By Leonard Jacobs
I visited with the Cennarium Backstage editorial staff recently to brainstorm story ideas. We covered much ground: worldwide performance arts festivals; new plays Off-Broadway and at US regional theaters; the state of European ballet. But one thing, it seemed, was missing: a story on technology. After all, it’s the power of technology that makes Cennarium such a transformational tool for the performing arts. So I posed a question to everyone: Is there any company out there not only embracing the potential of technology to distribute performing arts programming but is also using technology to fundamentally drive their business? Themis Gomes, Cennarium’s executive director, gave me two words: Timothy Barden.
In the performing arts, artists and administrators are often the same folks—folks who expect to wear different hats. This describes Barden perfectly: he’s an actor, singer, director, teacher and master photographer with years in the business. He also has significant experience in marketing, financial management, banking and government—and he’s positively evangelical about arts and technology. Based in South Burlington, Vermont, Barden is the managing director of Spotlight Vermont, a performing arts school with deep ties to the worlds of professional theater and dance; guest faculty members have included Tony-winner Cady Huffman and the Martha Graham Dance Company. He’s also co-founder of the Vermont Musical Theatre Academy, which trains “triple-threats” for successful careers in the industry.
But Barden also serves as executive director of a new, fast-rising enterprise called the South Burlington City Center for the Arts (SBCCArts). Once built, it will be an integral part of a plan to revitalize South Burlington’s downtown. The performing arts facility that Barden and various South Burlington officials are raising money for and planning will place technology front and center.
All the usual rationales for local government to invest in arts and culture are ever-present in SBCCArts, such as economic development, community building, creative placemaking, and education. But, as Barden told me in this following interview, it’s the unparalleled potential of technology that is igniting everybody’s interest most of all.
Leonard Jacobs: How do you describe SBCCArts and what is your role in terms of its creation, stewardship, and development?
Timothy Barden: Conventionally, the project is about the development of a venue in South Burlington, VT, in which learning, creating, producing and presenting live performance occurs. Structurally, we envision a 600-seat main stage, a 150-seat studio theater, plus dance studios, classrooms, new media production and event space. More important—at its core—this project should manifest as a set of answers to a series of questions:
- How can a creative arts facility contribute positively to the socio-economic vitality of a community in a rural setting like South Burlington, VT?
- How do we think beyond the physical walls of a theater in ways that can make art more accessible and affordable?
- How can we be a catalyst in the effort to provide more opportunities for creative artists to make a living while practicing their craft?
- In a time of declining government and private sector funding, coupled with the aging of theater and dance audiences, how can we develop new opportunities and facilities for performance that are relevant and sustainable in the 21st century?
LJ: How did this idea originate?
TB: The idea for a cohesive, vertically integrated creative arts center is mine. It emerged from my background in technology as a creative artist and educator. We want to further combine my interests with the desire of the city of South Burlington to develop a central district (a “city center”) as a cultural, economic and community hub.
I’m executive director and board chair of SBCCArts, a nonprofit corporation specifically created to work with the city to develop the project. With the city’s cooperation and support, a feasibility study is now underway, and we’re working hard to expand our board and raise seed money. I’d love to open the doors sometime within the next three to four years.
LJ: How do you envision using technology to create a state-of-the-art performing arts facility in South Burlington?
TB: Using technology to create a state-of-the-art facility is the easy part. It’s commonplace to use technology wherever possible to reduce the cost of operations when building something new. For example, no one wants to install racks of power-sapping dimmers when there are green energy solutions that don’t compromise artistic quality. The game-changer is to imagine the way in which current and emerging technology is disrupting the conventional models for creating and distributing live performance.
There’s a huge, untapped, worldwide audience that gets all of their entertainment and social engagement from a device they carry in their pocket. Smartphone technology in conjunction with increased network connectivity is enabling a tremendous disruption in the conventional broadcast, cable and movie industries. To date, however, it hasn’t penetrated much in the live performing arts—but I think we’re on the verge of a sea-change.
We have to invent ways of using technology that will reestablish the live performing arts as relevant for the 21st century, and will, especially for young people, attract a much broader participation in its creation and experience. That means a robust connection to “the cloud” so we can easily support bi-directional media and connectivity. The result will be a collapse of the limitations of geography for collaborators, educators, producers and audiences alike. The possibilities are endless.
LJ: How are you using the promise of technology to leverage forward movement for SBCCArts? What is the general reception from the city of South Burlington?
TB: Vermont isn’t all about maple syrup, ice cream, and snowboards. According to a 2016 report from the Vermont Technology Alliance, approximately 25% of the state’s employment is in the technology sector; it also represents about 40% of the state’s workforce income. We’ve begun speaking to technology leaders about how SBCCArts can both benefit from and be a catalyst for, advanced technologies. Creativity is at the core of all this—it’s the same in the arts as in science and technology. Finding more ways to integrate these worlds will benefit everyone.
A new, vibrant arts center is what South Burlington needs to stimulate economic growth, to help brand the area, and to provide a range of opportunities for artists that otherwise would not exist. So I pitched the idea to Helen Riehle, chair of our city council, and Kevin Dorn, our City Manager, and they both jumped on it. Of course, it has to be financially viable. But we believe that with the right combination of uses and funding sources, we can make a thriving business of it.
LJ: If you had to rank, in priority order, what interests you about technology in the performing arts—building audiences, forging revenue streams, educating artists—how do you rank them? What other advantages or opportunities are there?
TB: Without a story and an audience, there’s no need for a performance or performers. I’m interested in finding ways to employ technology to change the process of bringing great new works to audiences—and to expand the size of those audiences. Doing that will create more opportunities for performers because there will be more performances to do.
The process of developing new work in the performing arts is peppered with obstacles, from funding and access to high production costs and legal complexities. We believe that there are ways to reinvent the process using a combination of existing and emerging technologies that will lead to a greater success rate for creative artists and producers. There’s a great potential to be leveraged here.
On the audience side, we are exploring ways (with partners like Cennarium) to smooth and hasten the distribution of new and important works. We like to think of SBCCArts as a “theater in the cloud” where we can choose—at the push of a button—to limit or to open up distribution opportunities as appropriate, depending on the needs of the artists and the interests of our audience and collaborators.
By developing a facility that is more fully integrated in the creation and distribution of good work, not only South Burlington but all of northwestern Vermont will benefit from access to great performances, unparalleled education opportunities, and greater economic growth.