From the Duke-UNC game to The Book of Mormon, event presenters faced difficult decisions

| February 19, 2014
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- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

When a major weather event hits, must the show go on?

Last Wednesday, this showbiz adage was nudged from its slumber and sent into battle as area event presenters reacted to a winter storm that was approaching faster and more severely than many had anticipated.

"While 'the show must go on,' we understand weather may be an issue," tweeted NC Theatre early in the afternoon, while also offering information on ticket exchanges for its performance of Les Misérables. (The tweet was later deleted.)

Several major events were scheduled to take place that evening, including The Book of Mormon at Durham Performing Arts Center, Les Misérables at Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium, Pat Metheny Unity Group at Durham's Carolina Theatre and the Duke-UNC men's basketball game, which had been set to tip off at 9 p.m. in Chapel Hill.

At the end of the night, all of these events were canceled save one: The Book of Mormon, which went ahead as scheduled in defiance of official admonitions for people to stay off the roads. Most of the approximately 2,700 people who held tickets stayed home, either by choice or necessity, and the theater was less than a quarter full, according to multiple eyewitness estimates. (The INDY's critic made it to the show, against an editor's advice to stay home.)

DPAC officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Within an hour of NC Theatre's optimistic tweet, organizers were already racing to make another plan, says Lisa Grele Barrie, CEO of the nonprofit theater. At 3:03 p.m., NC Theatre and Broadway Series South announced the cancellation of that evening's performance on Facebook, and a formal email announcement was sent to patrons and the media an hour and a half later. Meanwhile, all hands were on deck at Duke Energy Center, says Grele Barrie, to assist patrons in exchanging tickets and other logistical matters. They worked Wednesday and Thursday, and were put up overnight at the Sheraton.

Fortunately for NC Theatre, there was an open date available for Feb. 17, and enough "inventory" (industry parlance for available seats) to offer exchanges to patrons holding tickets for the canceled Wednesday and Thursday performances.

However, event organizers in Durham and Chapel Hill were holding fast to their plans, even as ticket holders began to leave pleading, often angry messages on the venues' Facebook pages and on the phone with the box offices.

The Pat Metheny show was a co-presentation of the Carolina Theatre and Duke Performances. As the weather worsened, Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, who was in Tokyo on a business trip, monitored the situation through the wee hours. Greenwald was in contact with his staff in Durham, as well as Bob Nocek, the CEO of Carolina Theatre.

"Unfortunately, you don't look to a weather report or if the governor's saying 'keep off the roads.' What you look to is what other presenters are doing," Greenwald says. "Because this storm came so rapidly, we were all surprised that it got so treacherous so quickly. But understand that the mode of the presenter has to be that of an optimist."

It came down to the Duke-UNC game, Greenwald says. A nationally televised installment of a storied basketball rivalry was surely untouchable. Indeed, Wednesday morning, UNC announced that the game would be played even though Wednesday afternoon and evening classes were canceled.

But at 5:45 p.m., @unc_basketball tweeted that the game had been postponed. Both Greenwald and Nocek say the news was the final cue to cancel the Metheny show. "To see an event of that magnitude get canceled that late, that put it over the top for us," Nocek says.

Less than an hour later, Duke Performances announced the cancellation of the Metheny show, with between 75 and 150 patrons in the building.

Greenwald says that a presenter has to refund tickets after a cancellation and loses whatever promotion expenses, equipment rental and staff time that was committed, yet the party that takes the biggest financial hit is the artist. Metheny not only didn't get paid, but he was out his own expenses—including paying his band, staff, hotel and transportation costs. (Metheny also missed his next show in Roanoke, Va., unable to get out of Durham in time.)

Nocek says that patrons angered by the theater's inability to reschedule the Metheny show may not have understood the logistical impossibility of doing that with a tightly routed tour. He also points out that Metheny and his employees had been working at the theater all day. "Imagine that you've spent the day working and then you're told you're not going to get paid today. People might be more sympathetic."

Nonetheless, the staff of the Carolina experienced so much anger from customers that the theater released an extraordinary letter on its Facebook page as it announced that the Thursday performance by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings would take place as scheduled. (About 500 people made it to the show, about half the capacity of the Carolina's Fletcher Hall.)

"First, thank you to the many fans who did not lash out at us on these difficult days. We appreciate it," the letter began. "To the rest of you, we hope you'll think twice about the hatred and viciousness that you've sent our way. Frankly, it makes us sad. You have called us greedy, dangerous and have even threatened our staff. And over what? A concert."

Nocek says he co-wrote the letter with the theater's chief operating officer, Aaron Bare, who began drafting it as a way of "relieving the stress of being screamed at for two days."

When overwhelming, act-of-God conditions are in effect, presenters have the option of invoking "force majeure" to release themselves from having to pay the artist. But Nocek says this is difficult to justify when the artist is on site and ready to play, and at least a few ticket holders have managed to turn up. "Generally, the building needs to be unusable or the city needs to be evacuated," Nocek says. "Everything else is a gray area."

In the end, only DPAC opted to remain open. DPAC's hands may have been tied by an inability to get out of paying the production for the night's performance.

"The worst situation a presenter can have," Greenwald says, "is to have to pay a refund to patrons and also have to pay an artist's fee."

DPAC maintained that it had little alternative but to remain open, but critics pointed to Atlanta's Fox Theatre, which canceled two performances of The Book of Mormon during a major snowstorm last month. The theater also managed to schedule a makeup performance.

However, there is an important difference between the Fox Theatre and DPAC. A local nonprofit, Atlanta Landmarks Inc., operates the Atlanta facility, a lavish, 4,678-seat faux-Arabian former movie palace. According to its mission statement, Atlanta Landmarks is dedicated to making its spaces "available to the broadest possible audience of the general public."

DPAC, on the other hand, was built with public funds, but its operator, the Detroit-based Nederlander Organization, runs it as a profit-making enterprise. The city of Durham gratefully accepts its annual cut (in 2013, $1.323 million, down 28 percent from $1.830 million in 2012), but otherwise the theater operates with minimal local oversight.

Greenwald says the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is important to understand. "The Durham Performing Arts Center is under no obligation to take on anything that will lose them money," he says, noting the American Dance Festival as a singular possible exception.

"I'm happy DPAC is successful. I think it's contributed to the viability of Durham as a cultural hub," Greenwald continues. "But they are a for-profit presenter and they are returning a lot of profit.

"I would say that their compact with the audience ought to be considered different from the kind of compact Duke Performances and Carolina Theatre have with their audiences, and I think that's poorly understood in this marketplace."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Snowbiz."

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