Looking at WNY’s visual art, theater, music, and dance scenes.
Aug 9, 2012
08:00 AMTalk about Arts
Spree Theater with Darwin McPherson: New Life for 710 Main
Thanks to the intervention of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 710 Main Street, the former headquarters of Studio Arena Theatre, continues to be a vital part of Western New York’s theater community. Anthony Conte, the President and CEO of Shea’s, spoke to us about the preservation process and future plans for 710 Main.
Darwin McPherson: At what point did it become Shea’s responsibility to save Studio Arena?
Anthony Conte: When they declared bankruptcy, it was a loss to the theater community. [710 Main] was one of the anchors of the theater district—I think it was important to the success of the district. I told the board I felt it was our corporate responsibility to do whatever we might be able to do to bring that theater back.
Did you know at the beginning that you would be able to get the massive debt taken care of?
It was not an easy task. The banks were open to talking and understanding the importance of keeping that building a theater. There’s no way a developer would’ve kept that a theater. There could be a lot more beneficial uses potentially for that corner as far as making money than a theater. But this is the theater district, okay? [Laughs] It needs theaters. And one less theater just cuts down substantially on the activity.
So do you have a landlord now?
No. The building is owned by 710 Main Street, Incorporated, which is a separate corporation Shea’s set up. It’s an arm’s length transaction in the sense that it does have its own board, and Shea’s is under contract to 710. We have a formal business arrangement to manage and run the theater and maintain the building.
Why didn’t 710 become “Shea’s Arena Theatre” or something to build up the Shea’s brand?
Because that’s not what we’re trying to do. We created it as a separate entity for a reason. The building has a strong reputation for theater. There are elements of the history of theater in that building we would like to continue and maintain.
Our business plan is very clear. First and foremost, our goal is to collaborate with other theater companies in Western New York, all twenty-two of them. And when I say collaborate, what I mean is to provide a venue where they can present their material on the stage and have the potential to generate more dollars because there are more seats.
They provide us with a production. We provide them with a venue and we work out a contract. They get the bigger portion of it because their expenses are bigger than ours are.
The next element is to do similar collaborations with regional theater companies, whether it be Geva [Theatre in Rochester] or Cleveland Play House. We’ll deal with anybody anywhere.
The third level will be shows like we’re opening with [Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show and John Lithgow - Stories By Heart] that we bring in from wherever we find them. They’re shows that are more national in nature. May or may not have a star. However, we do hope to continue the tradition of bringing name stars into the building.
We hope to collaborate with Niagara University, Fredonia, Buff State…UB’s theater department has an interest. We’ll bring university theater to the stage as well.
What’s your reaction to the criticism some people have had—that it will siphon away money and donor support from the local theaters that exist?
I absolutely believe that we’re not threatening anyone. I’ve talked to seventy percent of the local theater companies and there’s only one that has even raised this issue. I haven’t selectively talked to people—people have come to me from all over the place. The overwhelming response from the theater community, from the production side, from the audience side, and the community in general has been incredibly positive.
How hard is it to book shows for 710?
Because of the cache we built, that makes it easier for us. Attempting to find product that doesn’t provide direct competition or duplication of something else that’s being done in the area is going to be a challenge. We don’t want to intentionally submarine somebody’s season.
Our intent will always be to avoid those types of conflicts. Will it always work? Not necessarily, because everybody sets up their season in secret [laughs]. Technically, the rights should take care of that because if they know they’re coming here, they’re not going to grant the rights for somebody to do it. But because of the timing of some of these things, it still could happen.
Can you share anything that’s coming?
We want to have the rest of the season put together before we make an announcement. It looks like our next show won’t be until the end of January, so it’ll give us a little bit of time to put together a three or four-show season essentially from January to June.
Maybe Curtain Up! week, we’ll announce the balance of the season. We’ll announce it as a package that people will be able to buy a season ticket.
One of the shows will in fact be a collaboration with a local theater company. We’re tying up a few loose ends, but that’s pretty much finished. The other two or three will likely come from out of town.
The other thing that will be different at 710 is that the building will be available for rent for other events. We did the MusicalFare event [MF24H] up there, as you know.
Is there a significant difference between the 710 shows and the Smith Theatre shows?
I see the three stages as being very different. I see the Main Stage as Broadway musicals. That’s what we do.
I look at the Smith as Off-Broadway/musical comedy. A lot of female oriented stuff, fun stuff, a lot of it audience interaction. That’s the kind of stuff that fits in that room and works well there.
Then I see the 710 stage as our straight play stage. There are any number of plays that have toured out of Broadway that I would’ve loved to have done [at Shea’s], but couldn’t. The theater’s too big.
We will attempt to take the same care with programming that building that we do with this one.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
We’re very thankful of the positive response that we’ve received. One of the things we do here at Shea’s and will happen at 710 is we listen.
And we also hope that it will not called 710 Main Theatre forever. We are in the process of putting together an RFP for naming rights. It could become Darwin McPherson Theatre. [Laughs]
Though we won’t be seeing my name up in lights anytime soon, audiences can see new life at the 710 Main Theatre with Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show on Curtain Up! Friday, September 14 at 8:00pm (All tickets are $35) and John Lithgow - Stories By Heart on Friday, September 21 at 8:00pm, and Saturday, September 22 at 2:00pm and 8:00pm (Tickets are $60-$75). Click HERE for tickets.