Director of Alaska's largest arts presenter reflects on tastes of Anchorage audiences

Mike Dunham
Jason Hodges, executive director of the Anchorage Concert Association, strikes an exuberant pose onstage in the Atwood Concert Hall on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Erik Hill

Jason Hodges, executive director of the Anchorage Concert Association, spent the first half of January at "showcases" in New York City. It's a recurring part of his job: checking out performing artists and groups to see what acts might make a good fit for Anchorage. In the first few weeks of January each year, the Big Apple brims with presenters like Hodges and acts hot to get a booking.

This year, you might say, they had a frosty reception all the way around as the "Polar Vortex" descended on the East Coast. Temperatures dipped into the single digits. "People kept telling us how cold it was," Hodges said. "I told them, 'It's not as cold as you think it is.'"

Hodges was born and raised in Fairbanks. He taught school there. When Catholic schools in Fairbanks needed help fundraising, the Monroe High School graduate stepped into the job and discovered he had a knack for nonprofit management.

In 2008, he came to Anchorage to take the top post with the ACA.

Since its founding in 1950, Anchorage's largest performing arts presenter has seen good years and not-so-good. Why a season ends with a profit or a debt depends on more than mere ticket sales. How well performers do their job is part of the equation, but whether people buy a seat is heavily influenced by the greater economy of the moment. The cost of bringing performers to Anchorage is a major consideration, especially when complicated sets need to be transported and set up. And funding from sources other than ticket sales is crucial since those sources make up 25 percent of the presenter's budget. (Less than 3 percent comes from public funding, according to the ACA website.) Corporate contributions, for instance, have declined in recent years, obliging Hodges to look elsewhere to fill the gap.

Nonetheless, "Right now we're probably in the healthiest place we've been in for a couple of years," he said. "Our individual donor base has increased. Not enough to offset the drop in corporate donations, but significant.

"We took a bit of a financial hit" in the 2012-13 season, he said. "But the three previous seasons had been very successful, so we could withstand it. And this season's gone really well. Pretty amazing, actually."

Taking the challenge

The 2013-14 season brochure lists almost 100 shows by 33 different individual headliners or groups, up from 22 in the 1994-95 lineup. It's a full house of musical theater, blues, pop, comedy, classical music and stuff that doesn't quite fit neat description.

Will it make money? The dice are still rolling. Several of the best-known stars -- indie music favorite Lisa Loeb, comedian Wayne Brady and radio showman Garrison Keillor -- came through in the fall and the first of three big musicals on the roster, "West Side Story," is now in the middle of a 12-show run.

"As we were programming the season, we wanted to help the PAC celebrate its 25th anniversary," Hodges said. The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts has been the venue for ACA shows since it opened in 1988 and ACA is by far the biggest presenter using the center. "We tried to cram in as many big names as we could in the front end of the season."

Highlights from fall 2013 included the annual production of "The Nutcracker" ballet, with excellent houses for six shows, Hodges said. Cirque Dreams Holidaze, a holiday-themed acrobatic revue, also did very well. Martin Short didn't sell seats quite as briskly as Wayne Brady -- the two comics had shows within two weeks of each other in October -- but both exceeded expectations, Hodges said.

"A big surprise was Quixotic Fusion," a high-tech mixed-media performance ensemble that melds dance, sound and light into "pure sensory mayhem," in the words of their press notice. Another unexpected full house came from slack key guitarist Keola Beamer with American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai.

" It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. I kept thinking how cool it was to be able to sell out anything like this," Hodges said.

"The next weekend we had Modern India," a contemporary Hindustani band. "It didn't connect in quite the same way. But the people who did come got an amazing show. I was proud that we'd taken the risk and brought these incredibly talented musicians from another part of the world to share their music with us. No one else was going to take that kind of challenge."

Tricky dance

There's no certain way to know how any given show will be received, Hodges said. Last season's musical, "Dreamgirls," wasn't particularly successful, he said, "And we're not sure why.

"The magic formula comes down to what does the community want and how does it respond. What we've learned is that there are a lot of audiences for a lot of different things if we're willing to experiment and try something new."

Some of these shows go to the Discovery Theatre, which is smaller and less expensive than the Atwood Concert Hall, where musicals and other big productions are staged. "It's where we tend to bring in the untested, the unknown, in a low-risk kind of way so that we don't lose a lot of money."

Big names can charge more, a reality reflected in ticket prices. The myth that stars long to come to Alaska just to see the snow is only a myth, Hodges said. There may have been a time when it was true, but those days are gone.

"You'd be surprised that it isn't much of a selling point for most artists. But that's understandable. Their office is the performance hall. That's where they get paid. This is their job and how they make money. To come to Alaska means they have to put a day out of the office on either side of the show."

Up-and-coming artists are a different matter. "The younger they are, the hungrier they are," Hodges said. "They're easy to find, but usually not the ones at the peak of their career."

A popular and established solo act like Brady is relatively easy to accommodate since there's little in the way of sets, special effects or support cast needed.

But "dance is tricky," Hodges said. "You need extra rehearsal days. Usually they have special lighting needs. The whole show has more production costs and those costs have risen over time while the audience for dance has declined."

In 1994-95, for instance, there were four dance companies on the ACA schedule, including the Joffrey Ballet and Loretta Livingston's company to add to the perennial "Nutcracker." This year, aside from Quixotic Fusion's dance component and "The Nutcracker," there are none.

Musicals fill in some of the dance card with choreography that can border on spectacle. "The dancing in 'Chicago' was astounding," Hodges said. Among other recent musicals, the Disney versions of "The Lion King," "Mary Poppins" and "Beauty and the Beast" had big dance numbers. The musical now at the Atwood, "West Side Story," is considered to be a modern ballet as much as a Broadway songfest.

Hodges isn't closing the curtain on all pure dance presenters. "It's an art form that needs an extra level of subsidy from the community," he explained. Then, on his cell phone in New York, he added, "I'm reasonably certain that there'll be a dance group coming next season."

Instant feedback

Next season is why Hodges was in New York checking out the groups he may bring here. It's one of the fun parts of the job.

"Oh, wow!" he responded when asked what was catching his attention. "Last night we saw two Broadway shows, 'Kinky Boots,' which won the Tony last year, and 'Motown: The Musical,' which I think would be a tremendous program to have in Anchorage."

He had four days left in his New York trip and "15 things to see between now and when we get on the plane. There's a Latin jazz player. A classical ensemble I'm hoping to book. Hopefully I'll get to see Ira Glass in a new thing that involves a dance ensemble. There's comedy, a Shakespeare improv group, music of all kinds. It's all over the map."

His picks have to match the realities of bringing a show to Alaska. Distance, population and costs all feed into the calculation in ways that wouldn't necessarily be an issue in a city this size in the Lower 48. However, Hodges noted, few markets of Anchorage's size would ever get the kind of acts ACA brings up. "Down here, people just have to drive to the really big cities to see these acts."

The hardest part is separating what one likes from what one can reasonably expect to work in the unique market of Alaska's largest city.

"We don't do this to please ourselves. We do it to make Anchorage a better place to be," he said. "When people come to a show, hopefully they're transformed in a way that makes them feel the two hours has been worth it."

He seldom has to wonder if that's happened if he's made the right pick. "The feedback we get is immediate. That applause at the end of the show is how we know we've been successful."