Michael Curry started organizing concerts as a teenager and never looked back. He came to the United States in 1974 from his native England to serve as director of the Lafayette (La.) Fine Arts Fondation. The city of Hampton hired him away in 1988 to develop its fine arts programs, and the following year, he inaugurated the first performing arts series in Hampton University's Ogden Hall. That year also saw the opening of the Charles H. Taylor Arts Center, which presents changing exhibits by visual artists.
In the fall of 1996, Curry went to look at a run-down theater in Phoebus and saw the possibility of transforming it into a permanent space for the performing arts programs. The American Theatre was purchased and renovated, and in 2000, it opened as the city's new performing space. Coming up in December, a new addition housing rehearsal space and educational facilities will open.
Curry, the first subject in our series on Hampton Roads Masters, talks about his 35 years as an arts presenter.
How did you get started in the arts presenting business?
"I did a little bit of it in boarding school. Several of our teachers were wonderful musicians, and I put together a series of concerts during the summer at the cricket park on the grounds of the boarding school. I was doing concert promotions in college in 1974 when I met an arts patron who'd come from Lafayette, La., and wanted to start a concerts series there. She asked if I would be interested. I was 21 at the time and said, 'I would love to come to America.' That's how it happened."
What was the industry like when you first started the performing arts series in Lafayette?
"In those days, the industry was built on credentials. I was this kid from England, and the first couple of years I had to prove that my organization was worthy of their attention. I think it took five or six years for all the agents in New York to realize that my organization was legitimate. As a fledgling organization, I was always trying to negotiate lower fees, and nobody ever told me 'no.'
"There were more groups touring back then, partly because travel was so much less expensive. In the early years, we presented all of the major ballet stars, including Alexander Godunov, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet several times. I spent 13 years down there. We did eight shows a year and a summer chamber music festival in connection with Young Concert Artists."
What goes into putting together a winning season?
"I always look at several years past and what's done well. A lot of it is referrals from other artists and from agents of artists we've presented. I used to go to a lot of showcases in New York but no longer. Now you can go online to YouTube and see everything."
Looking back on 35 years in the industry, what has changed?
"It's changed so much. We used to send out news releases with glossy photos, but now we have e-mail, which makes everything so much easier. On the other hand, it's much harder to find an audience. Our culture has changed because of technology. People's attention spans are much shorter than they used to be. They don't even sit through a movie anymore.
"The challenge is to find something to grab people's attention. There is so much competition now and so many more performances.
"Part of the contemporary culture says, 'Oh, I've seen that on television,' but television will never replace a live, theatrical experience. There's an interplay between the artist and the audience that you can't get anywhere else. And we have a wonderful opportunity here because of our intimate theater."
Has your programming philosophy changed in recent years?
"We're doing less classical and less straight theater because they don't sell. It's a real shame but you have to look at the bottom line. It gets back to the lack of music education in the schools these days. There are more world music artists available because new music and world music has really taken off."
What plans to you have for the new addition opening in December?
"It will be primarily educational but it will be available for the community to use for receptions.
"It will give us more lobby and backstage area but it will also have a studio for rehearsals and a space for films and lectures."
What's the secret to doing your job well?
"Contacts help, but you have to have persistence and knowledge. You have to balance big names with younger artists, and you have a take a few risks. That's what's so beautiful about this theater — it's only 400 seats so you can take risks. If you just present the tried and true, there's no challenge in that.
"One of the great joys of what I do is working with groups like the Aquila Theatre Company and The Acting Company, nurturing these ensembles and watching them develop. These companies have their own unique style and it's fun to see them adapt it to different works.
"The challenge is staying afloat. There's always going to be a need for live entertainment, but these economic times do not make presenting it easy."
Position: Director of Hampton Arts since 1988. Oversees The American Theatre and the Charles H. Taylor Arts Center.
Birthplace: Sussex County south of London, England
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