A perfect ten

(First published in the May 30, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Welcome to the cabaret. How the Grand Theater’s 10×10 shows became sell-out events

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The idea was to provide an inexpensive concert experience at the Grand Theater, a way to expose new people to venue. It was viewed as an important, inclusive community agenda. After three seasons and a rocky start, it’s safe to say the Grand’s 10×10 series has succeeded. The last seven of the eight shows completely sold out.

     The extraordinary and charming series transforms the historic stage of the Grand Theater into a cabaret concert featuring nationally touring, emerging artists in a multitude of genres. Table seating and chairs fill the expansive stage (it’s much bigger than you might expect), right in front of the musicians. It’s an impressive, intimate night of music—and for a budget-friendly price of $10 in advance or $15 at the door.

     The crowd for each show is different. Some will have more families, others will be full of couples, or girl’s nights. According to Sean Wright, executive director of the Performing Arts Foundation, which runs the Grand, 20% of people attending a 10×10 show were experiencing the Grand Theater for the very first time (based on the most recent season data), and 25% are also from outside Marathon County.

     It’s not a novel concept to provide low-cost shows designed to open a performing arts venue to those who can’t afford, say, $95 for a Broadway musical. The Grand borrowed elements of already established concert series at other venues to create the 10×10 series.

     Wright says The Grand took a cue from the Walton Arts Center in Arkansas, which has its own 10×10 series (where the name comes from) offering regular season shows at a lower price point. The Grand also took ideas from Harris Theater Chicago, which developed a concert series for young professionals taking place at different times and at unusual environments.

     These ideas were meshed together as The Grand forged its series as a chance to experience the historic venue like never before, to see new touring artists in a unique setting, all with the aim of attracting new audiences.

     The 10×10 series is definitely getting the job done. So far, it has given local audiences Americana singer-songwriters, classical duos, pop groups, bluegrass bands and more. In the upcoming 2019-2020 series, concertgoers can see Halie Loren (Nov. 22), a jazz singer and songwriter from Oregon; and The Huntertones (April 9), a horn-driven funk, soul and R&B ensemble from Brooklyn.

     Because many of these emerging artists are from outside the Midwest, fans often travel to the Grand Theater just to see them, and for good reason. These touring performers don’t play multiple shows in the same area, so fans may only have one or two chances to see them—the 10×10 show being one of them.

     Former Wausau resident Nick O’Brien (who recently moved to Milwaukee) says he used to bring people from out of state to Wausau for the weekend and made a point of taking in a 10×10 show. He believes the series is a great introduction to Wausau and a “wow” factor for people who had no idea about the music scene in town or even that Wausau had a theater like The Grand.

It’s all about feedback


The OK Factor 10×10 show in April 2017

As The Grand’s first attempt at offering a series at a lower price point, the 10×10 is a “labor of love” and “an organic series that benefitted from feedback,” Wright says.

     In the beginning, the shows were held in the theater with normal auditorium seating. Which was unfortunate. At 1,100 seats, the space felt too vast for the smaller audiences. I distinctly remember that feeling during a bluegrass 10×10 show in 2017 with Split Lip Rayfield headlining. With about 100 people in the audience, the large theater felt empty and the concert less rousing than other bluegrass shows I’ve been too.

     But thanks to the feedback of patrons who had experiences similar to my own, the series switched up its seating style. During a few shows in the early seasons, The Grand tried cabaret style seating, with the audience on stage with the band. This setup received such a positive feedback that in the third season (its most recent) all 10×10 shows were done cabaret style with table seating. It’s a cozy, relaxed and enjoyable listening experience, unlike anything in the Wausau area.

     Nick O’Brien attended many shows in the 10×10 series including Quiet Hollers, Kristin Diable and Last Revel. While O’Brien has “loved the series from the get-go,” he agrees the unique cabaret style seating creates an entirely different vibe, which is what makes the series seem so special.

