| 2015 Q4 | story by JULIE DUNLAP
Everclear, Jewell and No Doubt walked into a bar …
No joke, it’s a true story. And that bar is The Bottleneck, at 737 New Hampshire St., right here in Lawrence.
After 30 years in the business of recruiting local, national and international talent to perform in Lawrence, The Bottleneck owner Brett Mosiman understands both the importance and the process of attracting quality entertainment to our city, noting, “Music is a huge cultural impact to any town, and Lawrence has it in spades.”
In fact, according to Mosiman, no other live music scene for indie and up-and-coming bands like the one here in Lawrence can be found for hundreds of miles, making Lawrence a perennial must-stop for artists.
A variety of factors have made Lawrence a hotbed for entertainment, starting with its long history of creating and promoting the arts. As the landscape of entertainment changed, especially with the dawn of the Internet and the ensuing music and video streaming available, Lawrence maintained a vibe that welcomed and supported artists, with live music and theater venues outnumbering techno, gaming and dance clubs by a landslide.
State, county and city laws, ordinances and planning play a vital role in the industry, as well.
“Bands like all-ages shows and having a venue located in a vibrant downtown to walk around and shop and eat before going on stage,” Mosiman explains.
Current liquor laws allow Lawrence bars to hold all-ages and 18-and-over concerts under certain conditions, including tightly controlling underage alcohol consumption within the venue, a benefit to the many bands who make a living playing to houses packed with ticket holders and merchandise buyers.
And because most bands spend a quick 12 to 24 hours in each city they visit, having an accessible and lively downtown right outside the venue’s door makes Lawrence a prime spot for repeat performances.
Whether scouting talent at music festivals or networking with promoters across the country, Mosiman is always on the lookout for talent, typically booking shows about three months in advance. While he doesn’t have a strict formula, Mosiman tries to provide something for everyone each month, from Open Mic Nights to DJs to bluegrass, rock, pop and hip-hop, from as far away as Asia to as close as down the street.
But Lawrence isn’t only a music town. Just up Mount Oread from The Bottleneck, the Lied Center, located at 1600 Stewart Dr., has hosted hundreds of performances, ranging from touring Broadway shows to solo acts, international dancers to local musicians. Harry Connick Jr., “Avenue Q,” The Shanghai Chamber Orchestra and Bernadette Peters, among many others, have all played to Lied Center audiences since 1993.
Derek Kwan, executive director of The Lied Center since January 2014, is thrilled to carry on the tradition of recruiting the finest entertainment to the Lawrence stage.
“Lawrence has a reputation nationally for being an amazing college town,” Kwan reveals about his motivation for coming to Lawrence after spending seven years at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “And the Lied Center, in particular, is known for taking risks and proving that adventurous work can be done successfully,” Kwan states proudly.
The University of Kansas is one of fewer than 20 universities in the country bearing the title MUP, or Major University Presenter. KU receives this rare distinction because of its willingness to not just promote commercial entertainment but to move every genre of performing arts forward.
It isn’t just the city’s reputation for welcoming both commercial and noncommercial works, though, that has put the Lied Center on the map. The venue itself is most any tour manager’s dream stage when considering locations for one- or two-night runs. Its state-of-the-art facility with all sound, lighting and mechanical equipment available for traveling productions in-house greatly reduces the time and cost of load-in and setup, a feature that sets the Lied Center apart from other venues of similar size and market reach.
The venue is a draw for patrons, as well, with free and easily accessible parking, and a location within minutes of major highways and I-70, as well as comfortable seating, clear lines of vision from the audience to the stage and an exceptional sound system. In an era where showcasing entertainment can be done literally in the palm of one’s hand via the smartphone, having a venue that not only stirs residents to leave the comfort of their own homes but entices visitors from hundreds of miles away to spend their time—and their dollars—in Lawrence enhances the city’s reputation, economy and cultural influence.
The Lied Center’s partnerships with both KU and Lawrence Public Schools have a great impact on recruiting performers and young patrons. Black Violin, a ground-breaking strings duo featuring Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus, played a show so stunning for area fourth-graders six years ago that orchestra teachers at both Lawrence High School and Free State High School now find themselves with a solid and noticeable abundance of dedicated tenth-grade violinists, inspired by their fourth-grade field trip.
Even with an overwhelmingly favorable reputation and wide-reaching fan base, however, recruiting productions to Lawrence is not without challenges.
Because of Lawrence’s size and location, Kwan pays close attention to the tight competition in Kansas City and Topeka, and pursues talent constantly and carefully, limiting the number of offers made within each genre until the season is fully rounded out. Any given week could end with Kwan having presented several contracts, one at a time, to various acts and being turned down for reasons ranging from price to scheduling conflicts, always with new ideas in the pipeline.
Knowing people in the business provides a tremendous advantage when booking. Kwan was able to use his connection with Lyle Lovett’s agent to book a date with Lovett and John Hiatt early in the formation of their tour. The two played in October 2015 at the Lied Center, building their tour out from the Lawrence date.
