‘Z’ place to be: City’s live show hub closing on strategic plan, capital campaign following three years of membership growth, revenue gains

“When they find, kind of, the hot rooms, they want to stick to them,” Gill said. “And the Z now is considered one of the hot rooms. The artists love playing here.”

That energy was evident at the Feb. 3 show by jazzy funk artists Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, for example. The band closed an energetic set of improvisational, upbeat rhythms by leaving the stage and parading through the aisles, playing horns aimed at the ceiling, for a raucous encore.

“Trombone Shorty was wonderful — it was a great get,” Gill said Wednesday, saying the sell-out exceeded her initial expectations for ticket sales.

Gill, executive director of programming and development at the Zeiterion, said Wednesday that the downtown theater sold out about 40 percent of the shows in its 2015-16, “Stories Untold” season, which included about 55 main stage performances. Gill said that was the Z’s highest sellout rate on record, with other full houses for Arlo Guthrie last November, the Feb. 9 performance by The Moth storytelling organization, and many others.

The strong ticket sales reflect a trend of growth on several fronts since August 2013, when the Zeiterion’s board of directors installed Gill in her leadership role and made veteran technician Justin LaCroix executive director of facilities and production.

The Z’s membership has grown over that time from about 800 people to 1,400, the directors said, and its annual budget has grown from about $2.3 million to $3.2 million. Those budgets have been in the black for three years running, after previous struggles with deficits.

Gill said the theater’s fiscal year ended May 31, with a surplus of a little less than $100,000.

“From a financial standpoint, the revenue stream is growing considerably,” said Peter Hughes, president of the Zeiterion’s board of directors. “Obviously, we’re benefiting to some degree from an improvement in the economy in the area. But we’ve invested in putting some talented people in really key spots within the staff, and we think that’s paying some dividends.”

Gill and LaCroix have hired full-time marketing and development directors — Penny Pimentel and Nicole Merusi, respectively — and education manager Leann Heath, among others, creating a staff of about 15 in the third-floor offices at the downtown theater. The Zeiterion shares space in the building with two other nonprofits: New Bedford Festival Theater — which opened Friday night with “Grease” — and New Bedford Symphony Orchestra.

“We have the strongest staff and team that I’ve seen over the 10 years,” Gill said, referring to her tenure at the Z. “What that means, from my point of view for programming, is I can be braver about who I decide to make an offer on. I can take those chances because we’ve been so successful.”

That success is fueling future plans, and a potentially significant turning point in the theater’s 93-year history. Gill and LaCroix said a strategic plan for the Z will be released in the next month or so, likely to be followed by a feasibility study for capital projects and then a fundraising campaign.

Improvements could include better seats and bathroom facilities — two of the main items mentioned, LaCroix said, in a survey that drew more than 900 respondents about a year ago. Bathroom space is a problem familiar to anyone who’s attended a Z show and seen (or waited in) lines that can snake down a side aisle.

“We’re really looking at ways to improve the experience for our patrons,” Gill said.

Potential upgrades in accessibility, for example, could come through collaborations with groups including the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, Cultural Access New England and Very Special Arts, which work to improve arts experiences for people with disabilities.

Another improvement that’s been talked about and came through in the surveys, LaCroix said, is the installation of “a true marquee — a theatrical marquee” above the theater’s main entrance.

LaCroix told an anecdotal story about a visitor to the city earlier this month, during the New Bedford Folk Festival. The festival was a Zeiterion production for the first time this summer, under a new partnership with longtime festival managers Alan and Helene Korolenko. LaCroix said the visitor, walking downtown near the Z’s Purchase Street location, asked where the theater was — indicating that without a marquee, the Z might not be immediately recognizable as a performance venue.

Gill and LaCroix said improving that visibility, for visitors and the local community alike, is a primary goal of their marketing, outreach and audience development efforts — which already are showing results.

“We know more people are paying attention to us,” Gill said. “Another great thing that’s happened is agents — we’re on their radar, too.

“There are many, many (agents and artists) who may not have been engaged with us in any real way and now are coming to us and seeing us as a viable stop on a tour,” she added.

Festive ventures

Gill, Folk Festival operations manager Brooke Baptiste and Dagny Ashley, the city’s director of tourism and marketing, said attendance numbers aren’t yet finalized for this year’s festival. But all three said anecdotal reviews have been strong so far, from local businesses, festival vendors and visitors, despite cloudy skies and the festival’s move to the weekend following the Fourth of July, rather than over the Fourth.

“All of our stages were packed throughout the day, despite the weather,” Baptiste said, referring to both days of the July 9-10 event.

