Podcast Episode 57 Transcript – Jeff Chelesvig
Ken: Hey, everybody, Ken Davenport back with you on the Producer’s Perspective podcast. We’re heading out on the road again today, to the mid-west, and we’re talking to one of the most influential independent producers of national tours in the country. He’s also just a great guy; in fact, he was called an Iowa treasure by the Des Moines register. Welcome to the podcast, the president and CEO of Des Moines Performing Arts Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Jeff Chelesvig. Welcome, Jeff!
Jeff: Thanks, Ken.
Ken: So, Jeff, Des Moines, Iowa. It’s not the city that immediately comes to mind as being one of the theatrical capitals of the country, yet you’ve got this thriving theatrical community – they’re very supportive. I’ve played there a number of times when I was a company manager and also I’ve had a couple of my shows there as a producer. So just tell me a little bit about Des Moines and the arts community and what you have to offer there.
Jeff: Well, Ken, first of all, Des Moines, right now, is in the center of the universe because of the Iowa caucuses coming up. From a theatrical standpoint, Des Moines has always been a theatrical town and it’s never had a professional theater company – we don’t have a LORT there, the closest ones would be in Kansas City and Minneapolis – so touring has been an important part of Des Moines for years. There used to be, believe it or not, a 4,000 seat called the KRNT Radio that everything that came through stopped at. They did the Metropolitan Opera, they did all of the national tours and, to me, it’s been a part of the fabric of the community for decades and our facility, the Des Moines Civic Center, was built in 1979 and it’s a very large house, as you know, 2,700 seats, yet it is all on one level, there are no balconies, no boxes, so it’s all one level – every seat is an orchestra seat! We actually draw not only from Des Moines but also from a rather wide area of Iowa. Most of our people come from a corridor north and south, maybe 50 miles either way. There are a fair number of smaller sized cities there that don’t have access to the kinds of shows that we have and the matinees are always very, very popular because people north and south can come to a matinee and drive home after that. I’ve been there now 21 years – just celebrated my 21st anniversary there – and I still love going to work every day.
Ken: So tell me what a typical day for a presenter is. What fills your day?
Jeff: Well, Ken, in addition to presenting Broadway, of course, we’re a performing arts center so we have six different series that we’re doing. Broadway is the biggest of those, but we also have to raise a fair amount of money, almost $3 million, in our annual fund so I do a fair amount of fundraising and, gosh, you know, I think a lot of what I do seems like always working on the next season. We’re getting ready to announce our 2016-‘17 season in a couple of months and we’re already working on the 2017-18 season so it never seems to end. I have a staff of about 40 people and we kind of have to do a lot of different things because, in addition to the Broadway series, we also are doing dance, we’re doing family shows, we have a small 300 seat that we do off-Broadway shows in so there’s just stuff constantly going on during the season. I’m always looking for those extra hours at the end of the day.
Ken: You talked about always working on the next season and it seems to me that presenters, now, are booking much further in advance than ever before. Is that true?
Jeff: It’s true and I’m not sure that it’s the healthiest thing. It used to be that we would wait until well after the season had started but I find myself, even now, holding dates for shows that haven’t even opened and it’s kind of being done on spec. That kind of drives me crazy – I think it drives a lot of us crazy. we’ve always had to work on the multi-week engagements, we’ve always had to work three and four years out, but for the stuff that’s brand new, I’m not sure, I think it’s a little too early to tell.
Ken: So why do you think this change happened over the last several years that presenters are being asked to book so much earlier?
Jeff: I think it’s becoming a crowded market. As every day marches on, and this season we’ve had some great shows, I think the last two seasons have been remarkable on Broadway and I can’t think of a time when we’ve had so many positive reviews for a lot of shows, so I think producers are saying “Hey, let’s line up a booking agent now and let’s get stuff out there.” Again, I fall prey to it, but I kind of wonder because sometimes the good booking agents understand that there is an ebb and flow so the other booking agents think that once you have a hold down that it’s pretty well firm.
Ken: And what are the qualifications you look for when you book? This weekend, when we’re recording this, is APAP – the Association of Performing Arts Presenters – which is a big shopping mall, basically, for every show, from the big Broadway shows to one-man Einsteins, and presenters go through this market and look for shows to book for their season. How do you pick the right show for Des Moines?
