When Yale students were asked about the Shubert Theater in a focus group last summer, some of them expressed mild surprise at its recent performances.
“They said that when they saw that advertisement in the paper with our logo and then ‘Linda Williams’ they had to look twice,” recalled Anthony Lupinacci, the theater’s director of marketing and public relations.
If the Shubert’s new management has its way, concerts with big name jazz and folk performers like Williams will not surprise Yale students for much longer. Since the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, or CAPA, took over the College Street theater in the summer of 2001, its focus has broadened to include more off-beat programming.
The drive to expand audiences kicked into high gear last month, when William B. Conner Jr. took over as chief executive officer and president of the CAPA foundation, a nonprofit performing arts center management group based in Ohio.
“We’re looking at programming that would help us evolve a stronger 25 to 35-year-old audience,” Conner said. “We’re going to be more aggressive in how we price and program for university students.”
But the new programming does not mean the Shubert Theater, first opened in 1914, will shy away from its tradition of featuring big Broadway shows.
This week, the theater is featuring the musical “Grease.” “A Night With Dame Edna” and “Stomp” are soon to follow.
In addition to larger acts, the Shubert will also host two smaller, one night engagements of folk and jazz guitarists in the next month. Ticket prices for Doc Watson and the Pat Metheny Group will be less expensive than for most Shubert performances.
“We’re not eliminating; we’re adding,” Lupinacci said. “And the thrust of what we’re trying to do is attract new audiences through new programming — particularly right now through concert events.”
Tickets to shows like September’s Jonny Lang concert have been a hot commodity.
“They sell very quickly; the crowds absolutely have been giving us phenomenal feedback that they’re thrilled to be able to see artists of that caliber here,” Lupinacci said.
The 1,600-seat capacity Shubert Theater, which reopened in 1983 after a seven-year closure and the threat of demolition, has struggled to attract new audiences. Its traditional audience, say theater officials, is 45 to 60-year-olds who can afford the hefty ticket price for Broadway shows.
But as a nonprofit organization, CAPA considers it part of its mission to provide access to the performing arts for all segments of the community, including different ethnic and income groups.
Of course, Yale is an important part of that community.
“We’re thinking of Yale as an untapped resource,” Lupinacci said. “Maybe little by little, over the years people will become more accustomed to finding out what is here.”
For students involved with the Dramat, exposure to the Shubert will come even sooner. Next week, the Dramat will sponsor an event in conjunction with Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna, during the run of his show.
“We’re very happy that we have this chance to do something with the Shubert, and it very well may lead to more student events in the future,” Michael Schulman, special events coordinator for the Dramat, wrote in an e-mail.
So far, the Shubert’s latest efforts to attract new audiences have been successful. Last year the theater turned a profit of over $20,000, its first positive return in almost a decade.
“It went really well last year,” Conner said. “The first week was a record week in terms of ticket sales. We have a pretty good sense of the process we need to go through, but it would be silly of me to say I know what 25 to 35-year-olds want.”
A more comprehensive schedule of events at the Shubert does not necessarily mean total re-invention. The theater began as a performing arts center with a broad range of shows, from plays to opera, dance, vaudeville and jazz and soon earned the nickname “The Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits.”
“We’re getting back to the real roots of what the Shubert was with all this diverse programming, because that’s how the Shubert began,” Lupinacci said. “I think it’s coming full circle.”