Pop Rocks: Miller, Southbound, Players must all make statements

A historic theater located on a busy downtown corridor. A local restaurant looking to expand its business. An established arts organization transitioning into a new era. What do these three seemingly disparate organizations share?


They are all located in Augusta and, over the next several months, will need to make a statement.

The Miller Theater project continues to hustle toward completion on Broad Street. Southbound Smokehouse has plans to expand its footprint, opening a live music venue next to the popular Central Avenue eatery. The Augusta Players, one of the oldest performing arts organizations in the city, will open its next season without Executive Director Debi Ballas at the helm.

Eyes will be on these projects and each will need to open with performances that are strong, significant and engaging to the local audience. There is no such thing as a soft opening when it comes to performance and the first curtains for the Miller, Southbound and The Players need to be more than simply representative. They need to be proof of concept performances, the kind of entertainment that does more than attract audiences. This is where traction is established. This is where a core of fans is built. The first performance must exceed expectations. The first performance is about more than entertaining. It’s about establishing goodwill.

So now the question becomes how do you open each? What is the proper performance? What provides the correct degree of dazzle?

With the Miller, it’s probably pretty obvious that the initial performance will be presented by Symphony Orchestra Augusta. SOA was gifted the Miller and much attention has been given to restoring the theater in such a way that it fits the very particular needs of orchestral music. That said, opening with one of SOA’s admittedly very fine Masterworks concerts seems like a misstep. Although Beethoven has his fans, my suggestion would be to shake up the schedule a little and open with a Pops performance – a big one.

Once upon a time, SOA staged some fairly spectacular Pops performances. Olivia-Newton John was a big one. The Westobou Festival performance with Ben Folds was another. That’s the kind of show SOA needs to open the Miller with. Paul McCartney has done some symphony shows but that seems like it might be a bank breaker. Instead, I might suggest the Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra that former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills has toured with a little. Not only does it have broad appeal, there’s a real tie to Georgia music. Seems like a perfect match.

At Southbound, I would suggest a somewhat different approach. While the ownership, which also books the popular Friends with Benefits concerts, certainly has the connections to bring in bigger acts, I wonder, given the somewhat limited venue size, if a multi-day event might not be a better model. A couple of headliners on a Friday and Saturday night, four or five local/regional acts opening and a relatively reasonable ticket price would generate the sort of in-and-out traffic that would provide maximum exposure.

The Augusta Players have the trickiest programming of the three. Because it is an established organization, there are certain expectations already in place. The Players do American musical theater and while a new executive director does offer some opportunity to rebrand, moving too far away from its foundations could be problematic.

What I would like to see The Players do is produce a piece that both represents the classic musical form while representing a degree of boldness.

I’d like to see Show Boat.

This is a musical that is not often produced because it is technically, musically and thematically challenging. It’s a very big show about race that is as uncomfortable as it is beautiful. Producing Show Boat in Augusta, itself a Southern river town, has been talked about for a long time. I’d like to see someone take a swing and a sort of new model Players might be just the group to take it on.

It should be noted that I have no insight on any of these groups’ booking plans and it is entirely possible I’m gazing forward though a cracked crystal ball. What I do know is what we, as an audience, see first will be important.

It’s time to make a statement.