Gill added that the cooler temperatures could have been preferable for people at outdoor stages, but may have deterred people planning to come from longer distances.

Regardless, the first running of the festival under the new partnership — with the Korolenkos remaining on board as artistic directors — went smoothly, from all accounts.

Pimentel said about 20 percent of ticket-buyers contributed to a survey, a response rate that reflects Folk Festival devotees’ interest in the longtime event.

“They’re a very involved, passionate group,” Pimentel said. “It’s a summertime tradition.”

The event was the Zeiterion’s second dip into the festival-hosting waters. The first was with Viva Portugal, a May 7 celebration conducted with groups including the Club Madeirense S.S. Sacramento, the Prince Henry Society, the Day of Portugal, the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society and New Bedford’s Portuguese consulate.

Pimentel said the event was the first such collaboration of “every Portuguese cultural organization in the city.”

With two successes under its belt, the Z has a third festival still to come this summer.

Baptiste said 2,000 to 3,000 people are expected for the revived New Bedford Whaling Blues Festival, a daylong event scheduled for Aug. 13 at Fort Taber, in the city’s South End.

The festival has been dormant for a decade but will return on the broad lawn at the peninsula’s edge, with a stage facing Buzzards Bay. Information is online, at nbwhalingbluesfest.com.

“I love that they’re doing these outdoor events, because they do an amazing job,” Ashley said, adding that the city “couldn’t be happier” about the work of the Z’s directors.

“With Rosemary and Justin at the helm, the Zeiterion has continually progressed over the last three years,” Ashley said. “They’re very community-oriented, and their partnerships and leadership have been amazing.”

Broad appeal

Gill said the Zeiterion had a local economic impact amounting to $5.2 million in fiscal year 2016, supporting 171 jobs in the area. The figures are based on the Z’s annual budget and an economic prosperity calculator by nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts.

Impacts for local businesses can extend beyond theatergoers shopping or dining downtown — Elissa Paquette, owner of the Calico clothing store on Union Street, said she frequently gets business from performers, as well.

The girlfriend of singer CeeLo Green shopped at Calico before Green’s show at the Z last month, Paquette said. Another example is singer Katharine McPhee, who stopped by before a November 2013 show.

“She came in the store with her backup singer,” Paquette said. “They were super cool, they bought a bunch of stuff, they invited us to the show, (and) they brought us up on stage to dance with them.”

Paquette noted, though, that Zeiterion crowds don’t always mean Calico shoppers.

“I would love to see (the Zeiterion) do stuff that is a little bit more affordable for the local community, and for a younger demographic,” she said. “In terms of my business, I would definitely be looking for a younger crowd.”

Gill and Hughes, the board president, said the Z offers about 10,000 free or subsidized tickets per year, to underserved families and community members.

Hughes acknowledged, though, that survey respondents have raised Paquette’s point.

“Certainly, there is feedback toward attracting a younger crowd,” he said. “There were some specific call-outs for stuff like that, for shows for younger audiences.”

He said building a broader appeal is “definitely on our radar.” Hughes mentioned the May 2015 show by hip-hop string musicians Black Violin, and the upcoming, Sept. 15 show by lively string band Old Crow Medicine Show (which LaCroix said already is “selling well,” by the way).

Hughes said that whether the outreach is to differing income levels, ethnic communities or age groups, “we just want to bring more people in to enjoy the performing arts.”

By the busload

That outreach extends to local youth. Gill and LaCroix said the Z’s curriculum-based Arts in Education programs involve nearly 30,000 students and teachers every year.

Schoolbuses lining Spring Street can be a common sight, as touring performers frequently do afternoon events and activities with students.

“The Zeiterion continues to be a valuable partner to New Bedford High School, providing access to the performing arts for students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to get firsthand, world-class performances that really complement what they’re learning in school,” NBHS Principal Bernadette Coelho said last week, via email.

Coelho said the programs give teachers new opportunities for professional development, as well.

“It’s a natural fit for New Bedford High because of our strong visual and performing arts offerings and Academy of Arts & Humanities,” Coelho said. “The Z supports that in being informative, educational, and engaging for the audience, which are all hugely important when students are involved.”

Gill said that, all told, the mainstage performances, educational programs and more amount to more than 250 events at the Zeiterion every year. She and LaCroix hope to see those events continue to expand and evolve well into the future.

“Performing arts can revitalize a city,” Gill said. “This city, although it’s a small city … what would it be without the Z?”

Follow Mike Lawrence on Twitter @MikeLawrenceSCT

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