Owen Smith Talks Cohoes Music Hall and Playhouse Stage
There is much to miss this summer without theater, we live so close to the world-class organizations of Glimmerglass, Williamstown, Barrington Stage, and Powerhouse but summer theater in the Capital Region IS and has been Park Playhouse for over 30 years. And you can not visit Park Playhouse without being greeted, welcomed, and thanked by Owen Smith, the Producing Artistic Director for the past 10 years. Last week brought auspicious news for the Capital Region theater community when Playhouse Stage was awarded management of Cohoes Music Hall.
There are thousands of participants in Capital Region theater and the audience was growing exponentially when we were hit with the COVID pause. It is extraordinarily heartening as a theater fanatic that the City of Cohoes has recognized Playhouse Stage’s management capabilities, artistic excellence and potential growth and chosen them for this contract. I must point out that Playhouse Stage has done superlative work in the Music Hall and every show I’ve seen there has uniquely matched the Hall’s historic ambiance and structure, none more so than “Sweeney Todd” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” which were sublime. My email chat with Owen:
Patrick White: So, I first saw Playhouse at CMH with “Godspell”? A few years ago?
Owen Smith: Believe it or not, we were actually there almost six months ahead of that! Our first production in Cohoes Music Hall was Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World in October of 2016. As it is, that show is more of a song cycle in form, with limited technical needs, so it gave us a chance to sort of “try the venue out,” getting a sense for what worked in terms of audio, staging, and so on. The building had just been re-opened by The Palace Theatre, who we were partnering with at the time, and one of the main goals in PPAC taking on the management of the Hall was to provide a year-round space for the Playhouse. Songs for a New World was a great way for both PPAC and the Playhouse to get our feet wet in that new venture!
There were six groups bidding for management and Playhouse Stage was selected… how does this save the city $200,000.?
Well, until April, the city still had its previous contracts in place with Music Hall Arts Alliance to manage the Hall, and with us to support producing a full season of theatrical productions in there. While those contracts did involve both entities paying some funds back to the city via ticket fees and a percentage of box office receipts, city taxpayers were still taking on a lot of that cost. Of course, having a robust arts presence in the City is a great recipe for the kind of economic development the city had been seeing in recent years. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting the building down, and the city unable to collect any returns on that investment, the Mayor made the decision to cancel those contracts and do a public Request for Proposals for management services (a process that hadn’t been undergone when either the Palace or MHAA had taken the reins). For us, the new deal is far more sustainable. Under the previous deal, while the city did provide us with some support, we paid more than 75% of it to Music Hall Arts Alliance for rental fees to be in the building. Then, of course, we were paying a percentage of our ticket sales back to the city when we would close our productions. It ultimately wasn’t allowing us to become as sustainable as possible, even though we accounted for the lion’s share of programming in the building in the years since it reopened. Under the new deal, the resident theatre company is ALSO the management entity, so the cost to taxpayers can be relieved, as we aren’t paying rent to a separate entity, and so don’t require the additional municipal support for productions. That said… we REALLY want folks to understand that we have no intention whatsoever of seeing the venue become only a space for plays and musicals. That may be what we produce, but just because a theatre company is taking the management reins, that doesn’t mean the space will stop hosting live music, comedy and other types of events. It is ultimately the right thing for the venue, the right thing for downtown and the right thing for our own bottom line for the venue to have the most diverse lineup possible. We intend to work with concert and comedy promoters that we’ve had relationships with for years to ensure that the calendar is jam-packed with a broad range of events.
In your history at the Music Hall, can you recall certain moments or specific productions that made producing at the Music Hall a great fit for Playhouse?
