September 2019

Season Sensations

Show promoters recall their biggest hits and favorite memories

By Lisa Kay Tate 

In performing arts, every season is met with anticipation to be the best one ever, and every production or concert is given special care so that it will resonate in audience members’ hearts and minds for years to come — yet there will always be that one event that stands out among the others.
Maybe it’s the show whose staging was just spectacular, or that one time when massive difficulties were overcome for a successful performance. Perhaps it is that one special guest who will be remembered for either their eccentricities or their sheer talent. It may have also been one event where audiences just couldn’t get enough, resulting in sold out shows and added performances.
Whether large-scale traveling productions, or smaller community theatres, every performing arts group has their favorite standout memories. As a new season of shows begins for regional groups, organizers still recall some of their most impressive, biggest and best achievements of seasons past.

El Paso Opera:
Mariachi Majesty

El Paso Opera has been part of the city’s performance scene for more than a quarter of a century, and according to El Paso Opera Executive Director Arianne Marcee, one of the opera’s hardest and biggest events came last year: the world’s first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.”
“It was grander in scale, lighting and sound than anything we’d done for a long time,” she said. “ In addition, it included a full mariachi band on stage throughout the whole production! That was certainly a departure for an opera company! This production was totally different in every way — from the music, the song styles and the dramatic sound and lighting.”
Although the opera’s set itself was simple, the overall effect was not.
“We received tremendously positive feedback from the audience, both in appreciation for this innovative presentation of the art form, but also for the culturally relevant storyline that told the story of a Mexican immigrant torn between his life and home in Mexico and his life and adopted home in the United States,” Marcee said.
She said 2018 was a memorable year, as the other production, “Hansel & Gretel” also was a big success.
“This was about as different from ‘Cruzar’ as can be; it was a small scale, traditional opera with a chamber orchestra. But what made it unique was the venue, “ Marcee said. “ We created a ‘pop up’ opera venue at the historic Union Depot. We took over the train station and created a stage, tables for the audience and pathways for the performers to wind through audience members. The performers were almost close enough to touch and the audience became immersed in the performance. “
She said the audience loved the event so much, El Paso Opera is planning similar ideas for its upcoming season.
“We will present R. Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’, a traditional opera about passion, jealousy and revenge in another ‘pop up venue,’” she said. “ This will be in January of 2020 at the newly restored St. Rogers Depot (at 420 Campbell). Once again, audience members will be close to the action and performers, and might even find themselves sitting next to the chorus members interspersed throughout.”

Plaza Theatre Pageantry:
From Disney to Digital

Doug Pullen is program director for the Plaza Classic Film Festival and also works closely with the El Paso Community Foundation’s Jewel Box Series. He said the renovation and restoration of the Plaza Theatre has been the Foundation’s biggest feat, in partnership with the City of Paso, and has helped create many opportunities for the performing arts.
“It was a $42 million effort, which took 20 years, from the time EPCF purchased the theater in 1986 to its reopening on March 17, 2006,” Pullen said. “The venue, which is operated by the city via El Paso Live, routinely lands in Pollstar’s list of top attended venues of its size each year.”
Of these, they have had success with sold-out performances for live shows in both the Main Theatre, and the smaller Philanthropy Theatre in the annex, including when Disney, or Disney-inspired productions are involved. For El Paso Live, Disney’s “The Lion King,” set a record.
“Last year (El Paso Live) set a house attendance record with 32,000 people attending Disney’s ‘The Lion King,’” Pullen said. “It might never have happened had EPCF not purchased, restored and repurposed the historic movie palace as a performing arts center.”
The recently created Jewel Box Series, soon to begin its 6th season, also had success with a Disney production.
“The Scaffolding Theatre Company of Las Cruces staged two sold-out shows of their clever adaptation of ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ in the third season of the Jewel Box Series,” he said. “We’ve only had one sellout since.”
As for one of the most difficult events to stage, Pullen said it was a live performance of a string quartet of members of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, accompanying a silent film “La Venganza de Pancho Villa” for the Plaza Classic Film Festival.
“We had worked for months and months with UTEP Special Collections, the Library of Congress, the woman who restored the film, out of Washington, D.C., and the woman who composed new music for the only other staging of this kind in 2017 at the National Gallery,” Pullen said, “but there was all sorts of drama behind the scenes. We struggled to get a digital version (called a DCP) that we could show in the Plaza Theatre. The composer was in Israel for a good while. There were some music copyright issues that had to be resolved. We had all kinds of technical issues right up to the actual screening.”
The event had members of the filmmakers’ family attending, as it was made by a father-and-son from El Paso and Juarez in the early 1930s, so they wanted the event to do well.
“The composer and one of the sound guys had to sit at the board with laptops. When the sound tech cued the composer, she would press a button to activate recorded vocals that were supposed to be on the DCP but weren’t,” he said. “We pulled it off with nearly 400 people in the audience, and no one ever knew the months of drama that had gone on behind the scenes. It was very stressful, but we never considered not going through with it.”

