Until the print edition arrives, read the November issue of The Blue and White on Bwog. Today, Sam Schube catches up with the director of Columbia’s Miller Theatre.
Miller Theatre, although regarded as a premier forum for contemporary dance and music, has struggled to carry its citywide renown into its own backyard. Despite Miller’s on-campus presence and the nearly 80 percent ticket discount it offers, Columbia students only make up a fifth of each concert audience. Even then, Miller Theatre Director Melissa Smey recognizes that those undergrads are there mainly for concerts like the Bach series–anything that furnishes a usable essay for Music Humanities.
“You should want to go to a concert, not because you have to, or because you ought to,” she says. The current season–Smey’s first since her recent promotion to director–features Miller’s trademark eclectic blend of early and new music, but Smey is eager to continue innovating the way the Theatre interacts with the University. Simply put, she is convinced that the Theatre can play a more significant role in student life.
Smey credits her predecessor George Steel with making Miller “the only game in town for new music” during his 11-year reign. After spurring Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to develop new music programming (with Carnegie Hall even building a Miller-sized space for new music), Miller, always the innovator, looked inward for inspiration. This season’s program reprises the traditional “Composer Portraits” series, but the current iteration will feature two Miller firsts: a world, U.S., or New York premiere at every concert, along with a discussion with the composer.
Miller’s ambitious, constant reinvention reflects its aim to establish a niche in the New York music scene. “There’s no point in being the third-best string quartet series,” Smey explains, “because you can go to Carnegie and hear number one and number two.”
Smey hopes to focus these aspirations to tackle one of the fine art’s biggest hurdles: programming for the everyman, or in Miller’s case, the Columbia man. Miller is a destination for music aficionados throughout the Tri-State area, but Smey admits that “in a way, it’s easier to attract the press than a wide audience of students.” Under Smey’s direction, then, audience development has become one of the Theatre’s top priorities.
Smey describes the Miller- Columbia dynamic, with its “brand-new, self-renewing potential base of audience members every year,” as a laboratory to explore strategies for audience growth. She has, for example, arranged for four sections of Music Humanities to hold class inside Miller during concert rehearsals, and the Theatre has begun analyzing ticket data to better target audiences in addition to conducting focus groups among students. Ultimately, Smey aims to “distill the principles of audience development: what is it that’s compelling, what makes it interesting?” With Columbia’s help, she hopes Miller can set yet another example to make Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall salivate: “A national model for audience development everywhere.”
It’s worth pointing out that Smey seems perfectly suited for the admittedly difficult task. She’s excitable and bubbly (she favors the adjective “awesome”), and she has a proverbial ear tuned to youth culture to broaden Miller’s experimental horizons. Last year, for example, a New York Times piece revealed her affinity for bands like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend. To her, thinking-man’s indie rock is another avenue to attract student interest, envisioning a Miller “unplugged indie series.” “They could all be showcased here,” she says. “And then we could hang out with them–wouldn’t that be great?”
Illustration by Stephen Davan