     Not everyone is a fan of the changed seating. The on-stage seating doesn’t give the same “Grand” experience as watching from the theater seats and viewing the elegant stage from a distance. Meaning you don’t get to appreciate the historic theater as you normally would.

     Also, by moving the performances on stage, space becomes much more limited, at about 175 people. Which is why the shows are selling out. Which might not be so great for spur-of-the moment young adults who decide at the last minute to check out a new band only to find no tickets remain.

     But most people welcome the cabaret-style setup and cherish the series so much that many patrons urged The Grand to create subscriptions for 2- and 4-person tables so they could reserve seats in advance for every 10×10 show. That’s why The Grand sold several of these subscriptions early for its 2018-19 series, even though it had announced only three of the eight performers. It proved that the audience loves the intimate and new experience of the series, regardless of who specifically was performing.

     The hype of the series kept building and even when there were still a few shows left in the 2018-2019 season, patrons were already asking about next season subscriptions, when the next series would start and how to renew their table. In response, The Grand is changing their website to add a table selection when purchasing tickets online.

Artists love it too


Sammy Miller and the Congregation 10×10 show in April 2018

The artists also benefit from the intimate environment of 10×10 shows. When bands perform in crowded bars or music halls, friends are talking, people joke around, and the artists can’t really tell if the audience is really paying attention. At the 10×10 series, the audience is genuinely listening and reacting to the music.

     Bands have even told Sean Wright they especially look forward to their 10×10 show, as the environment gives them a fantastic experience that’s hard to find elsewhere.

     In the broader sense, the 10×10 series adds a whole other level to Wausau’s night scene.

     Until several years ago, you’d mostly find metal, classic rock and blues bands playing at bars and venues in the area. So, when Tyler Vogt opened Malarkey’s nearly 12 years ago, right across the 400 block from the Grand Theater, he aimed to create a space for original and different music, such as singer-songwriters, bluegrass, Americana and indie rock, giving people new and different types of music.

     Vogt says he respects how the 10×10 series adds to the evolution of the nightlife in town by creating a cool listening experience that’s very different from a bar atmosphere.

     And indeed, there has been some crossover of artists, and will be even more with the opening of Whitewater Music Hall this month. Malarkey’s has hosted, or will host, several bands that have played in the 10×10 series including Porky’s Groove Machine, Andrew Leahy and Them Coulee Boys, who kick off the next season of the 10×10 series on Oct. 4. After playing at local bars, Them Coulee Boys, a bluegrass band from Eau Claire, opened for Trampled By Turtles at the Grand Theater back in January and headlining a 10×10 show is “a natural next step for them” according to Wright.

     Wright says it’s cool to see some 10×10 bands perform at other venues around Wausau. After appearing at the 10×10 Big Gig battle of the bands-type show, Porky’s Groove Machine and Nick Anderson & the Skinny Lovers played at Concerts on the Square in 2018. Whitewater Music Hall has also been booking bands that have played or will play in the 10×10 series, as well, such as Them Coulee Boys and The Last Revel.

     As the Grand Theater gears up for the fourth season of the 10×10 series, Wright has found booking those acts to be tremendously easier. In the beginning, Wright needed to explain the series to agents and “practically beg” them to come. This year, Wright began receiving calls and emails from agents excitedly asking if one of their artists could be featured in the next 10×10 season.

     Other theaters in the state have taken notice of The Grand’s success and are developing their own similar series. The Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan has a new series called Backstage Pass, to provide a different type of intimate performance to attract new audiences; the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh is also creating a similar series.

     With only around 175 tickets available per 10×10 show, the concerts at best maybe break even, Wright says, which is why sponsorship makes all the difference. Truck Country became the main sponsor of the 10×10 Series in 2018, and continues to sponsor this next season, allowing The Grand to bring emerging artists to the stage while keeping ticket prices low. The series isn’t about making a profit. It’s about creating an experience valued by audiences and artists alike.

Don’t hesitate to purchase tickets for this series as it may sell out before you get the chance. Single tickets go on sale July 9 at Grandtheater.org.