It is more than magical that this windowless, cluttered, fluorescent-light washed office occupied by a 77-year-old man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and frayed baseball cap is the gateway for some of the most flamboyant and colorful figures in world music and dance in the region.
But welcome to the world of William W. Lockwood Jr., special programmer at McCarter Theater — a man who has spent over a half a century as matchmaker between performing artists and audiences.
Through his work booking music and dance for McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, Lincoln Center in New York City, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Bill Lockwood is one of the most experienced and skilled special events producers in the nation.
And on a recent Tuesday afternoon this unusual breed of song and dance man is getting ready to leave his storage box-sized McCarter office and head to New York to review a potential act for the McCarter events series he started in the early 1960s. “It’s rare that I will present someone that I haven’t seen or heard. It was a lot easier when I was at Lincoln Center. But if it is somebody I really think I need to see or hear, I will make an effort to go,” he says.
Yet in the moments between E-mail checks and Dinky departure, Lockwood is willing to talk about the art of producing — as well as get some ink for his new season of events. “There’s no magic formula. There’s a lot of slogging. It doesn’t happen by itself just because we’re McCarter and in Princeton,” he says, cutting to the chase in his customary curt style.
Then he continues listing a series of considerations and challenges. “Our seasons are filled with familiar faces, iconic performers, and newcomers. I try to introduce a new face each year. You can’t get into a rut of bringing back the same people over and over. It is really incumbent to introduce the stars of tomorrow — the new Yo-Yo Mas and Wynton Marsalises and Lang Langs. We can’t afford to bring (those big names) back.”
A recurring theme in Lockwood’s talk is money and what presentations will work in Princeton. “McCarter’s Matthews Theater (1,100 seats) is the smallest of the major presenters in New Jersey. The others — the State Theater in New Brunswick (1,850), Mayo Arts Center in Morristown (1,302), and Count Basie Theater in Red Bank (1,540) — are in a better position to get artists who want a lot of money. The State Theater does very well and does a lot of things that I wish we could afford,” he says matter-of-factly.
A quick look at Celebrity Talent International’s listing for Yo-Yo Ma illustrates the point. The musician’s minimal fee is noted as between $150,000 and $500,000. That translates into the average of approximately $150 per seat at McCarter for the low end. Tickets for McCarter music and dance series program generally range from $25 to the mid $50 range.
Another factor is availability of the Matthews and the 360-seat Berlind theaters (both owned by Princeton University yet used by McCarter). “I don’t have complete access to either of them, and that’s a big difference between us and the other presenters. They can present 200 events throughout the year. I have to work around main stage, which takes priority, and ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Then in the Berlind we have to work around the university’s (Lewis Center for the Arts) schedule. I have to fit in between the cracks. So the calendar is a challenge, and we lose the opportunity to present artists, particularly in rock-n-roll and popular music. They’re available for a few days. We don’t have a chance. No one schedules their seasons around McCarter. If and when they happen to overlap, it’s a great advantage,” he says.
To make his situation clear, Lockwood says, “Our ability to compete is not only (about) the dates and our house size being too small. In the end — except for some in the classical music business — it comes down to money. If it’s something we would like to have here, very often it doesn’t work. And there’s nothing we can do about it. People will see someone at the State Theater and say, ‘Why aren’t they at McCarter?’ The fact is that we do what we can do. It’s the luck of the draw. It’s not any magic formula that I have or persuasion. It’s like fishing.”
What Lockwood does have is experience, a track record, and the luck of location. “We have developed a very loyal following with classical artists who love coming here and will come back even though we are small. It also applies to other artists, like (Tony Award-winning vocalist) Audra McDonald, (jazz trumpeter) Chris Botti, and the Chieftains (a traditional Irish-music band). We have loyal artists who know that they are well treated and have a knowledgeable audience. We are also close to New York so (artists) don’t have to get on a plane for Albuquerque and can be home to watch Conan O’Brien after a performance. New York is still the center of the performing arts universe. Everyone you would like to invite (to McCarter) gets to New York.”
Lockwood provides an important business lesson for would-be producers. “Loyalty in this business goes a long way. It’s not just about money. If you’re talking about the rock and the pop scene, it’s all about money. But most of the other genres — jazz, classical music, and dance — there’s a loyalty developed by the performers, presenters, and audience. And there are performers who are here who are not simply motivated by dollars. We have a lot of folk singers who are loyal.”
Planning also goes a long way. “I work two years ahead,” says Lockwood. “I’m heavily in the 2015-’16 season. You have three different calendars. We have this season where I’m still adding things — we don’t put everything on sale at once. And if you’re interested in someone who is willing to come to Princeton — and is still ‘a flavor the month’ — that’s three years ahead.”
Lockwood says that next year’s classical music is already set because the genre’s managers plan the furthest ahead. Others are less predictable and more driven by an artist who may suddenly decide to go on tour.
