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Theater groups draw cultural tourists to Finger Lakes region

Rochester Business Journal
May 30, 2014

Past seasons have brought productions of “Cabaret,” above, to the Bristol Valley Theater in Naples and “Don Pasquale” to the Smith Opera House in Geneva. (Photo courtesy of Bristol Valley Theater)

Leaders of regional theaters and arts organizations rely on various approaches to attract visitors to their host communities. Some plan to break ground on new performance spaces or have recently improved their existing ones, while others are presenting summer seasons that have broad appeal.

Greater awareness of the area’s cultural and recreational attractions already has begun helping the theaters fill more seats.

“As the Finger Lakes … develop and grow and claim the status of the ‘new Hamptons,’ which was (a slogan) kicked around last year at a tourism event, (we) will develop,” says Brett Smock, general manager and associate artistic director of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival and Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, Cayuga County. “And we’re very excited about everything that is happening, not only in Auburn but in the region.”

Revitalization efforts across Upstate New York also have begun paying off for arts organizations, says Kelly Bradley, executive director and director of operations at the Smith Center for the Arts, which owns and operates Smith Opera House in Geneva. The city of 13,000 residents recently adopted the tagline “Uniquely Urban” to celebrate its cultural diversity, renewed openness to entrepreneurship and thriving arts scene.

“So it’s a neat collaboration and blossoming of this little town,” she says.

Summer residents and tourists play a critical role in keeping Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, Ontario County, on solid ground, says David Shane, associate artistic director. The theater recently partnered with a bus-tour company that will bring in overnight guests from central Pennsylvania—and possibly Ohio—this summer.

“So we’re starting to grow in terms of what type of tour groups we work with, as opposed to just day trips,” Shane says.

Myriad attractions vie for people’s attention and discretionary dollars during the summer, so theater groups must give thought to what will help them compete.

“Every year we are faced with an interesting programming challenge in a way, that we want to pick shows that speak to audiences and have familiarity and will have resonance with their interests,” Smock says. “And at the same time, I think we’re always looking to create a unique distinction about our company and do programming that is interesting on several newer levels as well.”

Developing Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival’s lineup for this summer entailed whittling a list of 60 possible productions to five while taking into account “brand recognition, how soon that show might be done in the area, how recently it’s been done in the past,” Smock says. “And we also have to look at factors that are practical—(production) size requirements, demands, things like that.”

He describes the series of shows as “a celebration of happiness and family entertainment that we could sell across the board.”

In keeping with that goal, the theater festival will present “Mary Poppins” from June 4 to July 2, followed by “Damn Yankees,” the musical comedy about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil so that his favorite team can win the pennant, from July 9 to 30. “On the Town,” the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York City during World War II, will run from Aug. 6 to 27.

Beyond classic fare, the theater festival will host The Pitch, a series of plays in development, from June 19 to Aug. 30. Ten playwrights from around the country will present their work-in-progress and then ask for audience feedback.

Now in its third year, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival attracts 35 percent of its audience from the Syracuse area, says Kristin Bridges, marketing mana-ger for the festival.

“So we have a lot of people, I think, in-state that are doing their traveling to the more scenic parts of the Finger Lakes and are looking for things to do,” she says. Bus tours from Canada also help boost attendance figures.

The outlook for continuing to attract arts enthusiasts to Auburn is bright, Smock says. Last year, the theater festival broke ground for the Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center, which would include a 300-seat performance space in downtown Auburn. An opening date has not been set.

Improving their facilities’ infrastructure is another way arts organizations aim to attract more tourists.

For the first time in its 120-year history, Smith Opera House in Geneva will be air-conditioned this summer. The Smith Center for the Arts is publicizing the improvement through its “We’re Cool” live-music series.

“So we’re programming all summer long (now), and it does have an economic impact,” Bradley says. “But it also starts to make our area a destination instead of a pass-through.”

Theater options at the opera house this summer will include “The Drowsy Chaperone,” presented by Geneva Theatre Guild. The musical comedy, which centers on an asocial theater fan who encounters the characters from his favorite play in his rundown apartment, will run July 17 to 20.

On July 24, 26 and 27, Geneva Light Opera will present “The Magic Flute,” the two-act Mozart opera about a prince and a bird catcher who try to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter from an evil sorcerer. The performances will be in English.

Bristol Valley Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, will kick off its summer season with “Oh, Coward!” a musical revue based on composer Noel Coward’s work, June 12 to 22. “Next Fall,” a contemporary play about a gay couple with divergent views on religion, will run from June 26 to July 6, and four other shows will round out the season.

Shane says he is confident the range of programming will draw crowds.

“We really give something for everyone,” he says.

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

5/30/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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