An engaging season also relies on Kwan’s ability to capitalize on regional trends and successes with delicate balance, booking performers who have generated interest and revenue in nearby markets while their relevance is still high yet allowing enough time to pass between performances so their fan base is eager to buy tickets by the time they perform in Lawrence.
Another challenge is overcoming the conservative reputation of Kansas and the Midwest as a whole. “Artists will absolutely cancel dates in markets supporting politics they don’t agree with,” Kwan states, citing music group Wilco and comedians Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, who canceled their performances in Indiana after the state’s passing of the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, in March 2015.
Even with all of the parameters and challenges, though, Kwan enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to uphold and further strengthen the national reputation of the Lied Center as he finalizes performances for the 2016-17 season.
No need to wait between seasons to enjoy world-class entertainment in Lawrence, though, as the Lawrence Arts Center (LAC), at 940 New Hampshire St., brings its largest event of the year to life each summer: the Free State Festival.
While LAC recruits, trains, produces and installs theater, music, dance and visual art shows year-round, the Free State Festival is a culmination of LAC’s mission to enrich and invigorate the community by offering the best in contemporary exhibitions, performances and arts education.
Founded by LAC’s Director of Film and New Media Marlo Angell in 2011, the interdisciplinary arts festival has recruited scores of entertainers and industry professionals to Lawrence, including musicians George Clinton and Johnny Winter, comedians Tig Notaro and Marc Maron, and dozens of feature and short films, often with cast members, directors or producers available for discussion afterward.
Growing in just four years from a small, independent film festival in Lawrence to a wildly popular, weeklong destination event drawing 12,000 people to Downtown Lawrence last year alone is a testament not only to Angell’s dream and dedication but to the vision and hard work of the entire LAC staff, including Free State Festival Director Sarah Bishop, Development Director Heather Hoy and Artistic Director Ben Ahlvers, and partnerships with area venues like The Granada and Lawrence Public Library.
How do they even begin to find enough entertainment for a crowd of that size?
It all starts with thorough research.
“We look at other festivals, such as South by Southwest and Sundance, to find the year’s newest films, contact distributors and network through people we’ve built relationships with over the years,” Angell explains. “We also post calls for entries to the festival,” she says, smiling as she goes on to say that she personally watched every single film entry in its entirety for consideration.
When it comes to finding live acts, the process is a little different, but it still begins with research.
“We reach out to industry professionals with Lawrence and KU ties, and refer to IMDB Pro [an online database for television and film professionals] for contact information,” Angell says. Hoy adds that reaching a performer’s manager, who focuses on experiences that meet the performer’s long-term career goals, is preferred over reaching the agent, who typically acts as more of a project-to-project negotiator.
It isn’t always easy to convince a Comedy Central comedian or Hollywood-based actor to head to Lawrence for a couple of days in the summer, but Hoy’s and Angell’s persistence and passion most definitely pays off.
“It can be a struggle to recruit nationally recognized acts to come to Lawrence because people have an idea of what Kansas is in their heads,” Hoy says.
In initial conversations, Hoy and Angell draw comparisons to similar towns—“we’re like Austin but without the traffic,” jokes Hoy—and boast a history of strong curation and pedigree of performers, high attendance at events and the faithful support of corporate sponsors to entice performers to check out Jayhawk country.
“Once they hear more about Lawrence, they get it,” Angell adds with a smile.
“We had one Hollywood actor who agreed to speak at the festival after a showing of his film but had chosen to stay overnight at the Ameristar Hotel and Casino in Kansas City during his trip,” Hoy shares. “We picked him up in Kansas City and brought him to Lawrence for the day of his appearance. By the time we were finished touring downtown, visiting the Arts Center and eating lunch, he was so impressed with our town that he canceled his reservation in Kansas City and decided to finish the rest of his trip in Lawrence.”
Most performers are overwhelmingly impressed with Lawrence once they actually arrive because of the energy of the city as much as the royal treatment guests receive. While other festivals and markets might be able to offer a larger venue with greater exposure, visiting performers appreciate the personal attention they receive from the staff at LAC.
“We build and stock beautiful greenrooms, arrange drivers loaded with amenities, schedule appearances on local TV and radio programs, provide accommodations,” Hoy proudly says of her staff.
Not all names have been released for the 2016 festival, scheduled for June 20 through 25, 2016. This is another challenge Hoy and Angell face in recruiting, as most performers have limited ability to schedule special appearances too far in advance, holding out for long-term gigs over one-nighters. But if past festivals and growth are any indicator, Lawrence can prepare for another week of big names, ideas and experiences filling the hot summer days and nights.
“The Free State Festival is a labor of love for the Lawrence Arts Center,” LAC Chief Executive Officer Susan Tate affirms. “We consider the Festival a gift to the community as well as a pleasure to host, though everyone does the work outside of their regular jobs.”
The labor pays off, not just for audience members but for the city, as well. Downtown Lawrence businesses report increased food and retail sales during the Free State Festival. Tate adds that the festival “complements the goals of Lawrence’s recently completed Cultural Plan in creating a positive impact, offering work for Lawrence artists and others, and highlighting Lawrence as a cultural destination.”
From the intimate to the grand to the unexpected, Lawrence is a place for entertainment.