Trying to avoid a showstopper

Hancher Auditorium's post-flood effort at the UI reveals struggles but also successes

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IOWA CITY — After 36 years of dominating the state’s cultural scene, Hancher Auditorium’s world turned upside down in June 2008.

Fighting back from the floods that hit the University of Iowa campus that year has forced the staff to find new ways to keep the UI’s premier fine arts center and its offerings vibrant and vital.

But with a new building on the horizon, another new normal is unfolding.

"It’s not business as usual," Executive Director Chuck Swanson said, for Hancher’s staff, students and volunteers.

"We’ve weathered the situation without a building," Swanson, 58, of Coralville, said. "We’re still presenting top-tier artists. We’re still a major presenter in the country. We’re still presenting nothing but the world’s finest. Artists all around the world are waiting to come to Hancher — we hear that from artists all the time."

Many of those artists, from national Broadway touring shows to major dance companies, simply need a bigger space than area venues hosting Hancher shows in the interim can provide.

"We’ve not stopped doing the business that we do," Swanson said.

They’re just doing it new ways, discovering that some of the changes forced upon them are reaping rewards.

"We’ve become so much more creative in what we’re doing. In a lot of ways, we’re thinking a lot like artists now — how do we do this in a different way that will have a great impact on the audience," Swanson said.

Preliminary design sketches went public Feb. 7 for a gleaming new $161 million Hancher complex on higher ground near the former site. The announcement ushers in "a great time" that’s "like a dream," Swanson said.

Ground may be broken by fall for all three University of Iowa arts buildings ruined by flooding — Hancher, the $78 million Studio Arts building and the $148 million School of Music complex — UI President Sally Mason said.

Swanson said work has been under way for 16 months on the new Hancher building, but visible progress in the coming months will be a welcomed sight for area business leaders, patrons and staff eager to embrace Hancher’s new era.

"Once the structure starts going up, people will breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve been patient up to this point — we’ll have to be patient a few more years," said Mark Ginsberg, 54, of Iowa City, a Hancher patron, donor and owner of M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art in downtown Iowa City since 1984.

"For those of us who are regular theatergoers, in the blink of an eye it’s going to be back. For those of us (business owners) going through it right now, it seems painstakingly slow," he said.

Ginsberg longs for the foot traffic and air of electricity once generated by events in the 2,533-seat auditorium ruined in 2008.

"To have lost that for several years, we’ve all felt that — those of us with businesses on the ground floors, people going to restaurants or buying clothing or soap or buying a new book — all of that was done as a tiny holiday," Ginsberg said. "That dynamic has been lost at least temporarily. We look forward to it coming back, with open arms and big smiles."

New stages

Hancher has been on the road since fall 2008, building temporary stages in ballrooms, arenas and parks, filling church sanctuaries, high school stages and venues seating anywhere from 482 at the new Coralville Center for the Performing Arts to 1,200 at the Riverside Casino Event Center. Many events have landed in the 725-seat Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City.

The Boston Pops’ recent holiday concert is an exception, as 3,500 people flocked to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to hear America’s orchestra on Nov. 27.

More design specifics will be presented to the Board of Regents in March, but Swanson said plans call for downsizing the new auditorium to about 1,800 seats, which will improve the experience for audiences and performers alike.

That’s the going trend in arts construction, he said, unlike the larger houses built when Hancher opened in 1972.

"You don’t see facilities built at that size now," Swanson said. "We’re after the best experience we can bring to our audience. Acoustically it’s going to be amazing, the sightlines will be terrific. It’s all about the experience. The architects are thrilled to be working with a capacity of this size. I do think we’ll end up being so pleased with the final product."

Dramatic drops

With scaled-back seasons and seating capacities at host venues, Hancher attendance totals have fallen from 55,103 over 53 events in the 2006-07 season to 12,274 over 23 events in the 2010-11 season.

Programming revenues have fallen from nearly $2.5 million in 2006-07 to $874,169 in 2010-11.

Programming expenses have fallen accordingly, but rental income from receptions, meetings and other public uses have washed away. (see chart)

Since Hancher is not a stand-alone entity like Theatre Cedar Rapids, Orchestra Iowa or other area presenters displaced by the floods, the UI can cover Hancher shortfalls until it moves into its new home and ramps up programming and other campus and community offerings.

Local impact

Despite having fewer events and audience numbers, Hancher-on-the-go continues to make a major local impact on communities where performances are given.

"It’s one of the more signature attractions for our community," said Josh Schamberger, 38, of Coralville, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I refer to it as one of our ‘attracters’ — an attraction that in and of itself, has the ability to bring people to our community," he said.