Jeff: Well that’s a good question, Ken. First of all, I didn’t go to APAP. I do go occasionally but we have two staff members that are there and they love going to the showcases. A lot of times what they’re looking for are things that are happening in our small space and also some of the education things and family shows that we do, and a lot of the dance shows that we do, we learn about at APAP. For me, Ken, it started years ago – when I first started booking in Des Moines I remember booking a show that was produced by a producer I didn’t know. When I saw it, I wasn’t happy with it, I thought it wasn’t well produced, I thought the sets looked bad and I kind of made a promise to myself that I wanted to produce shows by people that I know and who I think have the same kind of values that I have. We actually have quite a bit of shows to choose from – we have a number of shows to choose from in any given year – and what I’ve learned about Des Moines is that they really appreciate quality- they’ll pay what it takes to see quality- and I’ve never been scared of any shows, I’ve never said, “No, our audience isn’t ready for it.” We have a very, very smart audience, we have people that are well read, well-travelled, and so they want to see the best and that’s kind of my guiding light. I always say the shows that have profanity and adult situations, those are the easiest – I book those right away! But we tell people that. We were one of the early markets to do The Book of Mormon, we had no issues at all with that. Going back in the way back machine, we were all scared of Avenue Q because of the language – that was an easy one for us to book – again, no problems. We love to do plays – again, we don’t have a LORT in our neck of the woods and so we love to do the plays and our audiences love the plays. So there may be a play coming up soon, who knows.
Ken: Has there ever been a show where you’ve been nervous about that opening night for that audience?
Jeff: No, never.
Ken: I often think of presenters as like artistic directors of regional s because you really are programming for them and their audience.
Ken: So tell me a bit about the relationship between presenters and Broadway producers – obviously this is something that you look very strongly at – before you book a show you look for producers that you’ve worked with before and that you know. How is that relationship forged and, more importantly, is it a healthy one today? Do you think the relationships are good?
Jeff: I think the relationships are actually very good. I think that. There’s a couple of reasons – I think, number one, a lot of presenters like us are now investing in shows. We’ve been doing it, well, since ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, which was 2002, is that right?
Ken: I think that’s right. Because I was the company manager, for those of you who don’t know, so I was collecting all of these checks while presenters were going “What’s happening here?”
Jeff: And sending those checks back, which was great.
Jeff: But I think when we started investing, Broadway Across America has been investing for a long time and then a group of us that were not part of Broadway Across America – Broadway Across America partners with performing arts centers around the country to present Broadway series in, I think, 35 or 40 markets, and those of us who are not affiliated with Broadway Across America created an organization called the Independent Presenters Network and, specifically, it was done to invest in shows- sometimes we get the rights to be able to present those shows in the first year of a tour, there are things that come with it. What I see it as being is I like to invest in shows that I think have a chance of having a tour and, again, the producers are people we care about or it’s a show that we care about and we’re doing a lot more investing in shows and it did change the relationship, I think, because before we were consumers of product and now we are investors in much of that product and I think it’s healthy, I really do, I think the relationship is good. We all need each other – presenters need producers and producers need presenters.
Ken: You mentioned you like to invest in shows that you think have a really good shot of getting out on tour and being successful – what do you think those qualifications are? What makes a show work on the road?
Jeff: We’d all love to have many more Wickeds and The Book of Mormons and The Lion Kings but sometimes, and certainly a show I know is near and dear to your heart, The Bridges of Madison County was not a commercial success in New York – we had a very different relationships with that show because the bridges of Madison County are like 40 miles away from our theater, so from the very beginning of that process we were eager to be involved and we recently just opened the national tour of that show. Again, that was a labor of love and it just so happened that, out of that, came an incredible score by Jason Robert Brown, a great book by Marsha Norman, a beautiful production, Bartlett Sher directing, and all of that, it wasn’t a commercial success in New York, it was really a big success in Des Moines when we opened the tour, having the bridges right there. But I think it is just as much about investing in shows even if you don’t think they’re going to be commercially viable – if they’re important to us, and sometimes, again, we are investing to support a specific producer that we really like. I’d love to tell you that we always hit a home run with our investments but sometimes we don’t and that’s the way it is on Broadway too.
