Holiday Affairs: Programming for Corporate Audiences

Shannon Litzenberger – December 12, 2013

Acting Up Stage Company is Toronto’s modern musical theatre. For 10 years, they have been producing, developing and advancing the art of musical theatre. In addition to their regular season productions, Acting Up Stage offers a ‘signature event’ during the holiday season called UnCovered that is quite different from the others. Hosted at the architecturally stunning Koerner Hall complete with a catered pre-show reception and post show meet-and-greet with the artists, it is designed with a corporate audience in mind. This show itself takes the music of a non-theatre artist (e.g. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Sting, Paul Simon, etc.) and transforms it into a unique musical arrangement with a dramaturgical arc, and performed by Canada’s top musical theatre singers and storytellers. In essence, it’s musical theatre for people who have no interest in musical theatre. And it sells out every year.

Acting Up Stage Artistic & Managing Director Mitchell Marcus took the time to tell me more about how UnCovered came to be, and how it’s helped his company expand their audience.

SL: Tell me a bit about Acting Up Stage and its vision.

MM: Words can describe a feeling, but music can convey it. When text is set to music, the emotional impact of a story can permeate an audience more deeply and profoundly. We bring the best contemporary musical theatre from around the world to Toronto to demonstrate the possibilities of the form when important stories are coupled with original scores. We exclusively hire Canadian artists to interpret these stories to demonstrate the first-class nature of our local musical theatre artists. We offer free training for young people to help build the craft and passion for contemporary musical theatre amongst the next generation. And we invest in Canadian composers and playwrights to foster our own original works that we can promote internationally.

SL: How is UnCovered different from your regular season offerings?

MM: UnCovered is a unique ‘signature event’ for our company that differs quite strongly from our full-length musical productions. For UnCovered, we take the music of a non-theatre artist and we explore their catalogue with a group of musical theatre singer/storytellers. We develop new musical arrangements that makes sense dramaturgically, and end up with a cool hybrid of pop, cabaret and theatre, taking songs that we think we know and presenting them in a brand new way. In that regard, like the rest of our seasonal offerings we put the focus firmly on musical storytelling by great artists, but rather than working with material that is meant for the musical theatre form, we are appropriating and blending genres. In some ways, our approach to all of our work is to shine a spotlight on the artistry in musicals. So I guess this is just our response to the “jukebox musical” trend. A way to say “ok, perhaps there is a blend of popular music and theatre, but there is an approach that can be meaningful instead of kitschy.”

SL: What inspired you to create it?

MM: UnCovered began as a fundraiser. I was looking for a fundraiser and had an idea (which I “borrowed” from a company in New York) of having musical theatre fans sing the songs of Ben Folds. I love his music and find it inherently theatrical. Coincidentally, around that time I met Reza Jacobs who wanted to do an evening of re-orchestrated Beatles music. We merged our ideas and did the first UnCovered, which featured the songs of the Beatles. After a few concerts though, we stopped using it as a fundraiser, and gave it the resources to be a legitimate piece of programming in our season. Artistically the work was so exciting that it felt like it had to be core and not supplementary to what we do.

SL: What have been this program’s biggest successes so far?

MM: In 2010 we profiled the music of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. To close the show, Bruce Dow sang Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. During the sound check, when Bruce started doing the number I burst into tears. Really and truly it was one of the most moving sung monologues I had ever heard, infused with raw regret, yearning and pain. Needless to say it stopped the show cold with the audience in tears, leaping to their feet for an immediate standing ovation. It was a profound moment to demonstrate the power in what we had created and the immense contribution that a brilliant storytelling artist and a dramaturgically sound orchestrator can make to a song.

SL: How is this audience different from the people who attend your regular season events?

MM: What’s great about UnCovered is that it appeals to lots of people who have no interest in musical theatre and don’t attend our productions throughout the season. They may have no idea who Louise Pitre or Bruce Dow or Thom Allison are, but they love coming again and again to hear great singers and amazing storytellers giving songs they know a totally unique and different interpretation. I love getting to speak to the audience to tell them about the rest of our season because I can feel us starting to convince people who don’t normally go to musicals to reconsider when they see the amazing musical theatre talent in Canada and the power of musical storytelling.

SL: A lot of corporations are looking for ways to reward and celebrate with their employees during the holiday season. What are some of the typical ways that they do that and how do you position Uncovered as a unique experience?

MM: We have positioned UnCovered during the holiday season so that corporations can consider using our event as a client or staff hosting experience. Performing at the stunning Koerner Hall offers us the opportunity to sell show and reception packages, utilizing the fantastic event spaces and top-notch caterers available to us. This allows us to promote a turnkey, full-service opportunity for corporations; with one booking, they get a full and unique corporate event – stunning spaces, reception, entertainment – all under one roof. We can match (or beat) the usual price point for dinners or sporting events and offer something that appeals to a wider demographic that is unlike anything that employees or clients are seeing throughout the rest of the year.

SL: What are the essential ingredients to making UnCovered successfu?

MM: Like all things in the musical theatre form, collaboration is the key to everything. Reza and I work closely to examine the musical catalogue and figure out what the songs are about. We treat the text as if it were a song in a musical, asking questions like: “Why did the composer choose to repeat that line? What is the journey in this verse?” We then try to cast it like a musical and figure out who would be the best person to perform that song and embody the character that we believe exists within it. We then collaborate with the artist so they can have input into what they see as the journey. Through that collaboration, Reza and the artist create a musical arrangement. The artist works on the performance, and Reza builds orchestrations and background vocals to support it. So the key is having everyone on the same page. When we are able to find the right story in the right song performed by the right artist with the right orchestration, it is magic. If one of those ingredients goes awry, it doesn’t resonate properly with the audience.

SL: How did you first develop a relationship with the corporate groups that attend? Is there an example among them where the relationship has grown into one of more significant and ongoing support for your company?

MM: The first corporate groups attended organically. Usually someone saw the show who is an influencer in a corporate group and thought it would be a good idea to bring some other folks the next year. Many of those relationships have snowballed into quite significantly large group bookings. One of the group leaders did in fact go on to support a program in our Education portfolio as a direct result of his relationship with the company through the concert.

SL: How do you see this program evolving?

MM: We’ve always offered the show for one-night only and it’s always sold-out. So in 2014 we are expanding to two nights and really strategically going about building new groups. We have a group sales team in place (thanks to a Creative Strategies Incubator grant from the Metcalf Foundation) and we are really working hard to grow our network and double our sales by next year. Over time, we hope to add a third night to the run, helping to improve profitability, and give these great shows a longer life; it always is so sad to work for months and then only get to perform it once!

SL: What advice would you give to other performing arts companies wanting to attract corporate employees to their shows?

MM: I think corporate groups are looking for unique experiences and so there is much more to their purchasing decision then what is onstage. Does the venue align with their image? Is there an opportunity for a reception? Will there be sufficient opportunity to schmooze? Is there something unique that will make the event memorable? I think there is more room to explore the corporate market across the performing arts, but not all shows are for all companies. I think we have really honed in on who to target for this particular show at this particular venue. But the solicitation list would and should change drastically if we were looking at corporate sales for our main productions. One size definitely does not fit all!