Janesville79.1°

Filling the seats?

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 7, 2007
— Numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

They can’t measure energy; they can’t demonstrate quality of life.


And they certainly can’t show how the arts have transformed Janesville in the past three years.


With the opening of the Janesville Performing Arts Center (JPAC) in 2004 and The Armory in 2006, entertainment choices expanded exponentially.


“These are the sort of things that make a well-rounded community,” said Brad Cantrell, Janesville community development director.


The current downtown plan calls for a “High Street Entertainment Area,” with The Armory as an anchor, and a “cultural arts” district starting with the Janesville Performing Arts Center. But if you look at ticket sales to current arts events, it appears that the local response to the arts has been mixed.


What does that mean for the future of downtown plan?


By the numbers

Here are some numbers that matter: Two new venues, featuring more than 100 performances each year.


Before JPAC, local audiences could see about 36 performances from organizations such as the Janesville Concert Association, the Beloit Janesville Symphony and the Janesville Little Theatre.


This year, JPAC alone will host 85 performances.


The Armory, which features professional actors and Broadway-style shows, runs five or more performances a weekend for almost nine months a year.


In three years, the Janesville performing arts scene had been transformed.


But was the town ready?


Janesville Presents!, the former Janesville Concert Association, used to hold three adult shows and two children’s programs. Now at JPAC, the group sponsors eight to 11 events and holds eight or more children’s performances or residencies a year.


If you look at Janesville Presents! ticket sales and take into account children’s shows, the numbers look great. In its first season after moving to JPAC, Janesville Presents! averaged 597 ticket sales per show; the second season 568; the third 557.


But without daytime shows for school kids, the numbers were 408, 360 and 219.


“We’re at 85 percent capacity with the school kids,” said Laurel Canan, JPAC executive director. “We’re holding our own.”


The numbers for Janesville Presents! and JPAC in general mimic national trends over the past 25 years—arts organizations have to work harder than ever for audiences, said Canan, who is active at the state and national level with a variety of arts groups.


And the ticket sales for one group don’t reflect how JPAC has brought in new events and arts groups to the community. The Rock County Historical Society staged a performance there; as did New Court Theatre. The Badger Chordhawks held a two-day regional barbershop competition there.


The competition

Theaters and acts venues across the country are struggling with the same trends:


-- People have more entertainment choices.


-- Parents are more busy with kids and school.


-- Parents have a harder time going out together because teenagers, who used to provide a reliable pool of babysitters, now have more pocket money. Talk to any parent, and they’ll tell you it’s tough—and expensive—to find a babysitter.


Canan and others estimated that the change towards ultra-busy families started in the early ’80s, so a whole generation of young people grew up without being taken to the theater.


And it’s not that the quality of the experience has gone down.


Take The Armory’s fall show, “Little Shop of Horrors.” Audience members agreed: It was laugh-out-loud funny, clever and featured a talented group of singers and actors. So why wasn’t the house consistently full?


“We’re competing for everybody’s time; kids going back to school,” said Mick Gilbertson, Armory owner and developer. “We don’t have shows in the summer, so we lose some momentum there. And we’ve heard that September’s a tough ticket in the Midwest.”


Now here’s the other side to The Armory’s story: Before The Armory’s production of “White Christmas” opened, extra shows were added to meet the demand.


But if a town of 60,000 can’t consistently fill two arts venues, is it ready for a “cultural arts” or a “High Street Entertainment” area?


In the affirmative

Yes, yes, and yes say planners, business people and arts executives.


It’s more venues that are needed, they say, not fewer.


“It’s all about building on the successes we’ve had and adding complementary types of things—restaurants, coffee shows, places to go after a show,” Cantrell said.


Gilbertson agrees and added that he’d “love to have JPAC at the end of High Street.”


“We need that critical mass downtown,” Gilbertson said.


He compared it to a large retail anchor in a mall that attracts smaller specialty shops and other large anchors.


Cantrell mentioned State Street in Madison and Water Street in Milwaukee as destination areas. People drive from the suburbs to spend an evening downtown.


Gilbertson believes Janesville has the power to attract people from areas such as Madison and Walworth County.


“There are markets there,” Gilbertson said. “Money goes out of Janesville, money can come into Janesville.”


That’s something Canan and others are working towards.


In her role as president of the Janesville Visitors and Convention Bureau, she’s working on a plan that would highlight the community’s cultural attractions including JPAC, The Armory, Rotary Gardens and other venues.


She’s also working with local arts groups on marketing techniques to help them get the word out. Almost none of the groups has a paid staff member—they’re all volunteers.


“How can we make people aware of the arts?” Canan asked.


Canan remains optimistic about the state of the arts in Janesville. More people than ever are coming to JPAC for shows, fund-raisers and visual arts events.


She used the 2005 production of “Guys on Ice” as an example.


“The majority of the audience for that run had never been to JPAC—and many had never been to a live theater performance before,” Canan said. “Lesson learned? The show had a broad appeal for everyone in the audience and the laid-back nature created an inviting atmosphere.”


Many first-timers have been back to the theater.


Canan and other says it takes time to build a community in tune with the arts.


“The word has to get out there,” Cantrell said.



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