Ken: Do you ever book shows that don’t play in New York first?
Jeff: Occasionally we do. I would say all of the time, when we are doing shows, they have had either a New York or London run. We Will Rock You is a good example of a show that played in London, did not play on Broadway but had a healthy tour, including Des Moines. This year I think everything that we have started on Broadway and I think that’s true for next year as well.
Ken: Do you find that your audiences are knowledgeable about what’s playing on Broadway? So they’re coming to the , “Oh, yeah, I can’t wait to see Book of Mormon because I know everything about it, I’ve read about it, and now we’re getting it,” or are you educating them on the shows and they’re just going because, frankly, they love everything that Jeff Chelesvig does?
Jeff: Well, first of all, I think that, as a presenter, we rely on season ticket holders. For most of the shows we are guaranteeing the producer a certain amount of money to bring that production to Des Moines and then we have to pay all of the expenses for that so to really reduce that risk, unless it’s a well-known show that has played Broadway before, we have to put it on our season, which is a five show package, and we rely on those season ticket holders. We have about 11,000 subscribers to our Broadway series so it is important for us to have at least one or two titles that they’re going to know. They do put a huge amount of trust in us – we hear from our subscribers year after year that, if they see a show that they loved that they knew nothing about, that’s kind of the great surprise for them, and that’s true of a lot of things we do – our dance series and our music series as well, over in the small space. But I think people are becoming a lot more knowledgeable about Broadway, I think there are a lot more avenues for them to learn. I recently wrote a piece for a newspaper in Des Moines and I said that, growing up, the only way that I really had access to Broadway – I grew up on a farm in northern Iowa – was that I would get cast recordings and I would read the liner notes of the album. That was how I learned about Broadway shows and I would imagine how the action was going to happen and, lo and behold, when I went to see it, it was nothing like I thought it would be like. Now you have so many avenues, with the websites that are out there – there are some great websites – we are constantly trying to put more emphasis on content on our website for our donors, we try to find entry ways into their world and so recently we just started partnering with an independent film house in Des Moines and so we are actually running, in cases where there was a film that was source material for a musical, we are running those films for free. We couldn’t get the one that Gentleman’s Guide is based on- unfortunately it wasn’t available- but that’s been a big hit, and so I think there are more connection points, but we certainly hear a lot from our subscribers and donors that they go to New York all the time and they are pretty knowledgeable.
Ken: One of the things that seems to be very different here – a bit of contention between presenters and producers – is that producers, we’re marketing here to this New York audience, these upper east siders, the traditional theatergoers, and, I don’t know, there just might be a little difference between a Des Moines resident and a New York resident. But here come the New York producers, saying ‘This is how you market the show, this is how you market the show,’ and I would imagine that, at times, that marketing needs to be different for that local market. Correct?
Jeff: Yes and no. Our marketing director, Barb Preuss, has been with us for 15 years and she is really good at what she does and she understands the media, she understands advertising and I think the press agents have become a lot more trusting of people like Barb on the road to understand the market a little bit. Television is important in New York, it’s really important on the road too. Print still plays a part on the road and it’s still important in New York so I don’t know that there’s that many differences. I think the other thing, Ken, is if you really look at the research and how many people are coming to see shows in New York, I mean the audience is largely not New Yorkers here in New York – that’s show-specific but if you take all of the averages of who’s coming to Broadway, a huge percentage are coming from outside of the New York area.
Ken: I think your comment about presenters investing in Broadway shows and improving the relationship between producers and presenters is so right on. It’s interesting because producers and presenters are technically on the other side of the table from each other, negotiating, but still in the same trade organization. It’s this very interesting relationship. What are some of the other issues that producers may not be seeing your perspective on? If we were all listening – and we are, every single one of us – what would you want to lobby for, for a little more thought from us producers here in New York?
