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Artists pass through a discovery channel

Western Arts Alliance's conference enables performers to display their talents to some big regional presenters.

September 10, 2003|Libby Slate | Special to The Times

Every year Southern California performing arts venues send out millions of brochures touting their upcoming season. It's no surprise to see Yo-Yo Ma or Mikhail Baryshnikov on the rosters, but what about all those lesser-knowns?

How did "Suds," a musical featuring 1960s hits, earn a matinee slot in April at Pepperdine's Smothers Theatre? And how did the contra-dance band the Clayfoot Strutters land a two-night December gig at the Cerritos Center's Sierra Room?

They got there via an annual event known as the Western Arts Alliance Booking Conference, a sort of combination continuing-education program and trade show where the performers are the wares. Held last week at the Long Beach Convention Center, the conference brought together arts presenters, agents, managers and performers for showcases, pitch sessions, exhibits and professional development seminars, filling up many of those brochures in the process.

And sometimes, creating stars. A few years ago, for instance, baritone Jubilant Sykes performed at a conference luncheon. The following season, he was booked in venues throughout the Southland.

"What this conference is mainly about is discovery," said Tim Wilson, executive director of the Western Arts Alliance (WAA), a San Francisco-based organization of 740 presenters, agents and managers providing programming in the western U.S. and Canada.

"You're going to learn something you didn't know was there, in a showcase, an educational session, a peer session. We want to create as many varying ways as possible of nurturing that discovery."

Showcases this year spotlighted about 130 up-and-coming and veteran performers: singers, instrumentalists and dancers in classical, pop, musical theater and world music genres; comedians; spoken-word artists; and children's entertainers.

About 275 artists' reps and individual performers, representing 2,600 artists, filled the Resource Room, their booths splashed with colorful displays of posters, fliers, CDs and videotapes. Elsewhere, two-minute sessions allowed agents and managers to pitch their artists and projects to presenters.

The WAA event launches a season of regional booking conferences that culminates in January with the national Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York. Much like the West itself, "this conference is known for being friendly and informal," Wilson said. "Most people don't wear coats and ties. We want people to have fun." But don't equate "fun" with "frivolity." A lot of networking and information exchanging takes place over coffee cups and spontaneous hotel lobby chats.

Southern California is probably the densest performing arts market in the West, with dozens of presenting organizations, Wilson noted.

The most overt means of networking is the Resource Room. Some presenters book performances outright, while others forge or renew relationships and tend to lock things in place at the New York event. And some artists' reps try to link up programmers in various locales to create a tour for their clients.

"This has been a very good conference for us," Jim Murtha, president of the New York-based Gurtman and Murtha Artist Management, said on Friday. His clients include pianist Ruth Laredo, the Elements string quartet, several Gilbert and Sullivan productions and numerous pops performers. Los Angeles-based John J. Castonia, whose J. Cast Productions represents productions of "Love Letters," "Vanities" and "Driving Miss Daisy," looks upon the Resource Room as a preliminary step in the booking process and a valuable timesaver. "I can't just get on an airplane or drive from place to place every year," he said.

Soon after the Resource Room closes for the day, the showcases start.

This year, showcases included 30 official WAA juried events, their participants selected via applications, CDs and tapes; the others were staged by managers and agents. Friday's showcases featured violinist Janice Martin, the married Lee/Suits Duo of violinist Kyung Sun Lee and pianist Brian Suits, musical comedy singer Jason Graae and pianist Eugene Albulescu.

Romanian-born Albulescu, 33, has toured four continents and is now on the music faculty of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. On the makeshift convention center stage, he nimbly played the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," fingers fluttering like birds' wings.

This was Albulescu's first official WAA showcase; he had performed at two previous conferences. "I've gotten a considerable amount of work from WAA," he said. Back at WAA after a long absence were the two-minute pitch sessions, which for Jeannine Frank, of Frank Entertainment in Brentwood, turned out to be the most productive part of the conference. Attending WAA as a manager, she had faced about 100 presenters interested in artists charging fees of $5,000 or less.

"A lot of venues don't have big budgets," she said. "Once people came up to my booth, I was able to interest them in a number of artists. I'm sure I'll get work out of it."

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