All of the shows we’ve done at the Music Hall have been a great fit for us as a production company because they are all things that we, generally, wouldn’t have done in the Park. There are a few exceptions, but they are mostly titles that we wouldn’t have done in a public park due to content (Avenue Q, Sweeney Todd) or due to the smaller scale of the show (Lady Day, Patsy Cline). From the perspective of unique staging, though, and taking some fun risks artistically, our production of Sweeney Todd comes to mind. We really staged that show around the concept of taking place in the haunted remains of a Victorian-Era British Music Hall. The Music Hall’s flexible orchestra seating and phenomenal acoustics really allowed us to stage the show in the immersive manner I’d hoped for. The venue, in a sense, elevated the material (which is already classic stuff) and it came together in a way that really made us proud and excited to be at the Music Hall. I could say the same about Lady Day. Being able to put cafe seating in and put our feature actress on a catwalk amongst the crowd helped to enhance the intimacy of Billie Holiday’s story and connection with her audience. It was another special one for us.
What do you hope is achievable with Cohoes Music Hall as the home of Playhouse Stage? Are there things you can do now as the manager that you couldn’t do before?
To the previous management’s credit, they really allowed us free license to configure the space as we wished from show to show, so we have always felt like we had a great degree of artistic license in the space. A lot of what is different for us under the new contract wherein we are serving as the manager is more related to the business side of things. And that is important too! Of course, we are no longer paying rent from show to show, which does take some pressure off in terms of title selection. At the same time, we are also now going to have the benefit of revenue from concessions, ticket fees and other ancillary revenues that had previously not flown to us. Again, that will help make us more sustainable, which is so important for any performing arts organization to really spread its wings creatively. Again, though, one of the major differences for us is that, now, we can diversify! As a production company, plays and musicals are our focus, of course. But now, we can welcome rentals events for concerts and comedy, and we can book outside artists ourselves. We really firmly believe that, especially in these uncertain times, the ability to drive revenue and build audiences around diverse entertainment mediums is very important. Folks will be connecting to Playhouse Stage who may not be theatre fans, but who love live music or stand-up events. Ultimately, that will make us a better artistic organization, as it will make us a better business… it’s symbiotic, for sure.
What would you tell the folks who loved seeing music programming at the Hall? What were your favorite concerts of the past couple of years and what direction would you hope to continue in?
I would tell those folks to give us a chance and to trust us to do as we’ve said we are going to do. The venue has been managed by theatre companies in the past without other types of events being hosted alongside plays and musicals, and it hasn’t worked out as successfully as it could have. We see tremendous potential in the Cohoes Music Hall. In our view, it should be a sort of “boutique performing arts center” for the Capital Region. But, to call yourself an arts center, you really have to serve a diverse array of artistic interests. I think folks should know that the majority of my team and I all worked at the Palace Theatre for six-plus years, and were directly involved with both its programming and the programming of the Cohoes Music Hall. Our general manager, Chuck Kraus, handled the Palace Theatre’s booking calendar for an entire season and, literally, achieved record results. Live Music and Comedy fans have nothing to worry about – the Music Hall will continue to be a destination for those mediums, and we plan to work with our friends in the promoting business to continue to grow and diversify the Hall’s calendar. I should also note that my entire team are live music and comedy fans, ourselves. For me, there have been a lot of events that I’ve loved at the Hall. Some that stand out are Tower of Power, Start Making Sense, Ominous Seapods and Ana Popovic.
What is your summer like without the Park and is there any theater on the imminent horizon?
My summer is different, to say the least. I have been associated with Park Playhouse for 23 years, starting as a student in the program at age 15. So to have a summer where I’m not in Washington Park nightly feels very odd. My team and I are trying to enjoy it. Certainly, we have had a lot on our plate with the Music Hall management selection process and with running our youth programs via Zoom. We wish we could be in person with our students, but the online program is working out better than we could have imagined. As for theatre on the horizon, like you, I am missing it terribly. We absolutely have a season planned and would love to be able to start this fall. We’ve selected productions that would allow for safe social distancing of actors, with a production scale that would allow the economics to work out even with a capped audience. However, it all comes down to safety in the long run. We are going to be watching carefully as the State government continues to update the guidelines for arts venues to re-open. We will get back on stage as soon as those guidelines allow, and will do so in the safest manner possible. Audiences can be sure that, while it may be a bit before we have the doors of the Hall open, once we do, the Music Hall will have something for everyone and will continue to be a very special place to see theatre, music, comedy and much more.