Jeff: That’s a great question. The first thing I will tell you is that I think the quality of the tours is very, very high and I am very impressed with the casts of the tours, the people behind the scenes, the production values. Witnessing the opening of The Bridges of Madison County recently and the hours and hours and hours of tech that went into the lighting and sound and all of that, it’s extraordinary. One of the things that I think is interesting is that we all have such great sound systems and personal listening devices and all of this in our homes and offices and I think that the expectation of the audience is that, “It’s going to sound just like I’m watching a movie at home!” and the complexity of doing live theater and moving a show in and literally doing a sound check at 5:30 for a 7:30 show in a brand new every week with different acoustics, that is becoming, I think, a big issue. I know this is an expense but it used to be very common that shows would send an advance person out to kind of scope out the and make sure that they laid out the line sets and checked what was going on so that there weren’t any surprises when you got to the show. We’ve had a couple of times this year where- because we don’t have a balcony rail- if there are projections from the front of house, we’ve had a couple of times this year where the carpenter and the electrician, the people who work on these projections, say, “We’re going to have to kill some seats in the middle of your house.” Then we have to reassign seats for everybody and I’d like to think that maybe that could have been worked out beforehand if there had been an advance but, again, there’s a cost to it, but I do think that those are the kinds of things that I would love to see producers going back to as the complexity of these shows begins to change. Projection is becoming a big part of Broadway and it’s becoming a big part of the tours and that was something that we didn’t think that much about five years ago so maybe having that kind of advance stuff would be good. I also think, though, that, in fairness, I really do think that the producers have learned the needs of the road when it comes to content for the web and all of that. I think we’ve really made great strides in that. Again, we are sitting across the table, just from the financial side, but we both want to sell tickets and that’s really important because, as you know, it’s just vital for both of us that we fill houses.
Ken: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the touring market in the last 21 years of you working in it?
Jeff: Certainly the impact the internet has had – with ticketing, for instance, it’s almost all done on the internet now. We have mobile ticketing in Des Moines – I’m smiling because I know that’s a challenge even here in New York but we do have mobile ticketing and I think that’s probably had the most impact on how we do business. I also think that there has been an enormous amount of work done in ensuring that these tours are as close to the Broadway productions as possible. I think that is a great thing – I think you can probably look back to when Cameron Mackintosh said, I’m paraphrasing here, but saying, “I’m not going to take a show out that looks different to the New York or London production” and I think that was really the start of it. I do think that probably the internet and all that that means to us has really changed the but I still love the fact that, when the house lights go out, people more or less try to turn their phones off and sit and not think about that phone for the duration of the show.
Ken: That comment about Cameron – and I’ll never forget that as well, we were desperate to see Phantom of the Opera and it just wouldn’t come to the Wang Center because Cameron was like, “Until we figure out how to do this the right way…” which of course generated even more heat for it here in New York. But, interestingly enough, he did that for quality’s sake – now we simply need to do it for audience expectations sake because, as you say, there’s these websites with all of these videos and all of this material where the audience sees what Wicked looks like or Book of Mormon or ‘Hamilton’ looks like so they expect a little bit more when they come to the Civic Center.
Jeff: I think so. I absolutely believe that to be true and, again, you take a long running show like Wicked, it’s very likely that a lot of people in the audience, when they come to see the national tour in Des Moines, they’ve probably see it now three or four times in Des Moines, other cities, they’ve seen it in New York so they have a gauge and they know. I think the expectation, certainly, is there and the expectation of quality is something that we’ve certainly established in Des Moines.
Ken: How healthy is the road right now? Looking over the last 21 years – if it was a patient in hospital would you say it’s doing very well, about to be released, it’s critical, in intensive care? How do you think it’s doing right now?
Jeff: I think it’s a great time for the road. I think subscriptions, by and large, are up in most markets, or at least they’re staying steady. That’s our bread and butter in places like Des Moines. Again, to put this in perspective, there are 2,700 seats in our hall – that means that, for the eight performances in a week, we have just a little over 20,000 tickets to sell. If you take an average in New York, 1,200 seats maybe, so you’re talking around 10,000 tickets to sell in a week – so we have double the number of seats to sell so subscription is huge for us. I think the subscription model, you hear this from time to time from other segments like from the orchestra world or sometimes from the LORT , wondering if the subscription model still works – I think it still works for us. Of course we are typically playing our productions for just one week and our subscribers are buying shows at a discount, they are able to swap between performances – if they have Tuesday night tickets and they can’t make it Tuesday night they can swap it for Thursday night or something – so we try to give them a lot of flexibility but I think, nationwide, I really think that subscriptions are up and, again, we kind of follow what happens on Broadway, so if it’s a down year on Broadway you can expect that to ripple out a year later. But, given all of the wonderful shows that are playing or have played this year, there’s going to be a lot of great tours out next year.
