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Behind The Scenes: Jim Rutland on the Process of Booking a RiverCenter Season

One thing we feel passionate about at The Columbusite is making the arts accessible to our readers. We believe that means not only providing information about local productions, exhibits, and events, but also striving to educate our audience on the processes and people working behind the scenes to make our local cultural environment flourish.

Photo courtesy of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.

Jim Rutland is the Programming Director for RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. This means that it is his responsibility to recruit and book all of the productions for each season that RiverCenter brings to Columbus.

We sat down with Rutland to hear about his work, the path to booking a RiverCenter season, and what he’s most excited for Columbus to see during RiverCenter’s 2018-19 season.

Q: I’ve wanted to do this story for about four years, because I think it’s so important for our local audience to understand what it takes to book a season from the ground up. Booking a RiverCenter season seems like a daunting task. Would you mind describing your process? What does it take to get a season from a concept to the stage?

A: Well, seasons really start booking over a year in advance. I’m already talking to agents about what is going to happen in the 2019-20 season at this point.

Conversations happen over the summer about the following season. Then, there are conferences. First, the South Arts Conference happens in late September or early October. That is a four day conference with agents from all over the country. There is a marketplace and workshops showing productions available for tours. It’s really about the relationships with the agents there, though. It provides opportunities to discuss with other regional presenters (theatres) about how we can work together on a route that makes sense on tour.

Q: How does working on possible routes for tours help?

A: Well, when tours can travel regionally it cuts down on the costs for everybody.

Q: You said you have some things in progress for 2019-20. What does that mean?

A: I have dates on hold for several Broadway shows for that season. The actual dates will probably change due to their tour schedules. To account for these shifts, I block out a two week period for each show initially. Then, we narrow it down to two days.

Q: When you say that you’re holding dates spanning periods of up to two weeks for each show, what does that mean? Do you just hold that amount of time so that you can ensure they can get here? So, you don’t schedule things too closely together because you might lose the ability to book one?

A: That’s exactly what that means. Spacing is very important. Having a season with productions spaced appropriately allows us the flexibility we often need when booking a tour.

Sometimes things go away because the dates crunch. If two shows are only available on dates that are really close together, it’s just sometimes too close. Then, we have to decide which of those titles are preferable.

Q: How often does it happen where something ends up not coming at all?

A: Well, some tours just don’t make. But most of the time, if the tour is available we can find a date to bring them here.

Q: What types of shows can locals look forward to seeing in the future?

A: One of the things that I love most about our 2018-19 season is that Kinky Boots is still on Broadway. That’s cool. I love when we have a show playing locally that’s still current on Broadway.

Several of the titles up for 2019-20 are still playing on Broadway right now. Even if those productions close between now and when their tour comes to Columbus, booking shows that are on Broadway now means we’re bringing current shows to our theatre. That’s really important to me.

Q: If something is on Broadway now though, wouldn’t it likely still be there a year from now?

A: Not necessarily. It just depends. Think of Jersey Boys. It closed about a year ago, so it’ll be about two years before it actually hits here. Same with The King and I. It closed a few years ago as well.

What happens is that first there is a national tour that is multi-week, or at least one full week at minimum in that market. For example, in Atlanta most shows sit down for a two or three weeks. Wicked and The Lion King are both about a month and a half each when they land in a city. A national tour will do these multi-week tours for at least a year. Then, the show will go into a regional tour and be available to cities like Columbus.

So, when we bring Broadways show tours to our stage it just depends on the show as to whether or not it’s still running on Broadway. A show may have closed by the time it gets here. We never know.

"Booking shows that are on Broadway now means we’re bringing current shows to our theatre. That’s really important to me."

Q: So it is really a happy circumstance that Kinky Boots is still on Broadway then? It’s more unusual than common?

A: Yes. It’s exciting that show is still running. These things happen, but it’s not as common for regional tours.

Q: Let’s go back to discussing these conferences you attend each year. What do they entail? Are you seeing shows and previews? Or is it just agents saying, “This is what I’ve got to offer you...” and then you go from there?

A: There are live performances that travel to the conferences. Every night you can see official juried shows coming on tour, and then there are also independent shows happening elsewhere. I get to see a lot interesting things. The independent shows are harder to book, because often people want to have heard of something before they buy a ticket. But there is an incredible act that I fell in love with at the conference called the Guy Mendilow Ensemble that I’m dying to bring to Columbus someday.

Q: What type of performance is it? Music?

A: It is music, and it’s very interesting. Norm (Easterbrook) and I are always noodling about how we can get that act here. Perhaps with the right type of grant or something? I just really think it’s very cool and something people need to see. Guy Mendilow is working with a sand artist now, and it’s a fascinating experience. It’s live music, but all kinds of music from different cultures, and then a visual representation of the music sort of painted with sand as the music is played. It’s incredible.

Q: So you found this act at one of these conferences?   

A: Yes. There are shows you can see, and that’s how I discovered them. To bring it here, we really have to seek out and secure a project grant. I love the model that South Arts uses. South Arts is our regional agency. They have a program called the Dance Tour Initiative. We participate in that. It’s how we brought Pilobolus and Urban Bush Women here. Next year’s show is Ballet Hispanico. We love their initiative, and it provides for workshops in the community in addition to the performances. Any chance we can get to bring in something new and unique with some educational components, we try to do it.

Q: I’m assuming this means that you find acts like Guy Mendilow and just wait until the right time then?

A: Yes. Exactly. It might be years before I an find a spot for them, but I just hold onto their promotional materials and keep them in mind as long as needed. Those are really just the quirky things that applies to though. Certain acts require a lot of trust from our audience. We're hoping to increase our audience's trust each season.

Q: Anything else that the regional conference offers you?

A: For me, the conference really is about the relationships with the agents. You get into their head and then they think of you when they’re routing their show. It is very nice to get a phone call from an agent saying, “We’ve got this date open on our tour, we can give it to you for this price, and it’s usually this price.” It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

Q: Did you get calls like that for the upcoming season?

A: Yes. It happened with some of them. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was one. Marsalis was another one. Usually when it works that way, we get a price that makes it more affordable for us and therefore more affordable for our audience. It’s very nice when we can do that.

"Certain acts require a lot of trust from our audience. We're hoping to increase our audience's trust each season."

Q: What else happens at the conference?

A: By the time of the fall conference, the tour dates will be more clear because they’ll know more about their routes. Then, we can start talking actual dates.

I also think it’s helpful to know that different genres and types of entertainment book at a different pace. Classical music is first. I am confirming classical dates for 2020 now. It makes sense though, if you think about it. (laughing) It kind of comes with the genre. Classical performers are usually very serious, really organized, and early to schedule everything. It’s nice, really.

Broadway is the next to book. They have to book pretty far out because obviously, there are a lot of moving parts- especially with the split weeks and the schedule they’re usually on.

Q: What is a split week?

A: A true split week is three performances on the front half of the week, and four performances on the weekend. We have been able to do those at times. Beauty and the Beast was one of those. These kind of go way back, but we are hoping to build up to those again.