Q & A
Secrets of Shea’s success:
Anthony Conte’s love for the business of theater
By Elizabeth Licata; photo by kc kratt
By any standardfiscal stability, public popularity, architectural integrityShea’s Performing Arts Center rises triumphant in the downtown entertainment district. Some might say it is the downtown entertainment district on certain nights; even on the coldest Tuesday in February, if Shea’s has a production, you will find people looking for parking places, pre-theater dining, and post-theater drinks in an area that can be sadly desolate when the nine-to-fivers have gone home.
There is also very little debate about how Shea’s managed to get rid of its debt, give itself a facelift, and bring in the crowds for Broadway’s biggest touring hits: most observers point to the leadership of Anthony Conte, a thirty-year Shea’s volunteer who came out of retirement to assume the presidency in 2000.
Here’s what Conte had to say about his pragmatic but passionate love affair with Shea’s when we talked to him in late July:
You’ve been president of Shea’s for ten years. What are your three biggest accomplishments?
The one that comes to mind first is that in 2004 we were able to complete the exterior restoration of the building. That was a huge milestone.
A little less-known milestone from the business side of things was that at that time we also paid off all the debt. From that time forward, Shea’s has been debt-free and we’ve developed an operating plan that has a ninety-five percent chance of providing a modest surplus. Part of this is that we are able to do this without government support. We don’t have to be dependent on the city or the county for any operational funds. We do, of course, fundraise for the physical restoration of the theater. We’re always looking for capital improvement resources.
I suppose number three would be that we have expanded our programming to go beyond touring Broadway, to bring in more performing-arts-related programming, such as the dance companies. This is part of our business plan.
When I got here, they were doing 140 performances annually, and we do 260. The product we have added has more of a performing arts feel, which is intentional, to broaden our base.
So you’d say all this talk of running an arts organization like a business is right?
Absolutely. And I think that’s the problem with a lot of nonprofits. They will not accept the fact that, whether they like it or not, they’re in business. Just because they’re defined as nontaxablewhich is a fortunate thingdoesn’t mean they’re not running a business. They’re attempting to attract patrons who will pay money to see or participate in something. Just like if you’re running a gym. There is nothing wrong with the word business. Your audiences are different, maybe. And corporations are responsible to their stockholders. But here at Shea’s, our stockholders are our patrons and our donors. We are, in my opinion, accountable to them. If we’re not doing what they want us to do, we have to know that. I don’t see a difference. In my world, there is no difference.
The problem that I see in many nonprofits has to do with the details. Some of the nonprofits are run very inefficiently. The dollars aren't theirs; they spend them any way they want. Even with something as mundane as office supplies. They just go buy them wherever and pay retail prices, while they could probably save thirty to forty percent if they did a little research. They’re not being fair to their donors; they’re not spending their money wisely. I’ve seen many of my counterparts who don’t take bids on things and don’t make sure they can get the best possible deal they can get.
I was an entrepreneur for many years; every dollar I spent was mine and I didn’t want to lose my house or car. So if you wouldn’t approve that purchase if it was your money, then don’t approve it. And you should never assume you’re going to get government support; those funds might not be there. It should be the last item to help balance the budget.
What are the big things you did differently at Shea’s when you first arrived?
When I came in, we had to stop the bleeding. Day one, I cancelled four consulting contracts, three leases, and two to three other purchase contracts. People threatened to sue, and I said, “Go ahead.” We had nothing to give. We were in a position that was out of control.
Then we had to take the next step and put together a planand I did not go out and do a national search for someone to do a plan. That irritates me when people do that. There are intelligent people right here in Western New York. I prefer to get people who know the market and understand what we’re doing rather than bring somebody in from San Francisco and you have to waste time familiarizing them.
What about the difficulty of paying for challenging productions that aren’t as widely known or popular?
I think you have to be very, very careful when you program. There is certainly a philosophy that if the public doesn’t want to see something, then why present it? If you get to a point where the public won’t buy ticketsI don’t really believe in the concept that because it’s there, we have to do it. Why do you have to do it?
I think you can look at producing works that are marginal from a sales perspective, but then you have to put those into a season where you know you’ve got two to three other products that will pay for them.
Last season, we had Jersey Boys here, which we knew was going to be a big seller. We also brought in another piece, which I felt very strongly was going to be the best production of the season, called In the Heights. But we knew In the Heights wouldn’t sell very well because nobody knew what it was, and the opening number was all rap.
But I was convinced that someday In the Heights would be a classic; it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s different, and it’s exciting. We felt that it was a strong enough show that it should be in our season. If I have a Jersey Boys or a Wicked, then I can afford to put on a show that won't make money or will break even at best. The programming is critical; there should be a variety of things that attracts different elements of the community, with broad-based product as well. If you think it through, you can accomplish what you want to accomplish.
Would you compare that to the blockbuster theory we see with some art museums?
