Despite graduating in just three months, Drew Soukup’s final bow at Butler University won’t take place until fall 2020.
The Arts Administration major and his six classmates in Assistant Professor of Arts Administration Brenda Lee Johnston’s Venue Management course are already working on their final group project — select a show that will be presented as part of next season’s Jordan College of the Arts Signature Series in Schrott Center for the Arts.
Patrons will purchase tickets just like any show at the Butler Arts Center. The only difference is the show will be discovered, booked, and marketed by Johnston’s class of juniors and seniors.
“It’s going to be wild to come back and see it,” Soukup says. “I’ll be able to say ‘This is something I was able to start from the ground-up.’”
Students in the fall 2020 edition of the Venue Management class will market the event that this year’s class selects, and then work front- and back-of-house duties at the show. The experience will roll on each following fall.
To fund the endeavor, JCA Dean Lisa Brooks gave the class a $10,000 budget to bring the act to the 476-seat theater. But the students must also make sure the money covers marketing and hospitality expenses.
On a recent Wednesday morning class, students pitched their initial ideas for what artists to present. Most already contacted talent agencies to gather initial specs: cost, routing, travel, visa issues, hotel rooms, technological requirements, average attendance, and typical ticket costs.
The students’ ideas ranged from 2015 Butler alumnus Josh Turner’s folk music group to accordion and clarinet entertainers Double Double Duo, hip-hop flamenco dancers Titanium to a cappella singers Voctave. Eventually, the students will have to unite to bring in the act that’s the best fit. The show selection will be presented to JCA Department Heads in late October.
Johnston says a crucial part of booking the right show is thinking beyond your personal tastes. Arts administrators must take a step outside of themselves to consider what their audiences want to see most. Broad appeal is factored into the formula of show booking. The students must consider if the show is a good fit for the series, the venue, and Butler.
“You have to know how to sell it and build an audience around it,” Johnston says. “You put your tastes aside and you think about who would enjoy this.”
Johnston, who directed the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center and other Milwaukee arts venues for years before joining Butler, explains to the class that having a passion for live performance is crucial, but effective venue management is all about the details. So many different factors can cause bravos or boos.
“You get to know your audience so well,” Johnston says. “My vision as a presenter is to represent the artistic conscience of my community, while also expanding their artistic vision. That means presenting things they’re interested in, but also expanding their horizons. You have to build that trust so that they will come to new things and try it out.
“The greatest compliments I ever get are when you have your regulars who tell you ‘That really wasn’t my cup of tea, but I really appreciated and enjoyed it.’ They come to everything because of that, even if they think they may not like it.”
After just a few class meetings, Johnston and her students mingled with professional booking agents and artists at the 2019 Arts Midwest Conference in Minneapolis. Kelsey Dunn, Programming Coordinator for the Butler Arts Center, introduced the students to talent agencies, which present bands, comedians, dance ensembles, and even eSports stars and YouTube influencers. The students waded through the more than 300 presenters for acts that would be a good fit for their booking.
“The agents were really great about answering their questions,” Johnston says. “They were able to ask questions to presenters. And, now we are ready to go. We are at the stage of trying to figure out a show.”
Aaron Hurt, Executive Director for the Butler Arts Center, is a 2008 graduate of Butler’s Arts Administration program. Most of his career experience has come within the walls of Clowes Memorial Hall.
“We have these venues on this campus,” says Hurt, who co-taught the class with Johnston in 2016. “Why aren’t we pumping out people in theater management all the time because we have this access?”
When Hurt was officially named Executive Director in January, one of his goals was to hire more students as interns, ushers, box office personnel, and backstage crew. Most of the students in the Venue Management classes have been Butler Arts Center employees.
Soukup is one of those employees. Starting as a first-year usher, he has worked in the Schrott Center throughout his time at Butler. He will soon be able to add show presenter to his resume.
“I think having Clowes, Schrott, and the whole Butler Arts Center here on campus has been one of the most rewarding parts about coming to Butler,” Soukup says. “It’s been constant involvement. I’m graduating a semester early, but part of me would like to stay a little longer.”