No Strings Theatre:
Girl Group Coup

While large-scale productions like operas and Broadway events draw in huge audiences, regional community theatre groups continue to fill smaller venues with theatergoers each season. Peter Herman of the non-profit Las Cruces-based No Strings Theatre Company said they have had many artistically outstanding shows over their 19 years of existence, but he said there was one that stood out as financial success: “Leader of the Pack, The Ellie Greenwich Musical” by Anne Beatts and Ellie Greenwich that was directed by Debra Knapp in the 2004-5 season.
“This show, which uses ’60s and ’70s ‘girl group’ songs written by Greenwich to tell her life story really resonated with the baby boomers, which make up the bulk of our audience,” he said. “Every performance was sold out and standing room only, so we actually had more people see the show than our total number of seats.”

El Paso Chopin Festival: Creating an Audience

Lucy Scarbrough, founder and artistic director of the El Paso Chopin Piano Festival, has worked as both a performer and director in the classical music world, and she said getting a Chopin Festival not only started in the area, but making it a success for 25 years is in itself a huge achievement.
“When I first conceived of the festival, I held a meeting of local musicians to get their input. Although they were supportive, they were skeptical about the festival’s potential.” Scarbrough said of the festival, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. “One said, ‘You would be lucky to get 15 people in the audience.’ I answered, ‘Do you want to bet?’ but in my heart, I wondered if he was right.”
Scarbrough said she knew she had to work hard to spread the word, so she began a grass-roots campaign to get people interested. This included handing out flyers to everyone she met, and inviting them personally to come to the concerts.
“When the first pianist walked on stage, he met a standing-room-only audience of over 480 people, and we had to turn away many more,” she said. “That told me that we were serving a real need in El Paso. We have been going strong ever since, but it still requires hard work every season.”

El Paso County Coliseum: The Stardom of Selena

For El Paso Coliseum, it is hard to pick their biggest, most successful, events. Since 1942 the entertainers who have filled the venue have included Elvis Presley, Jackson Five, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Johnny Cash, Ricky Martin, Green Day and Ariana Grande.
But when most people involved in the Coliseum think of the one event they still get comments and questions about, it was the immensely popular “Queen of Tejano,” Selena, whose El Paso performance turned out to be one of the final concerts of her short lifetime.
The Aug. 6, 1994 concert was a stop on her “Amor Prohibido Tour.” Selena performed to an “energetic packed house of thousands of fans who had waited in line for hours prior to the doors opening,” according to Coliseum officials. She was shot and killed less than eight months later at age 23.
Coliseum representatives said in their response “the concert would sell out and be forever memorialized in the minds and hearts of her borderland fans” and to this day, 25 years later, “it remains one of the concerts that is most asked about at the Coliseum.”

Community Foundation: Power of Pacino

Although events such as the Plaza Classic Film Festival aren’t focused on live theatre, there is something about a celebrity appearance that draws people to theater. However, with those appearances comes dealing with the actual celebrity.
For El Paso Community Foundation Vice President Kathrin Berg, actor Al Pacino’s appearance a few years ago still stands out from the others. His appearance took place not only during the film festival, but when the foundation was looking to celebrate Paul Foster’s part in restoring and refurbishing the Mills Plaza Complex.
“It was a combination of the centennial celebration of the Mills Building and the 5th annual El Paso Community Foundation Plaza Classic Film Festival,” Berg said. “We all wanted to do something special to honor Paul as well as celebrating downtown El Paso’s ongoing renaissance which kicked off in 2006 with the restoration of the Plaza Theatre.”
She said at first she was very intimidated at the idea of bringing in Pacino.
“Have you seen any of his rough and tumble movies — ‘Say hello to my little friend’? Goodness! What was he going to be like to work with,” Berg said. “He turned out such a humble and sincerely sweet man.”
The contract, however, was strict.
“The contract that his agents sent over said we were not to let anyone close to him and have bodyguards and two uniformed police officers around him at all times,” she said. Even with those conditions, what made Berg “fall in love with the dear Al Pacino” was his humanness.
“After his appearance for the El Paso Community Foundation, we snuck him through the back alley so we could get him to his car and swiftly take him to the airport as instructed. But, he looked at the hundreds of fans that were behind the barricades in the alley,” Berg said. “They had old VHS tapes and posters of his movies. He looked at me, whose job it was to be five steps behind him at all times, and nudged his neck and shoulder signaling to me that he was going to ‘work the crowd.”’ He took selfies, signed all kinds of Al Pacino paraphernalia that fans brought with them and was as gracious as he could be.”
She said it was a good hour before he got into the car. “He said, ‘Who would I be if I didn’t have these fans. I’d be nobody. They are my people,’” Berg recalled. “Boom! I was lovestruck. What a beautiful human being.”
Their latest film festival, with actors Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, who have been married for more than 30 years, was another successful example of celebrity guests, particularly as Elliott’s parents went to Austin High School and worked as lifeguards at Washington Park Pool.
“The excitement around downtown and the Plaza is still buzzing, and more is happening every day,” Berg said. “What a great city we live in!”


Copyright 2019 by Cristo Rey Communications