It’s been a little more than a year since the Wilson Center opened on the Cape Fear Community College campus, leaving questions about how that venue would affect other local performance venues such as Thalian Hall and Kenan Auditorium.
The answer appears to be that with creative thinking and planning, all three spaces are going strong.
Movement of the Wilmington Symphony from Kenan to Wilson and other changes have resulted in Kenan’s overall attendance numbers declining, said Kristen Brogdon, director of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Office of the Arts, which manages Kenan Auditorium.
The newly opened dates however, have allowed the facility to institute new programs, all of which are building an audience. These include the Seahawk Family Arts Matinee program for children. There’s also Rush Hour Concerts that begin at 5:30 p.m., allowing people to stop for a concert by local artists and a glass of wine on the way home from work.
“We wouldn’t have had that capacity before,” Brogdon said.
Brogdon started her position at UNCW shortly before Wilson Center opened.
“It’s amazing how much you can learn and how much you see you still have to learn,” she said of this first year.
Thus far in its fiscal year of July 2016 to January 2017, the auditorium has hosted 39 events with a total attendance of 13,309. That’s down from 2016, but Brogdon said she is optimistic about the new programming. She says the venue is breaking even and they have been able to invest a little in updated technology.
The N.C. Azalea Festival chose Kenan for its April 5 concert by The Temptations, the only indoor concert of this year’s event. Tickets were almost sold out at press time.
Tony Rivenbark has a photo of himself flying through the rafters of Kenan Auditorium in a student production of Peter Pan. It opened in 1970, the year he graduated from UNCW. As much as he loves that building, his affection for Thalian Hall is greater.
The 158-year-old theater was built as “a high-quality assembly space” for the residents of the state’s largest city, said Rivenbark, Thalian Hall’s executive director.
It’s been through two major renovations under his management.
“It is as busy now as it ever was in its history,” he said. “We’re probably one of the most heavily used facilities in the U.S., and I’d advise no one to ever have this much business.
“What we have been doing for the past 26 years is what the building was built for in the first place,” he added. “Because of that attitude, we’re always changing. We have our ear to the road and the air so everything that changes in the community, we are looking at and adjusting ever so slightly, sort of like tacking in the wind.”
Ticket sales at Thalian were down a little in 2016, according to Rivenbark – 58,544 in 2016 compared to 62,239 in 2015 – but profit was up. He attributes it to weather as much as anything. Some years when profits are lower, it’s due to higher cost productions, which have tighter margins.
Prior to the decision to build the Wilson Center, there were years of discussion about the desire for a larger venue.
“We knew it was coming online, and that it would change the mix. We didn’t want to be buried,” Rivenbark said.
Because these decisions were being made at the same time that Thalian Hall was undergoing restoration, Rivenbark made decisions that added to the competitive advantage of the historic theater.
“We looked at our strengths and enhanced them,” he said. “The chandelier, the best theater seats we could afford, playing on the ambience and charm of this theater that is so welcoming to an artist.”
Rivenbark believes that “never has the arts been more exciting and energetic in this community as they are now. The one thing, a big plus for everyone, is the Wilson Center brings in so many more people from a wider circle. The pie is bigger,” he said.
Shane Fernando practically grew up in Kenan and Thalian, so he’s thrilled to be at the helm of the Wilson Center as director. Going into its second year of operation, the center is solidly booked.
“You cannot get an available date between community and college use for students and our internal presentations of Broadway, Star and Dance Series,” Fernando said.
Each series began with three scheduled performances. Star is now at 25-30 this year, and Broadway is expected to have 17 or 18 productions. Many of the shows sell out within the first few days, he said.
Since opening night, about 96,000 tickets have been sold for total sales revenue of more than $4 million, Fernando reported.
Internally and through its artists, Wilson Center has a massive marketing campaign for each show. In the first year there were guests from every county in North Carolina, and from every U.S. state except South Dakota and Wyoming as well as international guests from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Europe.
“Some are directly connected to the cultural tourism that a facility like this brings,” Fernando said.
From the first day, the Wilson Center exceeded the 30 percent cultural tourism national average, with some events bringing in as many as 35 percent out-of-region guests. Among those stats are people who travel wherever their favorite artists perform.
Fernando admits that ticket prices are higher than what Wilmington is accustomed to, but that they’re much lower than in other markets.
“That’s attractive to people, and our coastal region is attractive so people come and enjoy the life and culture that the Cape Fear region offers and to see world class artists,” he said.
Many in the audiences at the venues are from the communities in northern Brunswick County who have moved to the area from large cities that have ready access to top-notch entertainment. “They’re used to and expect programming of this caliber to be at their doorstep,” Fernando said.
Another program bringing in a wide audience begins in March at Kenan. The Nile Project is spending five days at UNCW while touring the state. Musicians from seven countries that border the Nile are collaborating with residents to solve water issues and to show politicians and bureaucrats that collaboration is possible, Brogdon said. The event includes panel discussions with marine scientists, a tour of the Cape Fear River and a dance workshop.
“I think it’s going to be phenomenal,” Brogdon said. “We’ve been working with environmental organizations who wouldn’t have arts involved in their work, but we’re figuring out how artists can help them spread their message. It’s the highlight of our season.”
Another major educational push is the Pied Piper Theatre, which has been mounted at Thalian for decades. Each first and second grade student in the county attends an original production at Thalian.
“It’s a lot of fun for everybody,” Rivenbark said. “There’s nothing more exciting than having a group of enthusiastic children privileged to be in this beautiful theater most communities would give their eye teeth to have. They’re learning to behave and enjoy themselves.”