-scale musical production mounted by Jersey in the new theater this year, after the season opener Godspell and this summer's Ragtime.

Vosmeier calls Jersey —- a professional company that mixes Cincinnati's talent pool with guest artists — the Carnegie's resident production company. He couldn't be happier with the quality of production they've provided, the audiences they've created and the partnership they formed this year.

He says that since he started the job last October — in the midst of the extensive renovation — he didn't have much time at all to sit back and simply program the theater. Thankfully through work he'd done in Houston he met Larry Smiglewski and Kelly Martin, artistic and managing directors of Jersey Productions, respectively. Vosmeier says he knew right away they would produce the kind of theater he'd want to see in the new space, so he convinced them to follow him back to Cincinnati and set up shop at The Carnegie.

"Getting them programmed into those first few months was a huge thing for us," Vosmeier says. "It gave us events during those first four or five months when it could've been vacant."

"When Eric approached me about starting a theater company to perform in this gorgeous new space, I was thrilled," Smiglewski says. "The Carnegie has been so warm and receptive to having us."

Jersey's initial three-show season in effect ends this week with Cabaret, but new shows have already been added on to the end of the season. In October, Smiglewski and Martin will produce Dreamgirls, the hit Broadway musical about a trio of soul singers in the 1960s who climbed the pop charts. Then, for a holiday offering, Jersey will mount the always-popular Annie.

Anecdotal reaction to the Jersey season, Vosmeier says, has been astounding. People really have responded to the productions, and the numbers back that up. More than 250 subscribers came on board for the inaugural season, and Vosmeier says that was basically sight-unseen.

No one knew what kind of productions Jersey would mount. The first wave of subscribers likely were just there to support the reopened theater, but Vosmeier says the next wave clearly committed based on audience response to that first show, Godspell.

And that was always the plan. Now that the renovation is complete and the theater is open, Vosmeier and the Carnegie staff turn their attention to creating and growing their audience base. Solid productions will cultivate the crowds, but the legwork must be done to collect those crowds' data.

The same capital campaign that raised the money to refurbish the physical space also afforded The Carnegie the necessary infrastructure to run a first-class theater, like dedicated computers, ticketing software and subscription programs.

"We've got systems in place now so we can say who is coming to see these shows and how can we get them to more shows," Vosmeier says. "And that's going to make all the difference between what we were doing before and what we can do now."

While Vosmeier effuses with praise for the Jersey arrangement — going so far as to call the production company "a major flagship for The Carnegie for years to come" — he knows that theater can never simply be about one company or one style of offering.

The Carnegie is actively booking more one-night concerts as a way to get new audiences into the building. Surely that was the reasoning behind last week's Bronson Arroyo concert. The Reds pitcher-cum-Rock guitarist has developed quite the local following — getting him and his fans into the Budig Theatre was a real boon.

Other future events that Vosmeier can discuss include a Sept. 22 performance by Capital Steps, the politically-charged comedy troupe that spares no one. Vosmeier calls it "an evening of bipartisan silliness."

Actor Jeff Daniels will perform a simple and low-key guitar show within the coming months. The Second City improv troupe returns in April. A handful of one-night concerts and events are also in the works.

More intriguing is Vosmeier's stated desire to book two sizable touring theatrical productions that would come in for longer runs in the Budig Theatre. Without signed contracts just yet, he isn't at liberty to share details, but he promises that announcements are impending.

"We're working on all kinds of things," he says. "We haven't found our path necessarily yet. We came into the season with a plan for presenting about 20 events. I had lined out to do a comedy series, a concert series, a one-person show series, a film series. All of that is fading into the background a little bit because of all these new opportunities that have come up in just the last few months. So we're really just trying to figure out what the balance is."

Vosmeier insists those other ideas aren't dead but merely shelved. After the longer-run productions book, he'll go back and look at open dates and program the theater accordingly.

Which brings him back to event nights. The goal for the first full season (considered this month through August 2007) was about 100 event nights. If all goes according to schedule, Vosmeier says he'll exceed that by 30-40 nights. Then, in three years, he'd like more than 150 dates filled. Ambitious, he says, but clearly attainable.

Imagine more than 150 nights when the theater lights are on and people are pouring into The Carnegie — just like that recent fall night with leather-man and the curious onlookers. All walks of life, enjoying the space and being entertained. With or without the spanking. ©