Ken: Why do you think subscriptions are up? Is it because Broadway is doing well so, again, you’re just riding that wave? Any other reasons?
Jeff: I think we’ve worked at it. What we hear from our subscribers frequently is they like having the same seat for all of the five shows, they get to know the people who sit around them. It’s five times a year that they have on their calendar – we kind of say that our subscription base is date night, however you want to define that, or it could be a girls night, but it’s not just taking a family, we try to program more for adults. There are shows, obviously, that will appeal to a younger audience but most of the time we’re trying to appeal to adults. I just think that, in our busy lives, getting those five dates on their calendar makes a big difference to a lot of people and I think what is also great where our community is, is our is right downtown and there are more restaurants there now than ever before so you can literally drive in, park your car, go to a restaurant, go to a , make a night of it, and that’s what we hear time and time again from our subscribers and certainly the restaurateurs’ know when we have a show in and how important that is for that week.
Ken: I love that your subscribers know the people in the seats around them.
Jeff: Well we’ve been doing subscription for 15 years and they certainly get to know them. It’s quite a sense of community actually; it’s important to them.
Ken: Are you doing variable pricing on the road yet in Des Moines? Are you premium pricing, are you raising prices as single tickets start to go for some of the hotter shows?
Jeff: We are. We’ve been doing that for a while. That’s another benefit of becoming a subscriber – you buy early, you get a discount and you’re not affected by that. We’ve had premium pricing for a few years and it’s been very, very successful. Again, for a segment of the population, if they want tickets for a specific night, it doesn’t really matter what they pay, that’s okay. We also, on the flip side, try to have affordable tickets for every performance, we try to do student rush for every performance, so variable goes both ways – it can go up and it can go down. We’ve been doing this for quite a while, actually, and we work with a company called TRG Arts – they have helped us a lot in our thinking. The scaling of houses and the setting of ticket prices, it’s a lot of an art, as you know. it’s an art and it’s something that I think all of us, we used to just set the ticket price and that was it, and I know producers in New York and they said the same thing – I talked to a producer of a long running show once and I said, “How many ticket prices do you have for your show?” and he said about a hundred and he wasn’t kidding. It was really when it came down to all of the pre-sales and all of the different variables that you have. It’s not uncommon to have a lot of different ticket prices so, yeah, we do it, we’re open about it.
Ken: What do you think the road will look like in ten years from now? Twenty years from now? Do you see any big changes coming down the turnpike?
Jeff: Of course the number one question we get right now is, “When is Hamilton coming to Des Moines?” and I only say, “Well, have we ever not brought the biggest hit shows to Des Moines?” Eventually we get them.
Ken: Let me just ask you a question about that – is there pressure under you? Hamilton, of course, will be so sought after, it’s going to be done in Chicago – is there pressure for you, and if so how much, for you to be in that first six months, the first three months, to try to be one of the first cites?
Jeff: No, I don’t think so. That happens to us quite a bit and I don’t expect that that’s going to happen. I think, in this case, managing that expectation is maybe going to be a little bit of a challenge, but you go back to, what, twenty years ago? There was a long, long sit down of The Phantom of the Opera in Chicago, then Miss Saigon sat down there for a long time, Jersey Boys sat down, Wicked, and we’re about six hours by car from Chicago so when we bring the shows in we do huge business so it doesn’t seem to affect us – if anything, it seems to build the brand. Back to your original question – what will the road look like? I still think people really value the touring shows, the quality of them. Every year we do these surveys and we try to find out what does the average theatergoer look like and I’m going to paraphrase broadly here but, twenty years ago, the average theatergoer was 50 years old and female and today that average theatergoer is 50 years old and female, so I think people do age into becoming season ticket holders for Broadway. Certainly having a big show like Hamilton is going to help, just in the way ‘The Book of Mormon’ and Wicked and The Lion King and Jersey Boys and The Phantom of the Opera all got people excited and got them into the theater and a segment of them said “Yeah, I like this and I’m going to become a season ticket holder,” and that’s what we aspire to. I’m bullish on the future of the road – again, I think we are playing in a sandbox well together, I think the people that are on the road, I mean you’re a company manager, you used to have, not knock-down, drag-outs, but you’d have arguments about deal points and stuff and now it’s like we’ve kind of got it figured out – by the time you get to Sunday night everything has been agreed upon.
