Less than five years ago, big-name music stars, touring theater shows and other major acts had just two options for places to perform in Greater Bangor: the dearly departed but no-frills Bangor Auditorium, or the University of Maine campus — most often, the Collins Center for the Arts.
Now, between the 16,000-capacity Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion and the brand-new 8,000-capacity Cross Insurance Center, Bangor can support shows that routinely draw more than 10,000 people. National tours for “Mamma Mia!” and Blue Man Group are planned for the Cross Center, and Kenny Chesney, Phish and Ke$ha are just some of the major artists featured among more than 20 concerts set for the 2013 Waterfront Concerts season.
So where does that leave the Collins Center, a 1,500-seat venue that struggles to accommodate Broadway shows with huge sets that can’t fit through the loading doors?
“Honestly, it really brings us back around to our beginnings, in a way,” said Adele Adkins, associate director for the Collins Center. “We don’t have to try to be everything to everyone. We can focus on being a really great arts venue, and on bringing top-notch arts programming to Maine.”
The center announced this month the majority of its 2013-2014 schedule. Some highlights include the first U.S. performance by the Orchester Jakobsplatz Munich, Oct. 17; Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Secret War,” Oct. 25; the national Broadway tour of “Godspell,” Nov. 3; an acoustic performance by Elvis Costello, Nov. 19; the touring show “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles,” Feb. 22; a reunion performance by country band Lonestar, March 12; and folk singer Ani DiFranco on May 7. More spring shows, including the gala event, will be announced in the coming months.
No blockbuster names. No big, glitzy Broadway shows. But board member Danny Williams, an associate director of planned giving at the University of Maine Foundation and director of the Black Bear Men’s Chorus, believes that it’s a case of apples and oranges when comparing the Collins Center with the other two venues.
“We can’t do what they do, and they can’t do what we do,” said Williams. “They can’t bring in the more intimate shows that people love. We can’t bring in Kenny Chesney.”
“Having more options [for entertainment] doesn’t mean that people decide they’re done with going [to shows] once they’ve seen one or two,” he added. “On the contrary, it means they have an even bigger appetite for it. It also means they aren’t going to Boston or Portland. They’re staying here.”
Adkins echoed Williams’ sentiment — she and executive director John Patches aren’t in the business of trying to compete with arena shows. They run a performing arts center.
“We’re not going to compete with a 10,000-person concert. That’s not what an arts center does,” said Adkins. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be progressive, but we still have an audience that likes chamber music and ballet. No, we don’t have three big Broadway shows this year, but it wasn’t a big year for Broadway shows anyway. Next year, we’d love to bring the touring show of ‘Once’ to our stage, which is an absolutely perfect venue for an intimate show like that. Shows like that are where we shine.”
Though the center is perhaps best known in Greater Bangor for bringing touring Broadway shows to its stage, in the past decade the shows available for booking on the center’s stage have dwindled as the sets for those shows increase in size. “Mamma Mia!” was one of the shows the center wanted to book, but space considerations made it impossible.
The first phase of a projected two-part renovation of the Collins Center was completed in early 2009, resulting in improvements to the auditorium itself and a major upgrade to the lobby. The second phase is still a long time coming and would involve a complete restructuring of the facility, adding the fly space, loading space and backstage area needed to accommodate larger shows. Phase two is estimated to cost between $9 million and $15 million to complete.
“As long as [our] stage is the way it is it will be a major challenge. That’s just the way it is. Phase two is very much on the radar. Discussions are ongoing. We’ve developed the most modest plan that will still function, because let’s face it, money is an issue,” said Patches. “We are desperate to become a fully functioning stage house. It kills us to see half of the set for a touring show sitting in the loading dock … but we are not at the point yet where we can say, ‘Yes, it’s a go.’ We’re hoping in the next three to five years we can move on it.”
Despite the physical hindrances, the fact that there are now other larger-capacity venues in Bangor means there are new opportunities that come with it. Both Patches and Adkins said they are eager to explore programming that the Collins and Cross Centers can present jointly. The University of Maine already has established a founding partner relationship with the Cross Center, and it was announced this week that the UMaine basketball teams will play their home games at the new arena.
“There are lots of possibilities there,” said Adkins. “We’ve got lots of ideas.”
Another part of the center’s mission is to program academically minded events.
There was great enthusiasm for last year’s philosophical symposium surrounding the performance of the play “Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters.” Collins Center staff expected around 20 people to come to the panel discussions before the performances, but more than 60 showed up.
Patches plans to assemble a similar day of discussions for the Oct. 17 Orchester Jakobsplatz performances.
The center also will host, with the Maine Arts Commission, a three-day conference in October called “Strengthen the Core,” which will bring together visual and performing artists, administrators and educators to share ideas and creativity.
“Programming like that is so important, considering we’re on a university campus,” said Patches. “Part of our mission is to encourage dialogue and be a part of an academic community. We also need to do more film, since we have a wonderful screen and projector and it’s a very comfortable place to see a movie.”
In board member Williams’ mind, any discussion about the future of the Collins Center and of arts and entertainment in eastern Maine is a good thing. The more people talk, the more they know about the options available to them. And the fact that there are more options than ever before leads him to believe there’s a larger audience than ever before.
“I think this is seen as a positive for everybody,” said Williams. “It is not us against them, and it never has been. It’s not a question of people having to pick one over the other. It’s that there are more choices, and choices are good. It means the area is growing.”