Then there is the ability to seize a sudden opportunity, such as the Elevator Theater Company’s 2012 presentation of “Gatz” — a six-hour every-word-of-the-novel spoken adaptation of American novelist (and former Princeton University student) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” “It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. I went and saw it (in New York) and said, ‘We have to get it to Princeton. F. Scott Fitzgerald! It turned out that the company had a week free in December. So I negotiated and we did four performances. We brought the original set down here. We sold out, and it was the talk of the town. It happened to fit into the time slot that we had, and by luck the company was available. We don’t get those chances very often.”
No matter the genre, the arranging process comes down to telephones, E-mails, and key people. “It’s usually agents, except in classical music where the managers serve as agents,” Lockwood says. “In the case of the San Francisco Orchestra, they called me and asked if I wanted a date. With dance companies the manager is the agent. You deal one on one. They look at the entire season, and they know it all. That makes it a lot easier if you only have to get an answer from one person. In the pop and jazz world, you have both. If I’m proactive and call and ask if (an artist or group) is on tour, they have managers who will say ask to the agent. In the pop world, the manager is a sticky wicket. It’s always about money, and that manger looks at it and says why are we (going) there. Which is why we don’t have the latest pop stars.”
Another part of planning is the budget that he prepares with McCarter’s marketing and production department. “We have to justify it. We’re supported by public and private funding. It has to make financial sense. It has to be approved by the (general manager) and the board. It’s something on my mind. I have to think how many tickets I can sell. I can’t run half-cocked and book artists just because I like them. There has to be a fiscal bottom line. Sometimes we discover that we can’t afford someone. As a nonprofit we have to be careful that we don’t get carried away.” Ticket sales for Lockwood’s series are applied to McCarter’s general operating budget, which Lockwood estimates to “about 12 million” for this fiscal year.
While the bottom line is clear, the road getting there is not. “Sometimes we take a chance, and I know that we are not going to pack the house. That’s our responsibility to new artists and new art forms. There is only a limited amount of that you can do. We’re subject to other things: people get sick, weather, winter, Hurricane Sandy. We always look apprehensively at the winter. We’ll have a sold-out show. And we’ll have eight inches of snow, and the show isn’t going to happen. We’ve had shows that we could not reschedule. Living in the Northeast you have to be prepared to accept that,” he says.
It was in the late 1950s that Lockwood — who was born in New York but grew up in Princeton — entered the producing world. “I was a student (at Princeton University, Class of 1959). There wasn’t much going on. A couple of classmates and I decided that we would play being producers. We did a number of things. We brought in Hal Holbrook, Carl Sandburg, the Weavers with Pete Seeger. We did this between classes. Nothing was happening at McCarter outside of community events, a children’s series, Princeton University Concerts, other events for the community. There was no theater program like we know it today. The theater was largely dark. We sold tickets at the U-Store. When we brought in the Kingston Trio we sold tickets out of our dorm room,” he says.
While the university would decide several years later to build McCarter into a more vigorous arts center, Lockwood — the son of a Princeton professor father (who was also an official with the post-World War II Institute of Pacific Relations) and a Miss Fines School instructor mother — started building his career by moving from the minor league of campus events to the major leagues of producing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
That included producing events developed in cooperation with the Russian-born American impresario Sol Hurok, whose management company presented Marian Anderson, Isadora Duncan, the great Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, and scores of others. “That’s really where I learned it. It’s one thing in Princeton to bring in someone for one night. But when you’re in the real world and presenting Van Cliburn and the Bolshoi Ballet, that was the baptism by fire, the hard knocks division.”
Asked to elaborate, Lockwood says, “There are many things in life that cannot be learned except by doing. There is no school, no course, no training program available that can take the place of real life experience. Each and every situation offers the opportunity to learn or take away a lesson. I’m still learning, even after more than 50 years at it.”
Lockwood returned home to Princeton in 1963 and joined McCarter’s new efforts as publicist and booking agent. Two years later he also began booking events at the recently opened and still expanding Lincoln Center.
“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I was working here in Princeton but was eager to gain experience in the New York market. My father was an acquaintance of one of Lincoln Center’s senior executives, and when the artistic staff at Lincoln Center began searching for an assistant to the artistic director, the opportunity to interview was given to me. They were searching for someone a little ‘green’ who was eager to learn, and I fit the bill. As with many things in life, the right attitude can combine with serendipity to provide opportunities.”
Lockwood maintained his job at McCarter while simultaneously working at Lincoln Center for 28 years. “I would come (to McCarter) in the morning and leave notes and messages, go to Lincoln Center, and then come back at night and get reply messages. I left Lincoln Center in 1993, and NJPAC approached me in 1995 and asked me to do the same things I do at McCarter — program classical music and dance. Now I am a consultant at NJPAC, but I did their first 15 seasons. At one time, I was juggling McCarter and NJPAC and opened the Kimmel Center. I was the programmer for (Kimmel’s) first three seasons. I was on Amtrak a lot.”
