Current Issue

The Hottest Ticket in Town: DU’s Newman Center has blossomed into one of the region’s premier performance venues.

Newman Center offerings include classics like "The Nutcracker." Photo: Michael Richmond

Since its spring 2003 debut, the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts has earned accolades by the thousands. It has chalked up unqualified raves for its acoustics, aesthetics and innovative programming. And like a newly discovered soprano at the dawn of divadom, the Newman Center is poised for a long reign at center stage.

On 300 nights a year, says Stephen Seifert, executive director of the facility, the Newman Center is humming with business. In the Gates Concert Hall, the Byron Theatre, the Hamilton Recital Hall and the Williams Recital Salon, DU music and theater students showcase their craft. When students are not performing, the center’s doors and stages are open to local arts groups in need of performance space. The Newman Center, Seifert says, “is giving them the opportunity of showing off their best work.”

On other nights, the venues provide the backdrop for the Newman Center Presents performing arts series, which brings to town a diverse array of accomplished artists, many of them performing in Colorado for the first time. The lineup also draws a large cross-section of arts patrons: dance lovers, jazz aficionados, world music fans and musical theater buffs.

With such a jam-packed schedule, there’s barely time to sweep the aisles and tune up the equipment between performances. But a full and bustling house means the center is fulfilling its mission. Simply put, Seifert says, “The Newman Center was built to be of service to the campus and the community.”

World-class musical education

As director of orchestral studies at the Lamont School of Music, Lawrence Golan knows that nothing stimulates aspiration like a world-class concert hall.

In fact, music students have found the Newman Center’s venues the perfect setting for their finest efforts. “It’s had a tremendous impact on their studies in that they are getting experience performing in a world-class auditorium. If I had to say anything negative, it’s that they are getting spoiled,” Golan says, noting that since the center has opened, an increased number of national and international students have applied to study at Lamont. The performance venues alone don’t lure top talent, he says, but they certainly influence a prospective student’s decision.

Because the center attracts top performers from around the world, DU students often benefit from the opportunity to learn from and share the stage with the best in the business. At a recent So- Percussion concert, music students joined the critically acclaimed ensemble onstage for a performance that combined bongo drums, glockenspiels, marimbas, voices, whistling and piccolo. Lamont students also performed with the London Symphony Chorus. “To be able to perform with that group was pretty amazing,” Golan says.

The facilities have also allowed Lamont to expand its audiences for concerts and recitals. Golan, who directs the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, remembers when the group performed at the former Houston Fine Arts Center on the old Park Hill campus. In that center’s much smaller theater, the audience consisted mostly of the performers’ friends and relatives. Today, performing in the 977-seat Gates Concert Hall, the orchestra consistently fills the seats with the customary parents, siblings, spouses and friends, but also with a general audience of DU students and music lovers from the community.

That’s largely because the orchestra is so accomplished, Golan says, but it’s also because the hall adds luster to any concert. “The size, the seats, colors and lighting all combine to make a warm environment,” he says. So warm and inviting, in fact, that overflow crowds will often stand in the aisles just to savor the acoustics and ambiance. At a 2003 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the crowd in the aisles numbered well over 300.

“As a conductor who is trying to build audiences,” Golan says, “that is a great problem to be confronted with.”

Community arts groups help keep the Newman Center humming 300 nights a year. In December, Denver's Cleo Parker Robinson Dance performed its annual "Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum." Photo: Michael Richmond

The Goldilocks principle

Other performing artists are confronting the same happy conundrum.

Before 2003, Denver’s performing arts groups were too often in search of a suitable and affordable venue. As Seifert recalls, the options ranged from the grandiose to the humble. “If you had taken an inventory of the theatrical spaces around the Denver area, you would have found large concert spaces and you would have found a lot of smaller repertory theaters. What you would have missed was a mid-size venue of just under a thousand seats built under the principle of great natural acoustics and great sight lines,” he says.

