Smile Politely

Behind the curtain: Unveiling the magic of show booking at the Virginia Theatre

A nighttime view of the Virginia Theatre marquee announcing the Dance at Illinois Downtown show.
Serenity Stanton Orengo

I have recently had the pleasure of attending a couple of excellent concerts at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign: Pat Metheny and Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. As I sat there enjoying the concerts, I began to wonder what must the Virginia Theatre staff do in order to bring shows like this to their venue. I had this idea that well before a new season began, the staff would sit around and brainstorm about who they would like to bring in, or they would go over press kits from the various artists. A press kit is a mailing that goes out from an entertaining entity that describes the act, gives bios of the performers, and includes photos. Press kits give a general overall review of what the act will bring to your setting.

Not really knowing who to contact at the Virginia, I sent an email from their contact page describing the story I’d like to do. Just a few days later I received a response from the Director of the Virginia, Steven Bentz. He provided an enthusiastic response to the idea, so off I went to learn about how to get booked at The Virginia Theatre.

I soon learned that brainstorming and plowing through press kits isn’t necessarily the way things work at the Virginia. “It might surprise you”, Bentz began explaining, “but there are a number of ways that an event might happen on the stage of the Virginia Theatre or even just something on its screen. There are lots of different kinds of agreements that can be written, contracts, there are different forms of deal structures. But the truth is that the heart and soul of the Virginia theater is that the Virginia is where Champaign-Urbana comes to put on a show.” He then added, “Its primary mission is to serve as a community asset.”

A room with white ceilings and teal walls with 4 mirrors on the wall surrounded by lights.
Virginia Theatre Dressing Room

Many ideas of what to present at the Virginia come from what people of the area suggest or from promoters who come to them asking to use the Theatre as a venue. Bentz gave an example regarding the movie Dunkirk. “We heard through a community member that it (Dunkirk) was going to be made available in 70 millimeter. That’s something that the Virginia Theatre can do with a little extra work. You’re talking about film stock, you’re not talking about digital,” said Bentz. “You’re talking about actual reel-to-reel film stock and that’s something that we have the capacity to set ourselves up to do. And so we got hold of those prints from the distributor by a special arrangement, and we had some of the most successful screenings in our history.” This was possible because someone in the community happened to mention to them that the movie was going to be made available in 70-millimeter film. Communication is a good thing!

Prior to Covid, the theatre used to plan their coming season from August to the following July. Bentz said they would produce “a big color, glossy, season brochure every year.” It was a 36-page document that listed the shows and acts that would be appearing at the Virginia, but, Bentz also stated that they would add events as they came along. “We never turned away business!” he said.

Since Covid, however, they have changed the way they respond to the market. Their focus now is on “a rolling series of announcements throughout the year of new events and shows as they [are added] to the calendar. “We want to make sure we remain responsive to the community and the industry, which has just exploded.” Bentz continued, “I’ve never seen in my 12 years at the Theatre the level of interest that we’re seeing right now. It’s not just from touring entertainment. It’s local folks who are wanting to do private events, meetings and conferences, weddings, special events, and concerts. And,” he noted, “the touring world has blown up.”

Touring entertainment is often booked by a commercial promoter. What they’re actually doing “is renting the space to present that event. That’s very common at the Virginia,” Bentz explained, “That is part of that asset function where we’re presenting this building as a resource for the community and others to use to put on shows.”

He cited an example of a recent community event they did with WILL. “We just had WILL in the building last week, Illinois Public Media, doing a co-production with us on a documentary called Mama Bears. [This] was about women who have become advocates for their LGBTQ children. They’re all women who are from kind of conservative evangelical communities, and they have kids who they’re defending and caring for. A documentary was made about the advocacy work that they’ve done. We had some of the filmmakers with us on the stage with members of the WILL team showing this film… and it was fantastic. That’s a big part of what we do: work with community groups in that way to make special things happen in that space.”

A room with white ceiling and white pillars with blue walls. There are several rectangular folding tables set up with folding chairs. There is a mini-fridge, a filing cabinet and several garbage cans. There is a lot of fluorescent lighting.
Virginia Theatre Green Room

I mentioned to Steven that one of the things I noticed when I attended recent shows is their sound. It was very even throughout the theatre and the volume was at a very reasonable level. Since 2000, the Virginia has been owned by the Champaign Park District. For the first 21 years of ownership, they didn’t own their own sound system for live shows. That, however, has changed. Bentz talked about a grant they received to upgrade their sound as they now have “two separate systems, one for movies and one for live shows. Through a grant from the Department of Natural Resources, believe it or not, from the state of Illinois, we were able to purchase a custom-designed sound system.” This occurred during the Covid period when the Theatre was closed. The then 100-year-old structure presented challenges for the even distribution of sound. “The thing about the Virginia is that it wasn’t built for amplified sound,” Bentz explained. “It was built during a period that was before amplified sound. [The stage] is very broad. It’s a very wide space and it’s very shallow. That’s a wonderful thing for audience members, but it’s challenging in terms of amplified sound, which wants to bounce around in the space and get caught in corners. You have issues of bass response, as well. We had a need for a carefully designed set of solutions for that and we had it taken care of during the period that we were shut down.”

Something else you may notice when attending an event at the Virginia is the volunteers. Bentz is very grateful to have such a wonderful team helping out. There may be just a few on hand for a movie presentation, but for a live show, there may be as many as 30 or 40 volunteers giving their time. He said they are “absolutely essential to the way the district manages that venue.” The next time you find yourself in the Virginia Theatre for an event, take the time to thank a volunteer or two!

I’m going to keep my eye on the upcoming events at the Virginia, it’s such a grand old place to relax and enjoy a show. And, if there is a show or act you’d like to see, run it by the folks at the Virginia. Who knows, it may kindle a spark to some hot entertainment!

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