Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Arizona Broadway Theatre's 10th Anniversary: A conversation with the couple behind the success of ABT

Cassandra and Kiel Klaphake
by Gil Benbrook

Exactly ten years ago today, Arizona Broadway Theatre presented their first production. While that show, Anything Goes, had to be produced in a temporary tent on the nearby Peoria Sports Complex because the ABT building was dealing with construction delays, ABT co-founders Kiel and Cassandra Klaphake haven't let anything else get in their way of becoming the West Valley's premiere arts location.

ABT presents a combination of classic musicals like West Side Story, Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof, newer hits like The Producers, Shrek and Rock of Ages as well as some lesser known shows, such as the recent ABT hit, Lucky Stiff.  Presenting eight shows a year, with most shows playing eight performances a week, and productions running year round, the 6,300 square-foot ABT house seats up to 470 patrons, with a full dining service provided by the adjoining 3,000 square foot kitchen.

But the Klaphakes know that besides presenting professional productions of beloved shows and newer hits, and exceptional food, you need to do more to become part of a community. They stress the combination of their partnerships with local businesses, their strong bond with the city of Peoria and the many other neighboring West Valley towns, along with their dedication to the ABT patrons as to why they are not only going strong as they celebrate their 10th anniversary, but why they continue to strive to improve, keep building the trust they've earned and hope to improve upon the already exceptional ABT show going experience.

Kiel, the Executive Producer of ABT, and Cassandra, ABT's Artistic Producer, sat down to talk about the past, the present and the future of Arizona Broadway Theatre in this PHX Stages exclusive.....

Let's first go back before ABT started. How did you two meet?

Cassandra  – “We were both raised in Montana and we met as undergraduates at the University of Montana. In Missoula. We were both in the Opera program and we ended up getting cast in the same show and found that we had the same backstage downtime. So we ended up spending a lot of time together. I know it’s cliché, but we say that we had a “showmance.” We got married in 1994, after finishing our undergrads. We both got our Masters at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, focusing primarily on opera. After Boston we ended up in Hamburg, Germany for two years as Kiel got a contract with Phantom of the Opera. ”

How did you decide to open a dinner theatre? And why the decision to locate it in Peoria?

Kiel “When we moved back to the states, we moved to New York and after working with Phantom we wanted to explore musical theatre more. But we decided that instead of following a path that someone else has prescribed for you, let’s create our own future. We were both working but traveling, and living out of suitcases and realized that wasn’t the life we wanted. So we started putting this idea together of doing a dinner theatre because we realized that combining food with the show was an added convenience and the baby boomers were starting to get to that retirement age. So we looked for a market that could support a dinner theatre and with the Mid Westerner migration being toward Arizona more so than Florida or California or Texas as other retirement areas, we focused on Arizona. We grew up in the Midwest where there was a dinner theatre understanding. So the idea of doing it in Phoenix made sense as we did our research and saw that the area here was being relatively under served for arts in general versus population and population growth back in 2000. The census showed that the growth would be on the west side of the Phoenix metropolitan area since you have the Indian reservations and mountains and already a lot of saturation on the East side. The market in Peoria, with the retirees in Sun City and the Bell Avenue corridor was perfect as there was really no other service out here to provide any sort of arts programming.”

ABT's first production -
Anything Goes, November 2005
I've heard the stories about having to present your first production in a tent over in the Peoria sports complex due to construction delays, but what were some of the hurdles you encountered before you got to the construction phase?

Kiel – “I think because we were going in uncharted territory, it took a while to convince people as to what we were trying to accomplish. We decided early on that we had to build the entire finished product, not start in a church basement, so we decided to raise private capital – 'the friends, family and fools' – as my father puts it, to raise money. We decided to do it that way, by starting an LLC, instead of attempting to raise donations, as that would have taken us probably twenty years. So we raised private capital then went to a bank who saw there was enough passion, commitment and interest in making this happen. We had to find the right bank who understood our vision. We had a legitimate marketing study and a business plan."