Enter the Newman Center. Its halls were designed, in part, to add to the community’s resources, to give medium-size, medium-budget arts groups a place to shine. That kind of support can make the difference for a group heavy on talent but light on resources. “We have never had to advertise the availability of rental space here,” Seifert says. “The minute we opened, we were overbooked.”

Today, the Newman Center facilities are rented by a number of premier cultural organizations, including the Friends of Chamber Music, Denver Brass, the DU-based Spirituals Project and the Denver Post/Rocky Mountain News’ Pen and Podium series, which offers literary evenings with famous writers. The Newman Center also has become a primary Denver venue for one of the city’s longstanding cultural mainstays, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance.

For years, the company had staged its yuletide extravaganza, Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex. But the group lost its space at the downtown theater to another seasonal production. That left Robinson in need of a stage and some seats.

When someone suggested Newman’s flexible Byron Theatre, Cleo Parker Robinson seized the opportunity to move the production. At the Byron, she could continue to stage the show in the round. With its intimate seating, the Byron also allowed the company to maintain its connection with the audience. What’s more, DU theater students were available to lend support backstage.

Just as important, says Donna Smith, executive director of the organization, the dance troupe was eager to strengthen its ties with the Newman Center, whose dedication to students, education and diversity mirrors the ensemble’s own priorities. “Being at the Newman Center has a wonderful credibility in the public’s mind,” she says.

Performing arts gumbo

Building public credibility by incorporating DU into august company was exactly what Seifert had in mind when he assumed his Newman Center post, fresh from a stint at Opera Colorado.

“It’s a very common and long-lived tradition in this country that universities present a series of performing arts,” he says. Of the nation’s 4,000 colleges and universities, 2,300 offer such a series. “A lot of the older presenters are in college towns, where the university is part of the community’s cultural ecology,” he adds. These institutions see cultural programming as an essential contribution they make to their community. DU, Seifert believes, should be no different.

With that in mind, Seifert and his staff launched Newman Center Presents — DU’s own twist on collegiate tradition. “By the end of this season we will have presented 49 performers or ensembles in nine disciplines,” Seifert says. Twenty-eight of these performances will have been Denver or Colorado premieres.

The series mixes art forms, introducing audiences to world music, spoken-word performances and avant-garde dance. In any given year, series productions might range from a ragtime orchestra and a world-famous pianist to a sassy actress with a one-woman show.

“We set out to create an eclectic series, so that every time you come you get a different experience,” Seifert says. “It’s a balancing act, creating this season, because we want a mix of things that are like old friends, but we also intentionally include performers who you may never have heard of before. We think a university’s mission is, in part, exploration, creating new works. It’s resonant with what any university stands for.

“They might not be everybody’s cup of tea,” Seifert says of some of the offerings, but in an increasingly multicultural environment, he notes, it’s important that people learn to tackle the new and different.

So far, Seifert’s recipe for performing arts gumbo seems to be working. The series has grown from nine shows in its first season to 16 in its fourth. The shows don’t all sell out, but most are well attended, with season subscribers accounting for about one-third of the seats. DU students come out in force for shows with timely cultural content. For example, in October 2006 when Speak Theater Arts staged N*W*C The Race Show, professors teaching first-year seminars urged students to attend. “I think we had somewhere north of 400 freshmen here,” Seifert recalls.

Ticket sales, venue rental fees and funds from DU’s Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences division cover $1.3 million of the center’s $1.5 million operating budget. The rest, Seifert says, is the University’s gift back to the community that supports it.

But Seifert is still seeking to expand audiences. He now has a database of patrons who have experienced the center and the series. “We started with a mailing list of that many,” he says, making a zero with his thumb and forefinger. “Little by little we have been able to add to our database of audience members.” Today that database numbers 10,000, and it’s growing with every performance and published review.

“Our hope is that people come to trust us,” Seifert says, “that they know we put on stage the best possible things we can find.”

Comments are closed.