I don’t think there are enough art shows that rise to blockbuster status. I was just talking to David Chesborough, formerly of the Science Museum, and he said that the issue with blockbuster shows and museums is that there aren’t that many, and once people have seen them they don’t need to come back. People will return to see a Broadway show two years later; they want to see it again and they know that it will be different every time. Museum blockbusters are static. When you bring them back, they’re the same. Broadway shows have been tweaked, there are different actors, different sets. We brought Mamma Mia back three seasons; it sells out every time.
Many of the artistic directors we’ve interviewed in this issue discuss education being key to developing the theater audiences of the future. What does Shea’s do in that area?
Photo by Jim Bush.
Little-known fact: we have a very extensive education program. Part of it was here when I got here, and I’ve really championed growing our education program to the point where it is now. We’ve doubled the staffthough that means going from one to two! But one person can’t handle it anymore.
Just to quickly tick off what we havewe have the Buffalo Bob on School Time series; Camp Broadway, a summer camp; Shea’s Master Classes; the Kenney awards programs; and the Shea’s in the schools programs, aligned with the Broadway shows. For years, we had a college-level workshop program at Buff State. We constantly do historic tours of the building for schools.
The school-time shows are scheduled on weekday mornings and they are specifically designed for student audiences. Every show we bring in for that is connected to the New York State curriculum requirements and certain age groups.
We make heavily-discounted tickets available to middle and high schools, and we can get them talk-backs [with performers] after the shows, if they request them. Many talk-backs were scheduled with In the Heights, which was great. These actors were close to the kids’ ages.
We also work with Villa Maria’s design program, teaching those students about historic restoration.
And the plans for the former Studio Arena theater?
We don’t say those two words anymore; it’s “710 Main Street.” The corporation that will take over that building will only share one board member with Shea’s and will operate separately from Shea’s. Once the new corporation has the facility, then they will enter into a contract with Shea’s to provide programming services.
It will be a presenting theater. We will obtain material from local theater companies, who will produce specifically for that theater; a couple are already working on shows. We are getting shows from regional theaters like Geva in Rochester, from Cleveland Playhouse, from Pittsburgh. I’ve had meetings with nonprofit theaters in New York. And there will be shows form our local colleges; Niagara is very interested, Buff State is interested. We would not try to make people think all the offerings are the same; ticket prices would reflect where the show came from. We would be very open about publicizing exactly where the shows are coming from. And the building would be available simply for rental, for anything anyone wants to rent it for, as long as it’s not illegal or immoral. The idea would be to keep that building occupied, but we do not want to be in a situation where we have another entity trying to take another chunk of the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board funding. It will take a while to get it all started.
What about local media? And reviewing?
I always feel that a review should be grading the quality of what’s on the stage rather than “I liked it; I didn’t like it.” The artistic value of the show should be addressed, whether the scenery is appropriate, the quality of the acting according to what works for that production. As far as the star system, it doesn’t matter to me; we seem to do well when we get a bad review!
What do you like about next season?
We open and close with two big productions: Mary Poppins and Wicked. Wicked has a life of its own. Across the country, Mary Poppins hasn’t been doing quite as well, but I really love the production values of it. There are some amazing scenes.
What are your next big challenges?
We’re starting to completely restore the auditorium, which hasn’t been restored at all, other than the seats and carpets being replaced. Everything is original and has not been touched. That’s the last major project. It will cost about $1.7 million; we have about $700,000. We’re going to do it in stages, and start with the ceilings. We don’t do any project until we have the funding for the project in hand; that’s why it’s broken into phases. First, we’ll find out what $700,000 will buy.
Ticket pricing talk
When you hear about sell-out productions like Jersey Boys bringing in $1.6 million in a week, you might think it means a financial bonanza for Shea’s. Not so much.
As Tony Conte explains, “That’s not our money. We’re paid a fee for bringing Broadway shows in here, and the bigger the show, the less we make. Almost all of that ticket money leaves when the show leaves, sometimes even before.
“We fight pretty hard to keep our ticket prices low, and they are lower than in many cities, but we don’t have final say. The production companies will ask us, many times, what the ticket prices should be, but they charge what they want to charge.” Overall, Conte believes the ticket prices at Shea’s have stayed well below pricing in other cities: “We maintain a $75 cap for the top price of regular tickets. But what we have now is the concept of premium tickets. There are 104 premium seats here that are not sold until forty-eight hours before the performance, and they cost $125. [This is modeled after a Broadway program that was created to compete with scalpers.] Are they the best seats? Yeah, they are. Of course, in New York, that’s what you pay no matter where you are.
“This season there are seats for Mary Poppins as low as $25 and other shows have had seats for as low as $19.50. That’s pretty cheap. Those seats may be in the upper balcony, but I sit up there, and I happen to think those seats are some of the best in the house.
“We are also participating this year in a program called Family First Nights. Essentially, a number of at-risk families, working with Child & Family Services, participate in workshops and tours of the theater and attend three Broadway shows. The program is free to them; it’s paid for by sponsors.”
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.
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