A Bit of Broadway in Owensboro
Owensboro’s entertainment venue RiverPark Center is “coming over the footlights,” reaching audiences not just in Daviess County but around the world.
To say that a performer “comes over the footlights” is a great compliment. It means the dancer, actor, or singer combines superb technical skills with a unique ability to connect directly with the audience. The performer’s own strength of personality is so intense that even while staying “in character” on the stage, he or she is able to make a direct emotional connection with members of the audience.
RiverPark Center’s success blends business savvy with solid entertainment value, a combination that’s lifting the local economy, boosting community pride, and even raising student achievement scores.
Big Personality, Big Goals
Since its 1992 grand opening (its construction financed with a combination of state and local funds, plus donations from individuals and businesses), the 72,000-square-foot performing arts and civic center hosted shows by local arts groups and attracted national touring productions for brief runs. A growing arts education program brought school children to the Center to introduce them to the excitement and intricacies of live performances.
Then in 2003, veteran Broadway producer Zev Buffman (40 shows and 27 Tony Award nominations) took over as president and CEO at RiverPark Center.
Buffman says, “When I arrived here four years ago, I saw opportunities that had not been tapped into and niches that had not been filled. From a production standpoint, this is a building that would be the envy of any Broadway producer, symphony conductor, or outdoor concert specialist in much bigger cities than Owensboro.” Buffman embarked on a multi-year program to increase RiverPark’s presence in the local community and gain worldwide attention.
Step one was to change RiverPark Center from being just a stop for a Broadway touring company into an origination point for shows.
Using his years of Broadway connections, Buffman convinced East Coast producers to build their stage sets with local labor in Owensboro, bring in Broadway cast members to rehearse, then launch national and international tours directly from Owensboro.Huge crates and steamer trunks filled with everything from props to costumes for 42nd Street and Mel Brooks’ The Producers boast labels declaring, “Made in Owensboro, originally produced at RiverPark Center.”
It’s great advertising that’s paying off in more productions beginning in Kentucky’s third largest city—750 miles from New York City’s Broadway. While local performing arts groups still provide the bulk of programming at RiverPark Center, to date, six national and international tours have been launched from Owensboro. This August and September, a crew and cast of about 150 will come to Owensboro to build, rehearse, and launch the 30th anniversary national touring production of Annie.
“Step two of our plan was to get junior and senior high school kids, as well as college students and educators, into our building for several weeks every summer,” Buffman recalls. “We created our Young Adult Theater Academy, YATA for short, that offers what no one else in America offers. Here at RiverPark these young people are embedded as a part of the birth of new productions. They get to shadow people working on every aspect of a Broadway show, from lighting to scenery, costumes, marketing, management, computer science, even the pit orchestra as they rehearse that big score.”
In YATA’s first year, 31 students participated; the second year brought 228 students. Now, they are also joined by high school students from the Governor’s School for the Arts at distant college campuses who arrive in Owensboro by bus to spend an entire day working shoulder-to-shoulder with actors, stagehands, technicians, and musicians who are part of a real Broadway company.
Buffman’s third goal becomes reality later this month, June 12-17, with the first International Mystery Writers’ Festival, Discovering New Mysteries. Producers, directors, agents, publishers, and critics representing national and international theater, television, and motion pictures will attend, along with many guest stars, to view the festival’s world premiere of 12 new, live-on-stage works.
Buffman says, “The Mystery Festival is the most complicated and most ambitious project we have ever attempted here. It could be the most important arts event since the first Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville 31 years ago.”
Big Money, Big Future
Daviess County Judge Executive Reid Haire says, “Each community looks to find niches or opportunities that can set that community apart. It does so for a variety of reasons: for tourism, for enriching the culture of the region, for economic development. The RiverPark Center achieves all three. In the area of economic development, the RiverPark Center brings a group of individuals into our community not normally associated with economic development. There are no smokestacks, there are no offices to go to.” And yet the arts are a powerful economic engine.
Jody Wassmer, president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, says, “One definition of economic development is bringing in outside money to our community. RiverPark Center is doing just that. The Chamber applauds the RiverPark Center because they bring people here to eat, shop, see a show, or some other activity, spending money all along the way.” Recent estimates put the direct and indirect impact of all that tourism at more than one million dollars per Broadway show.
And there’s a long-term effect after the tourists leave. Wassman says, “It’s increased the scope of people who know where Owensboro is and are taking a look at our community as a progressive community.” Someone who comes to see a play may leave with the idea of returning to start up a business in the area.
Kentucky’s state-mandated CATS testing includes large sections about the arts and humanities for students in grades 5, 8, and 11. Steven Rahe, former arts education director at RiverPark Center, says, “Our ‘Arts in the AM’ programs are tailor-made for students preparing for these tests. Over the course of the morning, the students rotate through various rooms at RiverPark and are taught by local and guest performers specifically about the four arts disciplines of theater, visual arts, dance, and music.” Students are on their feet, learning by doing.
RiverPark Center is a member of the Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, a collective of other arts organizations throughout America that work to create and maintain strong relationships and communications with local classrooms.
Rahe says, “This means we partner with Daviess County Public Schools and the Owensboro Public Schools to get students and teachers interested in and inspired by the arts. We keep the communication flowing—we find out what the teachers need and what the students need, then we work with each other to create strong programs.” Recently, RiverPark Center brought in a nationally known guest artist to do a professional development program for teachers, demonstrating how puppets can be used in the classroom to help students understand such concepts as plot and character development.
Marilyn Mills, educational programming coordinator for Daviess County Public Schools, says, “Daviess County is ranked among the top achievers in the state. We’ve been designated as a ‘high performing school district,’ and we attribute the arts to our high scores because research says that the arts enhance math and science knowledge.” That’s why Daviess County schools bring not just 5th-graders, but also 3rd- and 4th-graders to workshops at RiverPark Center each year.
Other programs, such as “Arts Teach Kids” featuring performances during the school day, mean that tens of thousands of young students from Kentucky and southwestern Indiana come to RiverPark Center each academic year.
In Kentucky’s rural Ohio County, traveling to Owensboro for programs at RiverPark Center is a mind-opening experience for students. Cheryl Shrewsbury, assistant superintendent, says, “The interactive nature of live theater is so exciting for our kids.
"They see movies all the time, but when a cast member turns to the edge of the stage to address the audience or ask them a question, it’s powerful. I am a firm believer that for well-rounded human beings, we do need exposure to the fine arts, and RiverPark offers us a sampling of all kinds of culture.”
The inaugural International Mystery Writers’ Festival, June 12-17 in Owensboro, will include world premieres of six full-production stage plays, plus six “readings” of movie scripts done in the style of old-time radio programs, complete with sound effects.
Celebrity guests include Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote fame, best-selling Kentucky author Sue Grafton, and Stuart Kiminsky, 2006’s Edgar Award winner and current Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America.
For additional information or to make reservations, call (877) 639-6978 (877-NEW-MYSTery) or visit www.newmysteries.org.
The second Mystery Festival is already taking shape, with dates set for June 17-22, 2008.
To learn more about the backstage area at RiverPark Center, click here: RiverPark.