On today’s Culture Couch, we’ll meet Ty Sutton, the new President & CEO of the Victoria Theatre Association. This evening, the VTA will be announcing its first shows of the 2019-2020 season. It will be one of Sutton’s first big moments in Dayton.
Community Voices Producer Jason Reynolds spoke to Sutton recently, amid the chaos of loading and unloading Broadway shows and ballets.
I’m sitting in the Orchestra Level of the Schuster Center with Ty Sutton. We’re watching stage hands and people in headsets run around, trying to transform a bare stage into a Broadway set.
“We’re actively loading in The King & I,” he says. “So, we’ve got a huge Broadway musical arriving and lots and lots of semi-trucks outside. We’re trying to get them all into the building in about eight hours, and that’s sort of the joy of theatre.”
In addition to the show at the Schuster, there’s a ballet at the Victoria Theatre and a children’s program at the PNC Arts Annex. The VTA also rents space to arts groups, like The Human Race Theatre Company, which is putting on Around the World in 80 Days at the Loft Theatre.
“Every single performance space we have has something in it today,” Sutton says. “That’s pretty normal for us. There’s a lot of audience: almost 400,000 visitors a year.”
Sutton has been on the job just shy of six months. Before Dayton, he ran the Performing Arts Center at Butler University in Indianapolis. Before that, he opened a new building in Texas and oversaw the building of an arts center in Colorado.
“Dayton wasn’t on my mind,” he admits. “What got me interested in Dayton was, first of all, we have really incredible facilities. I look at a city like Indianapolis. They would kill to have the Schuster Center in downtown Indianapolis. There’s nothing like that, or a historical theatre like the Victoria, or even small creative spaces.”
But it wasn’t just the beautiful buildings. Sutton says the statistics spoke to him, too.
“I’m a total analytics person,” he says, “which is funny for an arts administrator, but I really do appreciate the data, and as I looked at the numbers, I saw this incredible momentum happening in Dayton that maybe isn’t the story people hear all the time, but the numbers told me there is momentum for the economy and for people—for residential living downtown—that I wanted to be here for the beginning of and not the tail end, to help create that and create programming and change how our programming looks, which is what I enjoy the most.”
Russell Florence Jr. has been an arts journalist in Dayton for almost twenty years now. He says Sutton is coming to the Victoria Theatre Association at a good time.
“When you really think about the importance of the VTA—when you think about them bringing in $28.6M dollars and having that economic impact just last season—they know they’re on the right track,” he says.
Florence notes that Ty Sutton’s predecessor, Ken Neufeld, increased the VTA’s visibility and popularity by bringing in new series, like the National Geographic Series and the Speakers Series. He also points to the recently opened Arts Annex, a smaller space that allows the VTA to serve smaller audiences.
“It’s important to try to build the audience for the next generation,” he says. “How do you get kids involved in the arts, especially since so many arts programs in schools are being cut? I think that the Victoria Theatre Association can really benefit from the Arts Annex and take what they want to do further.”
Florence believes the biggest challenge for Sutton might be deciding what he wants to do differently—what his legacy will be.
To the end, Sutton seems to have a plan, which is to give the people what they want… and lots of it.
“You’ll have a lot of one-night shows that we haven’t had in the past. You’ll see tremendous growth in the use of the Victoria Theatre in presenting shows and comics and spoken word, jazz, gospel, bluegrass. You name it,” Sutton says. “It’ll be pretty broad.”
While the game plan may sound simple—offer a wide variety of fare and pick the proper theatre to make sure the shows are profitable—Sutton says the VTA’s biggest challenge may be getting people off their couches.
“Our competition and my biggest fear is two things: technology and apathy. It is so easy now to just sit on your iPad anywhere in the world and say, ‘You know what? I’ll just stay here and watch this.’ We isolate ourselves. We go through a drone like state. We don’t share experiences with each other anymore. It used to be that to see something we went somewhere all together,” Sutton says. “I think the arts is one place those shared experiences can still thrive, but we need to find a way to keep connecting to audiences that overwhelm those urges to just stay home and not participate.”
On February 28th, the VTA is announcing a whole new batch of shows—shows that Sutton hopes will get people in the Miami Valley to leave their homes and come downtown, together.
Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.