Arts programming cycles mean some busy weeks, some light

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

Actress Mae West may have thought that too much of a good thing was wonderful.

But Pittsburgh arts patrons can find it frustrating.

Those who frequent dance, theater and music events need look no farther than their calendars to know that some weeks are crammed with so many must-see shows that it's impossible to see them all.

At other times, those calendar squares remain as white and barren as the North Pole in winter.

October through mid-November is particularly packed as are the months of March and April.

Meanwhile, in mid-August through September and mid-November through early January, those searching for a cultural fix may have a harder time.

“Some of the problem is the nature of the cycle,” says Paul Organisak, the vice president for programming at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust whose duties include scheduling Trust presentations. “The season used to be September through May. Now, I feel like it's October through April. People don't start paying attention (to the cultural offerings) until October, and then everything is opening. On the opposite end in May, you get nice weather and people start checking out to do outdoorsy stuff.”

City Theater company chooses not to extend into summer months because it would be competing with summer festivals and seasonal theater companies such as Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

The end of year brings other challenges. “We know nobody is going to come from Dec. 10 on,” says Karla Boos, the founder and artistic director of Quantum Theatre.

That includes performers from out-of-town who don't want to be away from their families during the holidays, which makes it harder to bring in events or cast locally produced shows.

Others say they're reluctant to program events for January and February, when the unpredictable winter weather can discourage ticket sales.

Unless they're doing seasonal shows like “A Christmas Carol” or “The Nutcracker,” many companies avoid the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That's also when Steelers and Penguins games can hamper arts attendance either because people are attending the games or reluctant to deal with the traffic jams and full parking garages Downtown.

That narrowed window means arts organizations like City Theatre need to stuff six plays into an eight-month September-to-May schedule, says Emily Price, director of marketing and communications at City Theatre.

“We struggle with January,” says Price who points out many patrons are not yet back from holiday vacations or are escaping south to avoid the snow.

“We offer three-play season subscriptions because people go to Florida,” Price says.

After you eliminate the less-than-desirable dates, it's hardly surprising that some weekends can have a half-dozen or more new shows arriving or opening.

“We could be better at calendar coordination,” says Mitch Swain, CEO for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. “I would love to get organizations to use (a planning document). Some are willing to do so; others are not interested.”

Swain says he has looked into software that would help cultural organizations coordinate their schedules, but couldn't offer any examples.

“It's not something we are actually pursuing, because we have a lot of other things on our plate,” Swain says.

When Organisak schedules dates for Pittsburgh Cultural Trust events in general, and opening nights in specific, he tries to avoid conflicts with other Downtown arts groups such as Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Trust tenants Pittsburgh Opera and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera generally have their schedules set two or three years in advance, so they get first choice on dates.

Next, Pittsburgh Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh shows have priority for Benedum slots, as do Pittsburgh Musical Theater, Dance Council and Pittsburgh International Children's Theater events at the Byham.

Remaining dates are then open for Trust Presents offerings and third-party users.

Organisak also confers with other arts organizations to avoid conflicts.

“If the Trust is bringing in something big, like a Globe Theater production, I have conversations (with other companies) so we don't have lots of other things going on opening night,” Organisak says. “Very rarely do I bring in a dance company (during) a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre run.”

But he's also not going to pass up a chance to present a well-respected international dance company that is touring the United States for a limited time, even if it means two dance shows on the same weekend. “Sometimes it will happen. It's impossible not to,” he says. “It's a matter of people doing what they can do when they can do it.”

Boos also tries to avoid adding to the cultural overload when she plans Quantum Theatre's season. She compares performance schedules with Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, City Theatre and Pittsburgh Public Theater.

“I still end up overlapping,” she says. “It matters, but it's less high on the priority list than a beloved director being available.”

Patrick Jordan, a founder and the artistic director of barebones productions, has had good success with counter-programming. The company's debut took place on an Easter/Passover weekend. “We ended up getting more coverage and selling out because nothing else was going on,” he says.

He also did good business with a production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” that opened on Thanksgiving weekend. “It worked out well because people were home for the holidays.”

For some, the over-scheduled weekend is a good thing.

Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton Restaurant and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, is always happy when all the Downtown theaters are drawing crowds. “Theater activity is crucial for Downtown restaurants. We depend on all the activity in the Cultural District. It's a big part of our business,” he says.

Swain, on the other hand, finds virtue in the weeks where arts events are fewer and far between. It's a good time to explore new options, he says.

“Increasingly, more and more arts events are happening outside the classic art forms,” Swain says. “If there's a hole in the calendar one weekend, we encourage (arts lovers) to try something new.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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