And did you have any family, or connection, to the Phoenix area?

Cassandra -“None whatsoever!”

Kiel – “We were living in New York City and we’d been working on the project for about six months. We’d identified Phoenix as the place we wanted to build this, had a contractor, had an architect and I hadn’t even been here yet. We moved here in 2002, had a child in 2003 and when we look back on that period we figured we did all of the most stressful things in our life all at once. Started a new job, had a child, started a business, moved to a new city, all at the same time.”

Now that it's been ten years, when you look back is there anything you would have done differently? Change the size of the theatre, or the location or size of the building, etc?

Kiel – "I don’t think so. The delay made us make some changes. We planned for a second floor and an elevator, but the delay made us cut those items. We knew those things wouldn’t have a major impact on the patron spaces or the productions, yet adding it back now would cost us considerably more than we saved. But what we built was flexible, in the kitchen everything is on wheels, backstage there is no back wall so we can modify that. But looking back I don’t think there is anything major that we would have done differently with the space."

Jared Mancuso and Chica Loya in Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story
As far as the productions you're presented - what has been the most successful ABT production?

Cassandra – “As far as the most positive audience reaction, Buddy was insane. The physical response, they were dancing in the aisles. It actually surprised us with how well it did. There are several shows, the stalwart ones, that you know are always going to be pleasing to an audience – Hello Dolly!, White Christmas, Oklahoma!

Kiel – “It’s always interesting to me in that patrons who have been with us for a long time still have their favorites that they bring up from years ago.”

Cassandra – “It’s fun to me when they mention a show that you don’t expect them to say, like you’re expecting them to say a classic yet they mention a show like I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

While ABT has presented many classic musicals in your ten seasons, you've also presented some offbeat, lesser known titles like Great American Trailer Park Musical, Angry Housewives and Pageant coming up next Summer. Were there any of these modern shows, or any classic ones, that didn't go over as well with the ABT audiences as you thought it would?

Cassandra – "There were some that weren’t as well attended. But some of that has to do in the seasonal audience, since we present shows year round."

Kiel – "Out here, the folks that retire, seem to stick around a little longer versus the other snow birds on the east side, so we’ve pretty come up with a set schedule and learned from our past experiences. We’ve focused our summers on family type shows that would bring in a more diverse audience than the core season which brings in more retirees. But in between those parts of the season are where we get to explore a little more and get to be a little more flexible."

Any shows you've been dying to present but haven't been able to get the rights to yet?

Cassandara – "Well West Side Story took us forever to get and then there is Chicago."

Kiel – "Chicago has pretty much become a joke for us. Samuel French, the company who licenses it, and I have been talking about it for ten years now. The issue is that the show is still on Broadway, and there have been numerous tours that have come through town, whether they are at Gammage, the Orpheum or Mesa Arts Center, and they all take precedent over us. We can’t find the gap when it’s available for us to license and where we have a slot in our schedule for it. Unfortunately for us, or fortunately for us, we program two or three years out so we just haven’t been able to find a way to make it happen yet."

The cast of ABT's Sweet Charity promoting ABT's Season Sponsor -
Arrowhead Cadillac 

ABT is big on their community partnerships and outreach programs as well as a strong subscriber base. Why do you think that is important and do you see growth in these areas in the coming years?

Kiel – "I think a strong arts organization has to realize it isn’t just about you. For us, from the very beginning, we’ve known that you need a strong audience base and the value that base can provide, and that we can provide to the audience. When you look at a business relationship we’ve found that now that we are established, businesses have realized that partnering with us provides them with having exposure to a large group of individuals. Like Arrowhead Cadillac, who just opened in Peoria a little over a year ago, but came on board as our season sponsor. We have patrons who love the arts and fortunately we’ve found great partners like Arrowhead Cadillac who love the arts as well. Because Phoenix doesn’t have a Main Street or a town square you need to find a way to connect with people. This is an opportunity for businesses to have that connection. We’ve watched this whole area around the theatre in Peoria change."