Today Lockwood says he stays up to date as best he can so he can be selective in his choices. In addition to getting communications from already hot connections, he gets about 50 E-mails a day from artists, managers, and agents introducing themselves (Lockwood half-jokes that the delete key is one of his favorite things). He reads print and online media and hits the pavement.
“I can spend five nights a week going to New York. But it’s exhausting. The older you get, the harder it gets. I limit my nights in New York to one a week. But if it’s somebody I really think I need to see or hear I will make an effort to go. Then there are things I want to see that have nothing to do with the job, like going to the Metropolitan Opera.”
As if anticipating the next question, Lockwood says, “People say, ‘Why are you still doing it? You’ve been doing it over 50 years, full-time.’ And if you go back to my college days it’s 56 years.” He then talks about satisfactions both personal and larger.
“I sit in the same seat for every performance (in the Matthews Theater). It’s in the last row by the light board. My parents used to take me to the Princeton University Concerts in the 1940s. The two seats they had in their subscription had that seat,” he says.
Then he talks about his own connection to music. “I used to play piano for years. I also played the organ, sang with chapel choir and Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Players, and wish I had the time to join the Princeton Singers. I miss singing, but you have to be here when there’s a performance. I am at every performance that I’m responsible for.”
But what keeps him going, he says, is “standing and watching the connection, the communication, between the audience and what is happening on stage. Sometimes it works, it’s magic, I say to myself, ‘They’re getting it.’ Sometimes it doesn’t work. If it is a new act, I want to see how this group is holding the audiences’ attention? The joy is watching and seeing if there’s a connection worth exploiting in the future. Or I see that it’s not working, that there’s no dialogue between a thousand people and what (the performer) is selling. And they’re selling something.”
There is also something deeper, something at the heart of his work. “There’s something in the room — a shared connection — that varies from show to show. The same thing happens in the theater as well, audiences take away something intangible, an experience they perhaps didn’t expect, by connecting with an artist, a musician, an actor. It’s something that cannot be replicated without being in the room” — and something that he has also devoted his life to providing and shows no indication of stopping (though he admits, “I can’t do this forever”).
Lockwood’s talk shifts to ways that he can help audiences make discoveries, especially in jazz and world music. “These are genres still developing audiences. They’re not going to sell a thousand tickets. Jazz takes place in clubs. Nice jazz trios and ensembles are used to playing in clubs. It’s a club world; the Berlind (Theater) is our club. I would rather have 300 people in the Berlind than 300 in the (larger) Matthews. One of my long-range goals is to see if we can expand our Berlind program. My frustration is that I can’t do more.”
With more than four dozen events that range from the Martha Graham Dance Company to humorist David Sedaris to Rosanne Cash, a subscription base of more than 1,000, and two presentations that Lockwood is especially excited about — contemporary organist Cameron Carpenter (February 6) and Australia’s Circus Oz (February 21 and 22) — his effort seems plenty. But he considers his situation and says reflectively, “I think we have reached a good level of what we can sustain and what we have a big market for. We’re not a big metro here. We do about as much now as our audience and marketing can handle,” he says.
Lockwood glances at his watch, becomes animated, and says that he needs to go. But first he turns to his computer, clicks the mouse, and faces a screen of E-mails. He sighs and offers a few off-the-cuff final words about producing: “It doesn’t happen automatically or with a (computer) key that you can push.” No. It just needs that something.
McCarter’s Presenting Series:
Christian McBride Trio. Jazz. Friday, October 17, 8 p.m.
Red Baraat. “New Orleans meet Delhi” big band from Brooklyn. Saturday, October 18, 8 p.m.
Simone Dinnerstein. Classical piano. Wednesday, October 22, 7:30 p.m.
Cecile McLorin Salvant. Jazz vocalist. Sunday, October 26, 7:30 p.m.
Rosanne Cash. Country and American roots performer. Thursday, November 6, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Newman. American singer/songwriter/composer. Monday, November 17, 7:30 p.m.
Chris Botti. Jazz trumpet. Wednesday, November 19, 7:30 p.m.
The Doo Wop Project. Friday, November 21, 8 p.m.
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage.Jazz pianist and guitar prodigy “reinvent” jazz standards. Saturday, November 29, 8 p.m.
McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
#b#‘Distinctive’ Pianist Comes to McCarter#/b#
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will fill McCarter Theater’s concert stage for the Wednesday, October 22, event left vacant by pianists Maurizio Pollini’s sudden cancellation.
Says McCarter special programming director William W. Lockwood: “Every so often a new young artist comes along whose ‘buzz’ is more than justified, as is certainly the case with Simone Dinnerstein. Named one of Billboard’s best-selling instrumentalists, Simone’s interpretations of Bach have remained at the core of her musical life. She has become an utterly distinctive voice in the forest of Bach interpreters, probing each variation as if it were something completely new.”
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. concert range from $30 to $50 and can be purchased online at www.mccarter.org, by phone at 609-258-2787, or in person at the McCarter Theater Ticket Office, located at 91 University Place in Princeton.