Imperial Theatre needs acts, leadership

  • Follow Steven Uhles

Last week, I was tough, but fair with James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium, two venues that I feel struggle, in part, because of elements (size, perception, fiscal malaise) perhaps beyond the coliseum authority's control. This week, I'm taking a look at the Imperial Theatre, which in many ways is much tougher for me.

The Avett Brothers performed at the Imperial Theatre last month, but the theater hasn't been able to attract an audience.  File/Staff
File/Staff
The Avett Brothers performed at the Imperial Theatre last month, but the theater hasn't been able to attract an audience.

Though I have enjoyed some of the shows I've seen at the arena, I've never really had a sense of affection and connection to the building itself. Not so at the Imperial. I've seen countless memorable performances on its stage. I even graduated from high school at the Imperial, so it pains me to see, and say, that the Imperial is in serious trouble.

Though the Imperial is not afflicted with a combative board or the acute case of fiscal discord that affects the bigger houses down the way, its problems are almost worse. It is a music hall that neglects to book acts and a fine arts theater that would find its regular customers clambering for more modern environs were they given another option.

Some of the Imperial's problems might be solved with cash -- easy to say and tough to come by -- but the more pressing problems seem to be matters of approach and attitude.

The Imperial apparently no longer books shows. The series that kept the theater busy a year ago are gone. Granted, some of those bookings turned out to be medicinal, shows that were procured because of artistic excellence that an audience should enjoy rather than the brand names that Augusta music fans will buy tickets for, but at least an effort was being made.

Today -- nothing.

It's easy to sleuth out the reasoning behind this feast-to-famine trend. Too many of the theater's previous bookings -- jazz acts, classical combos and occasional comedy shows -- fizzled hard at the box office. Why? Because people were being offered only what was good for them rather than what they wanted to see. Bran is great from time to time, but, baby, you had better augment it with some ice cream.

There also have been, to cast it in the kindest possible light, some internal issues at the theater.

Lara Plocha's dismissal as executive director last year was well-publicized, and the internal strife she left behind has continued, and in many ways magnified. Unfortunately, this is not a case of the new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss, but rather "Hey. Wait a minute. We liked the old boss."

My guess is, this has nothing to do with the current interim director, Charles Scavullo, but rather a weakened power structure without a clear figurehead. If Mr. Scavullo is to be the new executive director, so be it. Make it so. Give him the reins.

If the board wants to take control, that's fine, too, but don't keep a puppet in place. There's no reason to keep someone in the director's office if the board refuses to give him any teeth. The staff has been grumbling for months, and when you are dealing with a crew as thin as the Imperial's, that can be deadly.

My real fear is that in trying to cement its standing as a music hall -- which, given its limited wing space and small backstage, it essentially is -- the Imperial will fall into the most tempting of musical traps and attempt to repeat past successes.

Let's use bluegrass as an example. Over the past several years, the Morris Museum's bluegrass series at the Imperial has been enormously successful, one of the few bright spots that still remain on the Imperial calendar. With that success comes the temptation to try to replicate it and with that comes, that's right, more bluegrass shows.

Guess what -- there's a saturation point for everything, and I would guess that right now, we've reached it in terms of bluegrass.

There are a lot of musical styles out there. Explore. Let's hear some rock at the Imperial. Some country. Some blues. Yes, care needs to be taken in booking acts. Augusta likes names it recognizes and some semblance of quality.

If the Imperial books them, though, they -- both the acts and the audiences -- will come.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

NEXT WEEK: The University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center


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