Ken: Thank God, because I’ll never forget the day I couldn’t start the second act of a show because I hadn’t got paid. It was the most stressful experience of my life. That presenter is no longer doing it.
Jeff: Well that’s the natural tradition. I think now we’ve just gotten to a point where we work well together and so I’m very bullish on the future.
Ken: So my last question, which is my Genie Question – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin shows up in Des Moines – and I assume the genie from Aladdin will actually show up in Des Moines at some point in the near future.
Jeff: Let’s hope!
Ken: And says to you, “Jeff, I want to thank you for your 21 years of contributions to the Des Moines performing arts scene and all this great stuff you’ve done. I want to thank you by granting you one wish. One wish only.” What’s the one thing about the industry that drives you so crazy, that makes you so angry, so mad that you would ask this genie to wish away with the snap of his fingers or a wave of his wand? Now, Jeff, you’re one of the nicest guys on the planet – if only all of you could see the smile that’s been on his face, he’s just the most charming guy around – so what makes you so mad that you would be like, “Dang it, this is what I would ask the genie to wish away.”
Jeff: Well I’m going to give you not my answer – I was thinking about saying more leg room, because I’m 6′ 6″ tall, so more leg room in s would be great. I really wish we could fix the whole counterfeit and secondary ticketing issues. To me that’s the part that kind of gives us a black eye. There was an article in the New York Times recently about counterfeit tickets to Hamilton and I feel like that is still something that is dogging us out there, when I get the angry call from somebody that says tickets for Newsies in Des Moines were $400 and how can you do that? Of course they were looking at a secondary site, so I wish that we could fix that. Maybe I should have wished for something else but that’s kind of what I think is really plaguing us, is those secondary sellers. I understand there are secondary sellers that are really good at what they do and I think that there is a place for that in some cases but the counterfeit tickets and things like that, which are easier and easier when you have print at home tickets when you can just put them in the copy machine or do something stupid like that. That’s why I think doing more things like mobile ticketing and, what’s it called, where you have to have your credit card when you show up at the theater. There are different ways of getting around that but that’s the thing that I wish for.
Ken: I think that’s a huge problem. I didn’t realize you were also facing the problem outside of the city – you have a secondary ticketing problem in Des Moines?
Jeff: Oh yeah, I think it’s all over the country. It usually pops up with the larger shows but it does happen and we’ve become a little more aggressive in trying to make sure that, if there are sites that pop up, that there is a way to be able to discern between us. We’re doing a lot more education on that and, again, the mobile ticket is this flag that I fly all the time and I use the mobile boarding pass – I haven’t printed a boarding pass in a long time. My brother still does – he flies more than I do – but he collects them because that’s his badge of honor, having those boarding passes stack up.
Ken: We could learn a lot from the airline industry. I think, first of all, you’re 100% right – my mother called me once a couple of years ago, complaining about how she just bought Annie tickets for the Wang Center in Boston and she paid $175 a ticket because she just didn’t know the difference between a ticketing site and a secondary marketing site. For those of you out there, if you want some interesting theatrical history on this, David Merrick, in The Abominable Showman, talks about battling the secondary ticketing market and the Broadway League, one of its founding principles, was to deal with ticket brokers at the time, decades ago, so I think it’s a great thing to wish for because we’re not getting anywhere.
Jeff: No, we’re not, but there are good ways in which people can sell tickets, some of the ticketing companies have come up with ways that they can do that and the venue can set a ceiling on what those are, but what it really boils down to is making sure that what you buy is really what you think you’re buying.
Ken: Well thank you so much for being here. Safe travels back to Des Moines and all of the politicians camped out on your front yard. Try to get them to promise more for the arts while they’re there.
Jeff: I will do my best.
Ken: Thanks so much for joining us and thanks to all you for listening – we’ll see you next time!