Cassandra – "The location has really turned out to be as good as we’d hoped it would be. We’re just off the Bell corridor, and everyone knows where that is. And the whole area has just grown up around us."

Kiel – "And now we have street cred, we’ve proven ourselves, we have legitimacy. It’s the same relationship we have with our subscribers. It’s all about trust and building that relationship, so when we do a show they may not have heard of like Angry Housewives, they’ll know what to expect even if they may not be familiar with the show. We have season subscribers who renew in January, before they even know what the shows will be. I see the relationships with both subscribers and our community partners only growing because we’ve proven ourselves and they know what high standards to expect from us."

ABT has a unique business model, in that the theatre began as a for-profit company but then morphed into a non-profit.

Kiel- "The initial plan was always to be a non-profit, but we knew we couldn’t be there right out of the gate, so we had to raise private capital to build the building. A little after a year of opening we organized the non profit to shift all the operations over. It didn’t change anything to the subscribers or the product we offer."

Since you've been successful, what advice can you give startup nonprofits about finding their ideal or best suited path to success from the business end of things?

Cassandra – "We actually just got an email from someone looking for advice. They like the model we’ve come up with. I think it has a lot to do with the team you have surrounding you that you fall back on for support and that help contribute to everything. We had a great group that gave us advice on things like the building plans that was crucial to being where we are today."

Kiel – "I think also, for us, this idea and model that we had was unchartered and the only way you’ll be able to survive is to have as much knowledge of everything out there and the ability to be flexible. You can’t just say 'well this is how we did things at a theatre I used to work at' – you need to be able to shift gears based on new indicators, and get everyone on board to go with you."

Cassandra – "So the research component is very important. Know your demographic, know what you’re getting in to. You have to listen to your demographic. Listen to your patrons. We’ve made a lot of changes based on their feedback."

Kiel – "I think a lot of arts organizations who use to depend on an estate for support, where that estate went away, are now having to look at new creative ways of fund development. If you believe that a certain percentage of your operating funds have to come from donations or tickets sales and aren’t flexible you’re never gonna make it. If you were used to huge grants that went away you need to look at other methods of revenue, finding other revenue augmentations to the main source – like a bar, gift shop sales or rental income – other things that will help support any shortfalls. You need to be flexible."

The ABT Lobby includes this 1930s Broadway mural, "a portrait" created by ABT co-founder, Penelope Klaphake 
How did the idea for the lobby mural, painted by your mother Kiel, come to be?

Kiel – "When we were first going through construction, I said to my mother, who was a painter, 'Mom, I’m going to need to commission you to do something for the lobby.'  I wanted it to be New York City, with the skyline, and vanishing points, and big – it’s an 80 foot wide space. She took a while to research it. And she originally created it in her guest room, then the whole mural was photographed, put in to a computer and made in to a model and then turned in to wall paper."

Cassandra – "It was phenomenal to watch it go up. We covered it with a huge curtain and did a full unveiling. It was really great."

Kiel - "My mother is big on research and is working on a companion book to go with it as well that details her research with the stories of the different people in the clusters on the mural."

Looking to the future, what changes, if any, can people expect from the theatre itself and the productions on stage?

Cassandra – "As far as the shows go, I think we’re going a pretty good job of making magic happen and the maintenance of that is huge. We try to raise the bar a little bit with every subsequent production but I think the biggest changes would be in technology and there are definitely updates in projections, lighting and sound equipment. So I think the most important thing is to find ways to integrate the new technology to make exciting art happen. But I don’t think there will be any major changes as I think we’ve done what we set out to do ten years ago. It took us a while to get there but I’m very pleased. The response talent wise has been great. I just got back from an audition trip to New York and we could barely keep up with the numbers of people coming through the door to audition. That reputation continues to build. But I think it’s about staying where we are but having a relative growth to continue."

