Local stages, audiences filling up seats at robust pace
By Lou Fancher
No, it's not kids (and young-at-heart adults) smooching in the back row at the local movie house, it's a rekindled love affair between audiences and Tri-Valley presenters.
At Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton, Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation's Tao House and other local venues in which area stage performances are held, a reported uptick in 2014 ticket sales has presenters smiling.
With only 227 seats, Firehouse Theater Supervisor Rob Vogt said selectivity is a vital component of the theater's improving sales figures.
The Firehouse has seen, on average since the season started in September, 66 percent of seats sold and 25 percent sell-out figures jump to 78 percent of seats sold and 47 percent sold-out houses. During the two most recent months, recognizable acts, holiday themes and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth have combined with savvy planning and extra flexibility to meet public demand.
"We look for acts that might be touring through the area or are willing to perform for two nights to reach that higher ticket count," Vogt said. "However, we also have some in-house programs that respond to a need for youth programming within the community."
Jane Onojafe, who oversees guest services for the City of Pleasanton-operated venue, said sold-out performances happen on a regular basis since the Firehouse opened five years ago.
"That said, it continues to sometimes be a bit of a mystery to us why some do and some don't. We can have a really phenomenal "big name" artist who we assume will sell out, and they don't," Onojafe said.
Eclectic or niche programming occasionally exceeds expectations, and Onojafe said they try to be nimble, bringing popular artists back quickly or adding a second show if possible.
That's what happened at the Livermore's Bankhead Theater in December, when tickets were snapped up for an "Olate Dogs" show and a second performance was added.
"We've been developing and building on a reputation for presenting national, top-quality artists," LVPAC Executive Director Scott Kenison said. "This year, we've also gone back and booked artists and groups that have been successful in the past."
Ticket figures at LVPAC are averaging 87 percent of seats sold, with about a 66 percent sell-out factor for the 2014-15 season, according to Marketing Director Nancy Mueller.
Marketing Vice President Gary Schaub at the O'Neill Foundation said the annual festival in September 2014 sold out 10 days before it opened. Despite a drop-off in demand between 2010 and 2013, a lapse Schaub attributed to the overall soft economy, ticket sales have been robust since mid-2014.
Tao House maxes out at 100 seats, but even so, with six sold-out performances of "The Iceman Cometh" -- not a short spree -- and strong ticket sales in partnership with Role Players Ensemble at the Village Theatre last fall and at a Playwrights' Theater production of O'Neill's "Hughie" in early January at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, Schaub is encouraged.
"It tells me that when the economy is strong, discretionary monies will be used for arts-related events," he said.
Asked to explain the forces driving the surge -- beyond the economy -- venue operators had plenty of ideas.
"While some will say that works by Eugene O'Neill are an 'acquired taste,' we find that showing how O'Neill progressed as a playwright and how he impacted the direction of American theater and American playwrights holds considerable interest for theatergoers," Schaub said.
Kenison said Tri-Valley audiences are responding first to the quality of artists they book and the effort to bring the most popular artist back for return visits. Close behind the attraction of specific artists, he mentioned the size, acoustics and close-to-home location of the Bankhead. Audience feedback has shown them that people who commute for work are interested in staying closer to home for entertainment. And Kenison suggested the difference is significant between seeing artists in 3,000-seat venues in San Francisco or Oakland versus the relative intimacy of the 507-seat Bankhead.
"Livermore is becoming known as the place for a great night out," Kenison said, calling attention to the area's free and easy parking, wide variety of restaurants and an urban, energized atmosphere.
The Broadway musical "Singin' in the Rain" saw strong sales at the Firehouse, and Onojafe said a second Carpenters' "Close to You" revival concert was added to satisfy demand. She said an artist with a broad social media presence wasn't a guarantee of solid numbers but often appears to be a factor increasing ticket sales.
"Plus, yes, we get the same artists who play Yoshi's, Feinstein's, the Rrazz Room and Napa Opera House," Onojafe said.
Vogt said letting the acts "speak for themselves," with YouTube video sneak peeks, dress rehearsal photos and other visual imagery, invites audiences to engage and that, in a boldly digital era, directly translates into ticket sales presenters love.