Monday, May 26, 2008

State Theatre Plans a Stellar Season

This post originally apeared in the May 26 edition of the Tompkins Weekly.

It will come as no great surprise to anyone who has been reading my columns that I'm a great enthusiast for what has happened at the State Theatre since Dan Smalls took over as Executive Director. The shows have connected better with the community, ticket sales are up (way up), and the feeling of the State’s impending demise is really starting to lift. There’s a real buzz and enthusiasm about what’s happening in that beautiful theater on State Street.

So it was with great anticipation that I received my invitation to the State Theatre’s press conference to announce their 2008-2009 season. And I have to say I knew there would be some good choices and shows to get excited about. But the lineup Dan Smalls laid out is truly great. It also made some serious efforts to creating a diverse collection of performances reflective of Ithaca’s many communities. They’re also the kind of world-class performers the State Theatre deserves to have in the year celebrating its 80th birthday.

I got a chance to ask Dan a few questions about the new season after the press conference last Wednesday.

Tompkins Weekly: Are there any differences in your programming philosophy between your first and this your upcoming second year at the State Theatre?

Dan Smalls: Remember that I did inherit a bit of what happened last year so that may explain some of the differences. I think I followed the same general theme of more of what worked and less of what did not. We have a very educated town, culturally and especially musically. You cannot pull a fast one on an Ithaca music fan. Artists must be the real deal and I think this season’s acts fit that description to a t. I did take a few calculated chances—like Cassandra Wilson or Citizen Cope—but upon investigation, I believe that our audience will figure out who these acts are and decide they are worth their time and money. I hope that I am building trust among our concert and show going public and that they’ll occasionally take a chance on what I program.

TW: How about lessons learned from the first year?

DS: We certainly learned from the first two years that we are not yet ready for large scale theatrical productions. Our stage housing just isn’t there yet. I do want these to be staples of our seasons to come, but from past attendance and production difficulties, we just cannot take those risks or losses at this time. Its fiscally motivated, purely. I also think we learned that people are willing to pay higher prices for higher notoriety artists. Lyle Lovett proved that and I believe Crosby and Nash will follow suit.

TW: You talked about adding diversity to the 2008-2009 season, how did you go about making your choices?

DS: My history in Ithaca teaches me that our educated and diverse community will support extremely diverse programming. There has always been a huge world music scene here. College diversity helps, but educated people like educated music and I think some of the African acts really embody that. With diversity being such a hot button topic in Ithaca recently, we had to address that. I think the African Children’s Choir and their message and work with underprivileged children will ring true here. Plus it will be an amazing show.

TW: Can you talk about making personal taste versus market choices?

DS: The biggest mistake in this business is booking with your heart and not your pocketbook. Luckily, some of the shows I personally get excited about are also what have proven to do well here at the State. Aging punkers settle into the mainstream and become Alt-country and Americana fans. Steve Earle is a no brainer for Ithaca with his political leaning and incredible songwriting. Most people already know that. They’ll also see that in Billy Bragg and Citizen Cope. They realize that all music grew from gospel and field hollers, and the Blues Journey show starts that trip. The show from The Kennedy Center tells that story to kids and families. They’ll appreciate the throwback sounds of Sharon Jones and her incredible band. Even Andrew bird, and indie darling, is rooted in serious music. It may seem music heavy or too current at first glance, but everything this season is rooted in serious and historically important eras. There are also some serious selections here, like the 5 Browns and Ailey II. I hope we’ve found something for everyone this year. If not what’s announced, know there’s plenty more coming . . .

So as they say in show business: With out further adieu here is the State Theatre’s 2008-2009 line up. The season kicks off with comedy on September 4 and NBC’s Last Comic Standing Live tour. This is connected with the NBC series that just premiered on May 22. This tour features some comics from last season’s shows. Second City, Josh Blue, and Kathleen Madigan round out the comedy series.

September 11 is the beginning of what can only be described as the core of what makes the State Theatre arguably the most important venue in Ithaca: the music. Left of center political roots/county rocker Steve Earle will hit the stage with wife Allison Moorer to kick off the year of great music. It is pretty hard to top Steve Earle, but the music offerings are top notch for the whole season. Citizen Cope, afore mentioned Andrew Bird, Billy Bragg (another lefty musician who has been described as a one man version of The Clash), David Crosby and Graham Nash who need no introduction, soul revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Cassandra Wilson who is arguably the most important jazz singer performing today, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the Flatlanders represent some more of the talent that will hit the stage. The Soweto Gospel Choir, Taraf de Haidouks, the African Gospel Choir, and Habib Koite and Bamada featuring local favorites the Sim Redmond Band will represent the world beat front. There will also be a classical performance by the 5 Browns, a group a piano playing siblings. Lastly, is the amazing combo performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The concert, billed as Down By The Riverside, will combine jazz and gospel music from these luminaries in their respective genres.

Other highlights during the 2008-2009 season will be the always-fabulous Light in Winter Festival that holds two performances at the State Theatre—Abracadazzle from the illusionist Jeff McBride and the PUSH Physical Theater. The Family series is returning featuring the Golden Dragon Chinese Acrobats, Haunted Illusions, Blues Journey, and the very popular Galumpha dance troupe. And certainly in the last but not least category is Ailey II from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, coming as part of the Classics Series. Celebrating its 50th year, Alvin Ailey has been one of the preeminent American Dance Companies of the last half-century.

If you like what you are seeing, subscriptions go on sale June 9 and single event tickets go on sale July 14. It is important to note that this does not represent the entire season. As they State Theatre did this year, they will be adding many more concerts and comedy performers during the year, so keep reading the Tompkins Weekly to learn about what’s coming at the State Theatre.

Check out videos clips of some of the performers below.

Steve Earle with Allison Moorer

Billy Bragg

Cassandra Wilson

Blind Boys of Alabama

Andrew Bird

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Taraf de Haidouks


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