Kiel – "We have to continue to raise the bar. Find ways to make things more spectacular. If we don’t then we are going backwards. Invest the efforts and resources to make each show be the best it can be. The best thing is when we hear a subscriber say the show they just saw is the best one they’ve seen, and then they say the same thing about the next show we do. That shows we are doing what we set out to do."

Cassandra – "But that’s just from the production side. There are definitely some bigger changes in store as far as the facility goes. We want to remodel the Encore Room and build that out in to a black box space so we can have simultaneous programming and explore some off-beat, Off Broadway types of shows. Some of the shows we’ve done like Angry Housewives or Lucky Stiff, which no one knew but got huge responses, made us realize that the audience is eager for those types of shows. I think by producing some of those types of shows will also help us to center in on the younger theatre goer, the single ticket buyer who is looking for something edgy and cool to do."

You've both performed in a few shows over the seasons at ABT. Are there any dream roles that you both have that you'd like to perform on the ABT stage?

Cassandra – "I’ve done a lot of them! I’ve been pretty lucky but if I had to name one I’d have to say Mama Rose when we bring Gypsy back around. I’d love to sink my teeth in to that role one of these days."

Kiel – You know, we didn’t really create the theatre for us to perform so it’s hard to say. I didn’t think I’d be playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, but looking back it was one of the best experiences. I’ve gotten to perform with both of my kids. So I've ticked off a lot of the boxes I had. But we’ve never performed together yet."

Cassandra – "That's right, we haven't! Though that would be really hard to schedule with the kids! Maybe a concert in the future? He is a really great director. I think some of the most evocative shows we’ve done have had his name on it, so I’m excited to see what comes of that in the future as well."

Kiel – "I’ve directed you five times now."

Cassandra – "Really, five? And we’re still married!"

What are your personal and professional goals for the theatre’s next ten years in Peoria?

Cassandra – "I’m not sure where this will live just yet but we both have interests in producing some new works. The more contacts we make from people we’ve worked with over the years have shown that there are some really talented people out there working on their own things so there is a potential to work together and give them a place to create. Maybe even having it blossom in to a New Works Festival."

Kiel – "I think what we’re trying to leverage when we do new works is that we don’t just have a facility and you have to bring everyone here. If you’re a playwright and you want to try out your new work, I’ve got a cast here for six weeks that would love the opportunity to make a connection and work on something new. But I think we are satisfied in the path that we are going on. Nothing is more flattering then when we can announce another season. That is the most satisfying thing we can do."

Happy 10th Anniversary ABT!

For more information on Arizona Broadway Theatre, currently presenting West Side Story through November 15th, click here.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading the interview. I have enjoyed many productions at ABT. We will be seeing West Side Story this coming Sunday. Also it has been a great opportunity for our Granddaughter Makayla Kovac. She has attended the summer camps and also has had wonderful opportunities to be cast in some main stage productions. She is also having voice lessons with Cassandra. I am so pleased with ABT and the shows I get to enjoy. Wonderful food too. Very professional and friendly in all areas. I feel so blessed and thankful for the opportunities and the learning experience for our Granddaughter. She is learning so much from the many professional actors there. Thank you ABT! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed reading the interview. I have enjoyed many productions at ABT. We will be seeing West Side Story this coming Sunday. Also it has been a great opportunity for our Granddaughter Makayla Kovac. She has attended the summer camps and also has had wonderful opportunities to be cast in some main stage productions. She is also having voice lessons with Cassandra. I am so pleased with ABT and the shows I get to enjoy. Wonderful food too. Very professional and friendly in all areas. I feel so blessed and thankful for the opportunities and the learning experience for our Granddaughter. She is learning so much from the many professional actors there. Thank you ABT! :)

    ReplyDelete