Even so, "the quicker they can get that (building) back up, the better for our community," Schamberger said.

Exact economic impact figures aren’t tracked, Swanson and Schamberger said, but Swanson noted that in addition to audience dollars filtering through area businesses, the artists spend money locally.

He said the Boston Pops reserved 100 hotel rooms for its personnel while in Iowa City.

"Ballet West and Hubbard Street (dancers) were here for three weeks," he added. "These artists get out. They love to shop, they love to eat and they spend money. There’s still stuff out there happening."

Ginsberg said: "Hancher provides an alter-ego in the state that’s irreplaceable, a cultural and economic attraction where people linger. Hancher is a big reason people come here, outside of athletics and academics. Culture is a big attraction. They wouldn’t have branded us the ‘Creative Corridor’ for no reason. Hancher is part of the denominator of that brand."

Ginsberg, who makes a six-figure investment in area arts programming, including Hancher, calls it "an easy decision to make as part of my marketing budget," one that makes good business sense.

"Every city has a simple grocery store, but not every city has a world-class theater," he said.

Missed experiences

Part of the Hancher challenge is meeting students’ academic needs, as well as providing cultural opportunities that foster continuing interest and support of the arts.

By 2015, an entire generation of students will not have experienced the aura of the former Hancher building and its grand lobby.

"Great artists are not just about the venue," Swanson said. "We’ve continued to create those experiences that we talk about as the ‘true Hancher experience.’"

Social media is helping Hancher connect with students and adults. Swanson said Hancher has more than 2,000 Facebook friends and is sending emails to more patrons than ever before.

Hancher also has stepped up its interdisciplinary reach, creating and co-sponsoring events and forums that unite arts and academics in tangible ways, from the February 2010 world premiere of Rinde Eckert’s "Eye Piece" play exploring vision loss to the recent "Iowa and Invisible Man" series looking at the black experience at the UI.

Video: Rinde Eckert talks in January 2010 with retired Hancher Auditorium artistic director Judith Hurtig about Eye Piece, a play commissioned by Hancher

Lessons learned

"When I talked with peers around the country in 2008, everybody was so concerned with the economic meltdown, but we also had the flood — a double sort of whammy," Swanson said. "Right away we started thinking in different ways about how to go about our business.

"We’ve learned a lot," he said. "It hasn’t been all bad."

Quick to praise his staff, he said, "There’s a lot to deal with when you’re kind of nomads, going from place to place. The box office has had to search for and get online access, the production staff has to load things up to take to a show, so we’ve added a load-up to the load-in and load-out.

"For the front of house staff, every time they want students to be part of that, they have to go to the new place and teach them where the restrooms are and the seating chart," Swanson said.

"Every time is a new experience."

Some shows have not gone smoothly, with mishaps ranging from a piece of Styrofoam smacking against an air vent during a string quartet concert to rain drenching several outdoor dance performances. "At the Boston Pops, we found out 10 minutes before the show that about 50 seats people had tickets for didn’t exist," he said. "We had to scramble at the last minute, but the patrons were so understanding."

Backstage, life is "about as different as it can be," Ken Schumacher, Hancher’s production manager, said as stagehands and technicians were creating a stage, lighting and sound Jan. 28 for John Oliver’s standup comedy show that night in the Iowa Memorial Union’s Main Lounge.

"What you’re watching us do today is, for all practical purposes, building a theater where there isn’t one," said Schumacher, 62, of Tiffin. "Some of the places we do shows are theaters, like the Englert, which is extraordinarily well-equipped, so the preparation isn’t so onerous. But here, there’s the process of building the infrastructure that’s required before you can prepare" for the show."

Looking ahead

A mountain of planning and decisions await before Hancher’s new doors open in December 2015. Not the least of which is keeping ahead of the rapidly evolving state-of-the-art technology necessary to bring audiences an awe-inspiring experience.

Production manager Schumacher is well aware of the challenge. "I’m looking forward to the people with whom I work being able to have the tools that will allow them to be as good as they are, rather than whatever they can throw into the back of a truck," he said.

The learning curve will be monstrous, he said. "It’s one of the things we wonder about and worry about. Nobody has told us a day when it’s going to be ready ... we have a year (set for the reopening). So when do you start preparing for that? When do you start booking your acts? What if you start booking an act and something grievous happens and you’re the room isn’t ready? That’s the fear."

Evaluating and choosing technical equipment is daunting, he said.

"You have to have time to learn a new set of tools. ... We want something that is good quality, that is current, that’s not going to get obsolete on us in a year and that visiting artists will use. ...

"This is a rare opportunity for us, but scary, too."

Sidebar: Patrons’ Hancher habits started in college


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