Taken as a whole, performances slated for Pablo Center at the Confluence’s third season appear designed to evoke the full spectrum of emotions, including reflection, laughter, heartbreak, cheers, even awe.
Another sensation would be healing.
That word, used by Evan Middlesworth, the arts center’s director of artistic programming, would seem to be appropriate, considering the pain and frustration wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. That toll included the abrupt halt to Pablo Center’s second season last April.
“Throughout my life, being an artist and also an appreciator of all different types of art, in times of need or of getting up on my feet again I’ve found I’m inspired by my favorite musicians, or books or anything that helps me get motivated to get back to it,” Middlesworth said in a phone interview. “And I think that this is a really important time in history that we can use art to heal us as a form of therapy or to be entertained again — to laugh, to cry, to applaud, to sing along, obviously just bringing people back together. That’s kind of what entertaining does at the core of it all.”
Jason Jon Anderson, Pablo Center’s executive director, joined the conversation about the new season, which comprises a mix of national and international prestige as well as hometown flair.
The arts center’s calendar also boasts dozens of productions by local arts groups and the UW-Eau Claire music and theater arts department as well as writers and visual artists.
Favorites among equals
When Middlesworth, who is a musician and owner of Pine Hollow recording studio, was asked to highlight a few of the performances he’s especially excited about, he acknowledged it was a difficult task.
“I’m of course a little biased toward every show,” he said. “There is an air of excitement for everything that we’ve worked hard on pulling together for the season.” Nevertheless, he mentioned a few of the dates:
• “Big Band Holidays” by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the group’s managing and artistic director, Dec. 5, RCU Theatre.
The group performed before a large crowd last year, and Middlesworth is happy to see them return with their leader. “He’s a legend, and he’s a community favorite,” he said. “So I’m really excited about that one.”
• “Making the Music,” a performance celebrating Broadway tunes with three award-winning artists.
The stars of the show are singer-songwriters Anais Mitchell, Duncan Sheik and Shaina Taub. Mitchell earned Tony and Grammy awards for the score of “Hadestown,” as did Sheik for “Spring Awakening,” and Taub has won multiple awards.
“You’ve got this high caliber of award-winning composer on the stage sharing the songs they’ve written,” Middlesworth said. “That’s something we started working on right out of the gate,” an allusion to last November, when he and his team began putting together the new season.
• “The Simon & Garfunkel Story,” Jan. 30, RCU Theatre.
The event is described as an immersive concert-style theater show.
The production, Middlesworth said, presents the duo’s beloved music and a look at the entire 1960s folk movement.
“That’s going to be an evening full of great music,” he said. “(Simon and Garfunkel) is also one of those groups, when you sit down to hear the music, you realize that there are songs they’re singing that you think, ‘I didn’t realize that was a Simon and Garfunkel song.’ You get a whole new appreciation for the artists as well.”
• “Lucy Loves Desi: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sitcom,” Feb. 4, RCU Theatre. The production, by the renowned L.A. Theatre Works, is designed as a live stage radio show telling the true story of the classic “I Love Lucy” TV show.
Middlesworth said it includes creative sound effects and some top actors from Los Angeles.
• With his ties to the local music community, Middlesworth said he’s looking forward to seeing some of the region’s popular performers take the stage. They include musician-storyteller Michael Perry and the Long Beds, of which Middlesworth is a member, on Oct. 3; singer-songwriters James Ignacio & Shane Leonard, Oct. 20; indie-folk-bluegrass group Them Coulee Boys, Nov. 27; and Barron’s Chris Kroeze, the runner-up on NBC’s “The Voice” who has sold out multiple dates at Pablo Center, on Dec. 18.
“I’m just excited because it’s fun to see your friends and past collaborators entertaining people, and we’ve got this brilliant building to give them a home,” Middlesworth said.
Pablo Center exists in part to showcase regional standouts along with the international stars, and the hometown talent can be seen across all artistic platforms: music, literary, visual art, dance, theater.
“We have the ability to do it all,” Middlesworth said. “It’s part of our mission, part of our goal to do that.”
The interaction between the local and visiting artists yields benefits well after any particular show.
“The thing I really like about having the capability to bring in touring artists is it starts a feedback loop of inspiration,” he said. Using the example of a Broadway show, such as “Waitress,” which will come to town March 24, he said, “That inspires our local actors to up their game, inspires young actors in the city.”
Middlesworth has experienced that inspiration firsthand. “From a musical standpoint, whenever I’ve gone to see my favorite performers, you get some tips and tricks, and you learn some stuff and you strive to be better,” he said.
While health and safety orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic remain in place, Anderson said it looks as though the planned season opening date of Oct. 2, with Third Coast Percussion, is on.
“As we sit today looking at October, we believe we’re making a really good choice at this point to start the season there,” he said. “But as we continue to tell everyone who will listen, our patron, artist and staff safety is going to come first. If that means we need to delay, then we’ll do so, and we’ll communicate all of that clearly.”
By the same token, if the all-clear is given by authorities to open before that date, they would respond. “If we see dramatic improvements in the numbers and a more aggressive opening for the country and the facilities, we’re going to be right there ready to open as well,” he said.
Elaborating on Pablo Center’s history (the center opened just 20 months ago), Anderson spoke of how the first season brought an exuberance in which patrons seemingly were willing to try anything. The second season built upon what was learned during the debut.
“And the reality is that we learned through incredible programming what audiences responded to, what audiences were willing to take a risk on or try or explore or grow, and how best to serve our community and the region,” he said.
Experience and patrons’ responses have combined to produce a third season that offers plenty of shows representing clear audience favorites plus a few bolder choices. That risk, Anderson noted in his statement for the brochure, is underscored in the title of the third season: “Dream. Create. Inspire.”
As he explained in the conversation, “How do you also, in a Midwestern polite way, make them uncomfortable. We have to challenge, we have to grow.”
But then, he was quick to add, “Sometimes we just want to go scream to our favorite ’80s music at the top of our lungs and have a beverage with our friends, and that’s OK,” Anderson said. “It’s learning how to put all of that together, (and) I believe Evan and the entire artistic staff have done an incredible job of curating this third season for us.”
Middlesworth hopes audiences build trust to the extent that they’ll attend a show they may not be familiar with based on the consistent quality they’ve seen at Pablo Center.
“One of my personal goals that I feel we all share … was to get folks to a point where they know we’re not going to let them down in our programs. We take great care in what we select, and we research it a lot and we talk about it a lot, and so if we can get to a point where, even if you don’t know what it is that you’re coming to see necessarily, you know that we’re not going to let you down and it will be a good evening of entertainment.”
In other words, let the healing, and the applause, begin again.